ARTS

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September 23, 2008

Peet exhibit isn't just kid's stuff

[img id="80742" align="alignleft"] It's a little embarrassing to walk through the Art Institute's family-oriented basement gallery, with its easy-to-read caption fonts and frames catering to the heights of the younger set. But the exhibit there featuring Bill Peet, the children's book illustrator and Disney animator, was enough to draw me in despite my reservations. I still can remember how his 1985 book Capyboppy taught my second-grade class about that strangest of rodents, the capybara, so often overlooked even by petting zoos but given due respect in Peet's book based on his family's experiences with the oddball animal.

The exhibit is in some ways far too sophisticated for Peet's target demographic. It includes art in different stages of production and in different media; black-and-white photographs of lined-up animation sequences, graphite mock-ups for book illustrations, and final production copies of many of Peet's books are all on display. But the kids I observed walking through the exhibit with their families didn't seem to appreciate the archival, multi-media curatorial approach. They wanted to race back and forth in the gallery's brightly painted entryway and maybe have their older escorts read to them from the books on display. But examining the differences between a mock-up and the final version of Peet's Caldecott Honor-winning illustrated autobiography was a little beyond them.

This is too bad, because these rough sketches offer plenty of insight into Bill Peet's character. We learn about his work ethic—there's a moral in every museum exhibit, kiddies!—from a drawing in the autobiography showing a mustachioed Walt Disney surprised to find Peet in the office on a Sunday. The drawing also makes kindly artistic concessions to the younger audience. In the drawing, the drawers of Peet's desk open toward the viewer, rather than toward Peet, who sits on the other side, also facing the viewer. Reality has been warped to facilitate the understanding of kids who have not yet grasped three-dimensional space.

The realities of modern life get short shrift in Peet's books. They all seem stuck in that default storybook locale: Main Street in Anytown, USA. This was the setting of Peet's middle-American childhood, not the late 20th century in which the books were written. In Peet's storybook world, newsboys wave their wares at street corners in front of diamond-shaped stop signs. This is a world where most of the population wears brimmed hats or dresses.

The exhibit shows us that Peet was an artist who meant his stories and his drawings to complement one another. His illustrations are so subservient to the demands of the written story that Peet left blank space for the text when he began the drawings. This is a shame, as Peet's writing is sometimes clunkier than his drawing; his rhymes are sometimes obvious and occasionally conceal rather than illuminate the plot.

But the drawings are worth it. Peet's colors sparkle in his pencil-and-ink sketches. His light is as unnatural as spotlights on a stage, shining from strange angles to brighten Peet's sumptuously colored scenes. In one particularly effective drawing, Droofus the Dragon sticks his neck and head through a boy's window and we can make out his triangular scales, bat-wing ears, and closed eyelids represented by a single swooping pen stroke. Another cartoon shows Pamela Camel from Peet's 1984 book by the same name. Glowing in the spotlight of an oncoming train, Pamela's hump hides her tail in shadow, all under an umbrella of ballooning steam. And Peet's concept sketches, as with those for 1964's Ella, can be even more satisfying in the grit of their pencil work than the illustrations that showed up in the book.

Peet excels at imparting personality to everything from trains to fantastical dragons to cranky hags normally treated as mere stock characters. Katy Caboose, of 1971's The Caboose Who Got Loose, has large, innocent windows for eyes, and you can tell just by looking at her that she's a better role model for kids than any tank engine named Thomas. And the purple-horned ogre of Cowardly Clyde (1979) could be a punk-rock colleague of the title characters from Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are.

It's a little embarrassing to walk through the Art Institute's family-oriented basement gallery, with its easy-to-read caption fonts and frames catering to the heights of the younger set. But the exhibit there featuring Bill Peet, the children's book illustrator and Disney animator, was enough to draw me in despite my reservations. I still can remember how his 1985 book Capyboppy taught my second-grade class about that strangest of rodents, the capybara, so often overlooked even by petting zoos but given due respect in Peet's book based on his family's experiences with the oddball animal.

The exhibit is in some ways far too sophisticated for Peet's target demographic. It includes art in different stages of production and in different media; black-and-white photographs of lined-up animation sequences, graphite mock-ups for book illustrations, and final production copies of many of Peet's books are all on display. But the kids I observed walking through the exhibit with their families didn't seem to appreciate the archival, multi-media curatorial approach. They wanted to race back and forth in the gallery's brightly painted entryway and maybe have their older escorts read to them from the books on display. But examining the differences between a mock-up and the final version of Peet's Caldecott Honor-winning illustrated autobiography was a little beyond them.

This is too bad, because these rough sketches offer plenty of insight into Bill Peet's character. We learn about his work ethic—there's a moral in every museum exhibit, kiddies!—from a drawing in the autobiography showing a mustachioed Walt Disney surprised to find Peet in the office on a Sunday. The drawing also makes kindly artistic concessions to the younger audience. In the drawing, the drawers of Peet's desk open toward the viewer, rather than toward Peet, who sits on the other side, also facing the viewer. Reality has been warped to facilitate the understanding of kids who have not yet grasped three-dimensional space.

The realities of modern life get short shrift in Peet's books. They all seem stuck in that default storybook locale: Main Street in Anytown, USA. This was the setting of Peet's middle-American childhood, not the late 20th century in which the books were written. In Peet's storybook world, newsboys wave their wares at street corners in front of diamond-shaped stop signs. This is a world where most of the population wears brimmed hats or dresses.

The exhibit shows us that Peet was an artist who meant his stories and his drawings to complement one another. His illustrations are so subservient to the demands of the written story that Peet left blank space for the text when he began the drawings. This is a shame, as Peet's writing is sometimes clunkier than his drawing; his rhymes are sometimes obvious and occasionally conceal rather than illuminate the plot.

But the drawings are worth it. Peet's colors sparkle in his pencil-and-ink sketches. His light is as unnatural as spotlights on a stage, shining from strange angles to brighten Peet's sumptuously colored scenes. In one particularly effective drawing, Droofus the Dragon sticks his neck and head through a boy's window and we can make out his triangular scales, bat-wing ears, and closed eyelids represented by a single swooping pen stroke. Another cartoon shows Pamela Camel from Peet's 1984 book by the same name. Glowing in the spotlight of an oncoming train, Pamela's hump hides her tail in shadow, all under an umbrella of ballooning steam. And Peet's concept sketches, as with those for 1964's Ella, can be even more satisfying in the grit of their pencil work than the illustrations that showed up in the book.

Peet excels at imparting personality to everything from trains to fantastical dragons to cranky hags normally treated as mere stock characters. Katy Caboose, of 1971's The Caboose Who Got Loose, has large, innocent windows for eyes, and you can tell just by looking at her that she's a better role model for kids than any tank engine named Thomas. And the purple-horned ogre of Cowardly Clyde (1979) could be a punk-rock colleague of the title characters from Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are.

In the end, what comes through most of all in Peet's work is the delight he clearly took in drawing. It even made me wish that I had learned to blend better with colored pencils when I thought I was artistic enough to pink-slip into Visual Language classes.

In the end, what comes through most of all in Peet's work is the delight he clearly took in drawing. It even made me wish that I had learned to blend better with colored pencils when I thought I was artistic enough to pink-slip into Visual Language classes.