Bloomington’s Nancy Carlson has published more than 60 children’s books, including such titles as Harriet and the Roller Coaster, I Like Me and Arnie Goes to Camp. Because she is both author and illustrator, Carlson’s books are naturally the medium in which she and her readers are accustomed to viewing the work.
But if your Thanksgiving travel plans happen to involve going to Chicago, you can see Carlson’s work in a different way.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, in an exhibition entitled “Everyday Adventures Growing Up: Art from Picture Books,” Carlson’s work joins that of two other children’s book author/illustrators, Timothy Basil Ering of Massachusetts and Peter McCarty of New York. Their original artwork appears in frames in a traditional art museum setting. “Even though this is art from books, it’s kind of nice to change how you see it and have it on the wall,” Carlson says.
Children’s literature often creates allegories to address kids’ anxieties, and Carlson’s illustrations use anthropomorphic animal characters to convey those emotions, ranging from ebullient joy to gut-wrenching fear. She also establishes each scene with careful detail, sometimes even inserting references to Minnesota places and things. Carlson’s vivid color palette is similar to Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), while the expressiveness of her characters is reminiscent of Bill Peet (Big Bad Bruce).
Having her work displayed on a wall is not entirely new to Carlson. She graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a degree in printmaking, and she says her focus after graduating was getting her work into gallery shows. “I’ve never been in a big museum for a show,” she says, “but I guess you could say it is getting back to my roots.”
Carlson discovered her vocation as a children’s book author some years after her graduation from MCAD, but her printmaking background informs her illustrations. Working in colored pencil and technical pen, she initially employed a lot of cross-hatching with color overlays as a way to reflect the intaglio printmaking she had done as a student. Over time, her lines have become bolder and she doesn’t use cross-hatching as much.
Carlson’s work on display at the Art Institute of Chicago comes from six of her titles, spanning as far back as 1985 (Louanne Pig in the Talent Show) to as recently as 2007 (Loudmouth George Earns His Allowance). Isolated from the text and framed on the wall, Carlson’s technique and her artistic evolution are palpable.
Two illustrations from Nancy Carlson’s I Like Me, published in 1988. At left, a character in the background reads a newspaper hailing the Minnesota Twins as 1987 World Series champions.
Carlson admits that having her work on display is exciting, but she maintains that creating books for children is her first love. “When you have a show, it’s thrilling the entire run of the show, and there’s nothing you like more as an artist than seeing your art up on the wall — but then it’s over,” she says. “For me, the longevity of published books is very, very fulfilling. Publishing a book and having the art seen by so many more people is a thrill. I go to the library and I see my books, and I’m excited.”
The exhibition featuring the work of Nancy Carlson, Timothy Basil Ering and Peter McCarty is in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gallery 10 (lower level) and continues in the Vitale Family Room in the Ryan Education Center (level 1). More information at www.artic.edu/aic.