Dec 10, 2013
07:31 AMArts & Entertainment
'Wendell Minor's America' at Norman Rockwell Museum: Glorious Images from Children's Literature
Wendell Minor is a perfect metaphor for the prairie culture that gave birth to him. Straightforward, unpretentious, open-hearted and hard-working, he is a reflection of the spirit of the Midwest.
“People say that I am pretty lucky,” he said as he sat amidst the pristine order of the Washington studio where he and his wife, Florence, work 14-hour days. “My response is, the harder you work, the luckier you get. I have resolved never to waste a minute.”
One of America’s premier illustrators, he has designed cover art for some 2,000 books over the past 43 years and has spent the last 25 years illustrating children’s books of his own and other authors’ making. Indeed, he has wasted no time.
Now his seemingly impossible level of productivity is being recognized in a retrospective exhibition—”Wendell Minor’s America”—at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass, as part of the museum’s Distinguished Illustrator Series. The exhibit continues through May 26 and highlights include original work from such books as “Reaching for the Moon” and “Look to the Stars” by Buzz Aldrin; “Sitting Bull Remembers” by Ann Turner; “Abraham Lincoln Comes Home” by Robert Burleigh; “Arctic Son” by Jean Craighead George; “Shane” by Jack Schaefer; “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates--and a perfect tale for this time of year, "The Magical Christmas Horse,” a collaboration with best-selling suspense author Mary Higgins Clark.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue featuring essays by many of the noted authors and editors with whom Mr. Minor has partnered. (Portrait of Wendell Minor by Laurie Gaboardi/Litchfield County Times.)
“I have a kind of blue-collar ability to punch the clock,” he said in his typically self-effacing manner. “I don’t think my abilities are greater than hundreds of other artists, but they haven’t been willing to work as hard as I have. This business is always hard—in publishing the sky is always falling, but no one has been killed by it yet. It is part of the job of the creative individual to get through the maze, to sell himself.”
His prodigious career has been set against the backdrop of always-imminent mortality. Grandson of Illinois farmers and son of a stoic father who spent his life patiently doing soul-numbing work in a factory, Mr. Minor was diagnosed with a troubling heart murmur as a child and, by age 20, had endured the first of multiple heart surgeries. It instilled in him a sense of urgency.
“It was a gift, albeit a strange gift, to know at age twenty that you are on borrowed time, likely for the rest of your life,” he wrote in his autobiography for the exhibition catalogue. “I’ve learned never to waste a minute of it. I never have, and I never will!”
While he has experienced undreamed-of success, it has not been an easy journey. His parents grew up enduring the deprivations of the Depression years and then long years of separation during World War II. His return to meet the 2-year-old son he had never seen brought with it a move from the family farm to a tiny bungalow with two rooms and an outhouse. That first home was followed by a second, only marginally larger but with indoor plumbing.
“I grew up on the wrong side of the boulevard,” recounted Mr. Minor ebulliently. “But I call myself a cynical optimist. There are two sides to the moon—dark and light—and if you choose to be a victim you will be. My Depression-era parents endured poverty—my mother turned yellow from eating so much corn mush—but they gave me what they could from their limited resources. My father was an avid hunter and outdoorsman and he taught me to observe my world. My mother always told me to keep going. She would sign me up for art lessons in the city park during the summer. I was in fourth grade when I decided I really wanted to be an artist, even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant or how it would happen.”
Lack of resources and delicate health were not the only obstacles to be overcome. Reading came far too slowly and Mr. Minor grew up in the decades before dyslexia had a name. He “read” books by interpreting the art and learned to love literature through his sixth-grade teacher, a giant of a man with a resonant voice who delighted in reading aloud stories by his favorite authors. “For the first time, I was hearing words come to life. Mr. Gilkey’s voice lifted them off the page, creating wonderful pictures in my imagination. … Words paint pictures in the mind and I wanted someday to bring those pictures alive in paint,” he wrote in his autobiography.
When he finally graduated from high school, the next move was to be his, however. His father, who had never finished school, informed Wendell that he now had more education than his father and that Mr. Minor would have to pay for whatever schooling lay in his future. There followed a year in “purgatory” as he worked for a meat packing company to earn money enough to attend the then-unaccredited, three-year Ringling School of Art in Florida. “I was grateful to be able to look at life from a different perspective,” he said.
He returned to Aurora, Ill., following college—“the worst eight months of my life”—before working a short stint with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. Then he took the kind of leap of faith that can make or break a career. He sold his Volkswagen Beetle, packed a suitcase, took the advice of a friend and moved to New York City. Within three weeks he had landed a job with book cover artist Paul Bacon.
“He gave me a manuscript [for Jessamyn West’s “Except for Me and Thee”] and said, ‘Read it and give me something by the end of the day.’ I did, and I got the job,” Mr. Minor reported. Only two years later, he opened his own design studio.
Mr. Minor finds it ironic that a dyslexic should end up in the publishing business, but his reading disability has not curtailed his career. He brings deep research and insight to each of his projects. “Each cover assignment took me on a journey of discovery that required research and careful consideration of the text to create the visual essence of the book …, “ he wrote. “Each was a challenge and each one taught me something new.”
“How could you ever plan this,” he asked with evident satisfaction in the trajectory of his career. “Some of it has to be being in the right place at the right time.”
Being in the right place, in part, meant being a rising star in his field at the same time that many of his most influential clients were also beginning their careers. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, now a friend for 40 years, was just beginning to produce the books that would help Americans discover their own complex history when they first met. So, too, was was thriller and children’s book writer Mary Higgins Clark. Mr. Minor said that working with these emerging talents removed any “intimidation factor” by the time he got to literary heavyweights such as James Michener and Ray Bradbury.
In 1986, he was presented with the opportunity to illustrate his first children’s book, “Mojave,” a poem about the desert. “I realized it was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up,” he said. It has been followed by 50 more books, both of his own and others’ authorship.
“Doing ‘Mojave’ was a bit of serendipity,” he said. “I believe it is an important art form. Children’s books are everywhere and I want to reach the widest possible audience with my art. I made the decision to bring fine art to children.”
While many projects find their way to him, he is proactive in promoting new concepts. “How did I get to work with [astronaut] Buzz Aldren? I packed up some of my books and sent him a letter saying it was important that his accomplishments have a place in children’s literature. Three days later I got a call from him and we met. I did a pagination of some of the important events in his life and, after we talked, we decided to do a book.”
Mr. Minor said he has “presumptuously” called the Rockwell exhibition “Wendell Minor’s America.”
“It is the America I knew, which doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Everyone has a different view of America, but as a people we are beyond politics. Politics are an impediment to our ‘better angels,’ but when you look at the country as a complete sentence there is a lot we can be proud of.”