Where Every Picture Tells a Story
LA BREA Avenue is one of Los Angeles's well-established art districts. Manned by well-dressed, well-spoken purveyors of contemporary art, its galleries exhibit elegant, large canvases. On any weekday the pilgrims - the art appreciators - file past huge, expensive paintings nodding knowingly, smiling approvingly, or simply standing in quiet awe as if before an icon at the Hagia Sophia.But on this Friday night on La Brea Avenue there is an uncharacteristic and maverick stir. On this night in front of a well-lit atypically cheery exhibition space there is a crowd of atypically animated people. The space inside is packed to capacity and those who don't quite fit flow amiably out onto the street. Once you navigate your way through the congested space you find an uncharacteristically diverse array of personalities all pressed close to charming framed artworks: There are movie stars (whom no one seems to notice), there's the thirty-something crowd, there are grandmas and grandpas, gallery directors and museum curators, and, most unusual of all for a gallery, there are children - lots and lots of children. They dart between the forest of grown-up bodies, stand on their tiptoes, and lean up close to get a good look at the small, beautifully limned images hanging on the walls. The children point and laugh, nod with the innocent approval we see when kids sense they are on familiar turf. When they tire of looking, there is a reading corner with pillows where wee ones nestle to peruse and lose themselves in the best of children's books. The name of this unusual place is "Every Picture Tells A Story; A Gallery of Original Art From Children's Books." It is the inspiration of two zany women, Abbie Phillips and Lois Sarkisian, who came to the art business from completely different walks of life. Ms. Phillips holds a PhD in environmental biology and was taught an early and intense love of children's literature by her parents. As an adult who avidly read to her children, she began lecturing informally about books to parent groups. "It was more of a crusade. I believe in reading; I believe in children. I wanted parents to know what was out there that was special and inspiring. When I lectured about great books for kids, parents got excited and wanted to buy them, so I became a distributor almost by accident. Through my contacts, I got to see the original artworks made for book illustrations. They were lovely, thoughtful, and well executed, as 'fine' as any art I'd seen," she says. Phillips's comments hint at a historical and pejorative distinction between fine art and illustration. Although modern illustrators from Honore Daumier to Norman Rockwell were accomplished, often schooled fine artists, today illustration is not readily considered serious art and children's books are not readily considered serious literature. The truth is that "Every Picture Tells A Story" is a new take on an old enterprise. Children's books and children's book illustrations date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries when versions of Aesop's fables were commonly handwritten in Greek and translated into Latin. As the seat of culture moved from Constantinople to Italy, handwritten and illustrated manuscripts for children began to flourish in Europe. One of the earliest illustrated books found in Italy is a 10th-century Aesop's fables with brightly colored and stylized animals, such as a roaring red lion and multicolored crows dancing over the page in a style similar to the early medieval illuminated manuscripts made in Germany. As the art of woodcutting was perfected, one-of-a-kind children's illustrations printed from wood templates and colored by hand accompanied handwritten text. With the advent of printing in the 16th century, children's books were produced in volume and illustrations had the crisp look of line drawings. By the 17th century, famous painters were turning their attention to children's illustration. In 1626, Francis Barlow, considered one of England's foremost landscape painters, began illustrating children's books, and a whole string of highly regarded painters followed suit: Albrecht Durer, William Blake, Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali, and Alexander Calder to name a few. So much for the ill-informed but common notion that children's book illustration is not the purview of the "fine" artist. "If you live with and study this work, you see that the distinction between so- called high art and illustration is arbitrary," says Sarkisian, co-founder of "Every Picture.A long time ago illustrators drew images according to someone's specifications, but today there is a tremendous amount of creative freedom and exacting technique involved. Truly good children's books are a very sophisticated and subtle kind of literature, so illustrators have great material to inspire them and they can let their imagi nations romp. Their creations become art works in their own right which can stand up without the text." IF you talk with the best children's book illustrators, they will tell you that when a painter paints, it is a dialogue between him and his canvas. But when an illustrator creates, the process is often more complicated. The illustrator gets the text from the