Wisconsin is fertile ground for children's book illustrators. The James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center features seven practitioners in a new exhibition called "The Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration," and six of them gathered for an enlightening panel discussion on Sunday, Oct. 11, as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. Overture's Wisconsin Studio was filled to capacity, and those without a seat stood outside hoping to get a glimpse of Kevin Henkes, Laura Dronzek, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Lois Ehlert, David McLimans and Renee Graef. To judge by the crush of people, you'd think a famous rock band was giving a press conference. But no, it was just a half-dozen articulate artists discussing the ways in which they entrance children with images on paper.
Moderator Kathleen T. Horning, director of the UW's Cooperative Children's Book Center, began by asking the artists about their paths to children's book illustration. As a child, Graef (Kirsten) was fascinated by optometrists' eye charts, and McLimans (Gone Wild) used drawing as an escape when he was bored in church. Ehlert (Color Zoo) had indulgent parents who set up a card table so she could pursue her obsession with art-making. "They knew I was a different kind of child," she said.
Henkes, the Caldecott- and Newbery-winning Madisonian known for such charming books as Owen and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, explained the hypnotic effect of a single poster. It was an image from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, hanging in a friend's basement during Cub Scouts. He coveted the poster intensely. "It's one of the most vivid memories of my childhood," he said.
Dronzek (Birds), Henkes' wife and sometime collaborator, tried her hand at children's book illustration after establishing herself as a painter.
After finishing her first picture book, Burkert (James and the Giant Peach) naively mailed it over-the-transom to Knopf with original paintings rather than copies. Still, she got a contract.
The artists acknowledged that living in Wisconsin has affected their work. Dronzek is attuned to the quality of light in our different seasons-now stark, now golden. Aside from the way things look here, there's Wisconsin's philosophical tradition. McLimans and Ehlert noted the influence of such homegrown naturalists as Aldo Leopold and John Muir.
One thing you can say about all six artists: They take children's picture books seriously. They're dedicated to the craft, and they understand its significance. As Dronzek said, "Illustration is important to kids as an exposure to art."
Henkes went a step further, arguing that picture books have value even for teenagers and adults: "It's a way to be exposed to fine art in an inexpensive form."