I am not an artist. Look. Here is a picture of fish.
And so I am probably way too impressed by stories of people who follow that talent to the level of a profession. Honestly, I meet people who sketch or paint for a living, and it’s like I turn into that guy on The Actors’ Studio. Did they always they love drawing? How long does it take to complete an average composition? Do they feel like technicians when they work on a picture, or does it somehow, miraculously drop onto the page? What’s their favorite color?
Fascinating stuff, as they say. In The Art Lesson, by Tomie dePaola, a boy learns from his cousins, who are grown up and in art school, to practice and practice, but, importantly, never to copy. This gets him in trouble at school where he and everyone else are instructed to imitate the art teacher’s rendering of Pilgrims and a turkey.
“This was terrible. This was supposed to be a real art lesson. He folded his arms and just sat there.”
I do not know if this is a widely held position in the art world, or practical policy, but you’ve got to admire the kid’s commitment – no, really, his outrage! It seems to me this is a story about holding your ground, practical or not, and I would be happy if my children came away from the book with no other lesson but that. There’s a little bit of compromise toward the end, but you get the feeling it’s grudging and the boy is anyway vindicated: he becomes Tomie dePaola.
There are lots of children’s books about the artistic process – and some are very good – though often just as enlightening are stories where the artistic temperament of the author seems to radiate through his or her characters. “A little speck of living thing in the vast living universe, [he] felt thoroughly akin to it all. Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything,” is how it’s described in William Steig’s Amos and Boris, about a mouse who sets out on the ocean. Steig’s rabbits, zebras, pigs and frogs are often so similarly smitten they seem equal parts actors and creators of their respective landscapes - and none are professional artists. Quick, give that dentist a paint brush! For its window into the artistic mind and for many other reasons, we would gladly list most of the Steig canon in these pages, except for the risk of their shining so hugely they blot out the books that surround them.
People will quibble about the merits of Doctor de Soto Goes to Africa versus the original Doctor de Soto, or Solomon the Rusty Nail versus Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, still a book that is unlike any of his others remains, for me, the indispensable Steig. When Everybody Wore a Hat is a very short history – shot through with Steig’s typical warmth and sense of wonder – of growing up in the Bronx in the early twentieth century. Of his parents arguing in four languages, of broken radiators and opera singers and the prettiest girl on the block. Of all of the indelible stuff which ends up amounting to something like a choice:
“In 1916, when everybody wore a hat, I was eight years old. When I grew up, I wanted be an artist or a seaman.”