editor and lives with it for sometimes up to a year, reading and re-reading the words and incubating ideas about how best to convey and enrich the nuances of the story. Some artists make many elaborate preliminary sketches to get just the right feel and mood. Then they execute the final image. It is quite like composing a multipart picture because most illustrators view the book as a complex canvas and carefully balance color arrangements from page to page. They harmonize the movement and flow of figures, and design work so that it will not lose its integrity when it is joined with text. So much for the ill-informed but common notion that children's-book illustration is easy. "There's always been a distinction between work that hangs on walls, which we are comfortable labeling as fine art, and work that ends up being reproduced in a book, which has traditionally had a tough time being viewed as art at all," says Sarkisian. "We wanted a gallery where the original works from books could hang and be recognized as one-of-a-kind fine art, and we wanted a place where people would learn to appreciate the finished book - text and images - as a work of art in itself. We deliberately p ut the gallery in an area known for its reputable galleries; we wanted to say, 'That's respected fine art next door and so is this.' " Apparently a lot of people agreed. Six hundred people attended "Every Picture opening exhibition. Over the last few years the gallery has enjoyed overwhelming public support, mounting press acceptance, and brisk sales in an otherwise sluggish art market. Most of the gallery's exhibitions are planned around themes like "Mythology," which culled exquisite illustrations from books on non-Western cultures. "We gave gallery tours to third-grade classes from the local school who were studying pre-Columbian civilization... . It was remarkable to watch them absorb, inspect, and chatter about the art referring to Mayan history and folklore." Often exhibitions have a social advocacy component in keeping with the founders' belief that art and life have to intersect to make either meaningful. A "Freedom to Read" exhibition was inspired by an American Booksellers Association campaign to celebrate First Amendment rights against press censorship. In conjunction with the gallery, renowned children's writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak designed an original limited edition lithograph that held clever references to all the books once banned and now cons idered indispensable reading ("Alice In Wonderland," for one). The gallery researched and displayed original art from formerly banned books, such as 10 very rare original illustrations for the suppressed 1865 publisher's copy of Lewis Carroll's classic. Sarkisian and Phillips come off as happy-go-lucky gals who have the intelligence and irrepressible energy to do what they love. In fact there is a seriousness to their endeavors that is hard to dismiss. For example, part of the "Freedom to Read" exhibition included a day-long seminar during which public advocates, writers, and interested celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams shared an open forum on the philosophical and political implications of censorship. "I think we love and protect children because they represent that unique freedom to imagine and invent which is in all of us. Legislated censorship begets self-censorship because to survive in a closed atmosphere, children and artists learn to curb their creative instincts; when creativity suffers, so does culture," reflects Sarkisian. "The idea that children's art is this snuggly, gooey stuff is completely wrong," she says. "The best writers don't talk down to children; the best art is complex and works on many levels like all good art. The best children's books treat children like elevated beings who sometimes understand things that our adult minds shut out." It's true. Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are" can find in just a few magical lines the complex idea that children (indeed, people) need to feel empowered and in charge, just as they need to feel harbored and safe. "These are subtle concepts that children just accept on faith and are very comfortable with ... we can all learn from this sort of openness," says Sarkisian. "I think that the reason so many serious adult collectors want to own this work is that it connects us - in a charming, disarming, and whimsical context - with the whole range of our emotions and experience. A lot of excellent children's books have a dark, heavy quality - people are in peril, witches change children into food that will be eaten, characters are transformed by their experiences. In the guise of fantasy, children's books and art connect us with emotions and parts of our consciousness that w e forget about, take for granted, or just avoid." When asked if there is an operating principle, a credo underlying their zealous commitment to this inventive and provocative place, its creators say that it's the idea that art should be democratic and accessible, that a gallery should be a place where everyone - children, adults, the art smart, and the guy off the street - can come to see beauty, to be moved, charmed, and invited for an hour or so to suspend their disbelief.