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‘Back in Kindergarten’

DePaola rejoices  in creative process

  • Tomie dePaola

    Tomie dePaola

  • "Hunter and the Animals" by Tomie dePaola

    "Hunter and the Animals" by Tomie dePaola

  • Tomie dePaola
  • "Hunter and the Animals" by Tomie dePaola

Recently Tomie dePaola was having a tough day on the job. Staring at that white paper, he was waiting for inspiration to walk in, shake hands and get to work on the page. But that day, she was late, and that makes for a hard day.

“When I hit that white paper, it’s like I’m back in kindergarten again,” said the illustrator and author of hundreds of children’s books, including the classic “Strega Nona” series. “Actually, if I were back in kindergarten, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

But when inspiration eventually shows up, boy does she make an splash. The artist has won numerous awards including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, Golden Kite Award, Aesop Prize, the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, and the Jeremiah Ludington Medals. If that wasn’t enough, he is actually a Living Treasure, named so by the New Hampshire Governor’s Arts Awards.

“His work is very easy, and it’s clear in the way it conveys a message,” said Pamela Tarbell, owner and curator of the Mill Brook Gallery in Concord, which will host a one-man show of dePaola’s work, opening this week.

“I’ve had such a great response, “ she said. “Because it’s not just the kids who want

to meet him, but the 20- and 30-year-olds who grew up with his books. You know, some books you read and they’re really dated. But you read his and they have a life of their own.”

The show will feature original book illustrations and prints as well as his nonbook still lifes.

“I’ve always kept certain pieces from my most recent books for my personal collection,” dePaola said speaking from his New London studio. “But there is a market out there for original children’s book illustrations, taken out of context, framed and hung on the wall as fine art. . . . (And) people are always amazed when they see the actual piece. Because when they are printed in the book, they are printed with four colors. And when I’m painting, I use thousands of colors.”

DePaola, who is 79, said that because he’s turning 80 next year, it was a good time to start letting pieces from his collection go out into the public, slowly.

DePaola has been writing and illustrating children’s books for more than 40 years. In that time he has created beloved characters that generations of kids now associate with their childhoods including Strega Nona, literally translated the Grandma Witch.

The kerchief-headed cuddle of a woman with grand nose would go on many adventures and become one of dePaola’s most recognizable – and lucrative – characters.

“It was a lucky day when I did that first one,” dePaola said. “It came from the retelling of a folk tale. . . . Strega Nona appeared as a doodle on a doodle pad. And I put it up across from my drawing board in my studio, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe someday I can use her, she’s cute.’ And that was it.

“If I had known (how popular she’d be) from the beginning, I would have been petrified,” he said. “I would have said this is a responsibility I don’t want.”

His other notable works include 26 Fairmount Avenue, The Art Lesson, and Christmas Remembered, and each has helped him sell more than 15 million copies of his books worldwide in the span of his career.

For this show, dePaola said people will get to see – and purchase – the book work as well as unpublished book work.

He said the pieces he chose were part of his private collection, so each one has either a special meaning or is one that he admired for its technique or has some other value to the artist. For example, a piece from the book The Hunter and the Animals is one in which he enjoyed the techniques he used. The idea for the story came from a book of Hungarian folk art. The woodwork in that book, the way the artists carved out negative space that really spoke to dePaola, he said.

So for the book, he put color down on the whole page, did line drawings on top of that, painted the forms in an opaque paint and then used a textured white paint in the background to create negative space.

In addition to this exhibit, there is a lot in the works for dePaola. He is working on a project he calls Fragments from the Sultan’s Robes made up of small squares of paper on which he has painted abstract shapes.

He’s also planning a retrospective in November called “Then” to be shown at Colby Sawyer College, which will feature his works dating back to high school through the 1970s. Next year, in conjunction with his 80th birthday, the school will put on a second retrospective covering the years 1985 to present called “Now.”

And of course, there will be a new Strega Nona book later this year, entitled Strega Nona Does it Again, but that’s all he’ll say about it.

“I tell people now that I don’t really write Strega Nona stories anymore, I channel them,” he said. “She appears at my side and whispers them to me.”

The show will run from through June 23 at the Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden, at 236 Hopkinton Road in Concord. There will be an artist’s reception tomorrow from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Gallery hours are Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. , and by appointment. Exhibits are free and open to the public. For information, visit or call 226-2046.

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