Curtis Memorial Library Makes Way for Robert McCloskey

A new exhibition showcases rarely seen original art from the beloved picture book creator

Robert McCloskey, Burt Dow Deep-Water Man cover art, 1963, casein and watercolor. On loan from the May Massee Collection, Emporia State University Special Collections and Archives, Emporia, Kansas.

The first time Robert McCloskey (1914–2003) explored the possibility of creating children’s books, he had the great fortune of being rejected by May Massee. Massee, an editor at Viking Press at the time, essentially told McCloskey, “Come back when you’ve learned how to draw.” He took her words to heart, finding his voice as a visual storyteller and changing the trajectory of his artistic life, observes Liz Doucett, executive director of the Curtis Memorial Library. Robert McCloskey: The Art of Wonder is the second collaboration between the library and the Illustration Institute. The exhibition encompasses original works—drawings, studies, and final art—from five of McCloskey’s best-known picture books, including Make Way for Ducklings and Time of Wonder, which won Caldecott Medals in 1942 and 1958, respectively; Blueberries for Sal; One Morning in Maine; and his last book, Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man.

Robert McCloskey, Time of Wonder, 1957, watercolor. On loan from the May Massee Collection, Emporia State University Special Collections and Archives, Emporia, Kansas.

Visitors might discover they still remember all the ducklings’ names, and they are encouraged to carry a library copy of Make Way for Ducklings with them while viewing pencil drawings with erasures on translucent paper, float-mounted to reveal edges and notations, and representing spreads from the book made before the final art. This is a rare view of a picture book in progress. There are intriguing changes to note by comparing the sketches to the published book. In a broader sense, this is direct evidence of McCloskey’s visual workout: drawing and drawing again to determine what to include and emphasize, to maximize the energy and movement of spread, to achieve a balance of image and text on the page. “The picture book process is uniquely collaborative, with author, illustrator, editor, and art direction all at work,” says Scott Nash, author/illustrator and Illustration Institute founder. “The final art is the book, and the exhibition illuminates artifacts of that process.”

Blueberries for Sal is the book that announced McCloskey’s arrival in Maine. He moved his family to Deer Isle in 1945 when McCloskey’s daughter Sally was born. Sal is named after Sally, but Sal is also every child lucky enough to have access to wilderness, and to know the sound of a blueberry dropping into an empty pail, or a full one. The exhibition features the original ink drawings from the book, in story order, offering one of two wordless “story walks” on the library’s second floor. (The other is a wordless walk-through of Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man, with its experimental mixed-media paintings that verge on the surreal.) These are rare opportunities to read the pictures and experience their full narrative power. 

One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder also celebrate the experience of being a child in the Maine landscape. They were created almost 70 years ago, but in the way they express a sense of place, weather, and the pace of a day, they don’t feel like a lost world. The Art of Wonder includes five stunning painting studies, seemingly very close to the final art from Time of Wonder but with curious and delightful departures: What happened to the airplane’s shadow? There’s also a light on in that little island house, the one being hugged by pine trees in a calm after the storm. If you’ve read this one, you know this is where the wind whispers a lullaby, but the book doesn’t end here. For its masterful writing and paintings, and the sense that the story of a fully lived life is not unlike this story of an island and that little light enduring the storm, Time of Wonder is often mistaken for McCloskey’s last picture book, and yet McCloskey went on to create the wild ride that is Burt Dow. Come with enough time to look closely at The Art of Wonder—surprises and delights abound.

Robert McCloskey: The Art of Wonder will be on view at the Curtis Library in Brunswick through October 15, 2023.  

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