Columbus, Ohio

(From the March '04 issue)

A Carnival of Delight at Riffe Gallery

Something special for Boomers, Boppers, Elders and Grandkids


By Elizabeth Ann James


The Ohio Arts Council has done it again. The current Riffe Gallery exhibit will delight everyone. "A Carnival of Animals: Beasts, Birds and Bugs in Original Illustrations from Children's Books" will show through April 18. There are 80 examples of book art in the show, and many of the actual books are at hand for on-site reading.

At a media luncheon Jerry Mallett, Director of the Mazza Collection Galleria, The University of Findlay, made it perfectly clear: this exhibit consists of "book Art with a capital 'A,' not mere illustration."

Mallet, a humorous and dynamic speaker, is absolutely correct. None but the most highly accomplished artists could produce the beautiful prints, drawings and paintings in this "Carnival." The show was organized by Dr. Mallet and his colleagues at The University of Findlay and is being co-sponsored by the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. The majority of the show's contributors are from the United States but many other countries are represented.

Mallett reminded the audience that "from Polaris, The Findlay University isn't much more than an hour away," and he urged everyone to visit the collection there, which numbers about 2,370 works that are worth "millions and millions."

He noted that the Mazza Collection includes many artists who have won Caldecott, Newberry and Golden Kite Awards - although he added that these winners are not always designated in the Riffe show.

Marcia Brown won the Caldecott Medal three times, and is represented by The Berries Were Within His Reach from the book How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck, and there's a big wacky ostrich on the wall.

The exhibit honors the achievements of early children's book pioneers such as Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway from the nineteenth century.

The tradition of children's literature is rich and deep. The smallest Pilgrims liked turning Bible pages in order to see Jonah swallow the whale. While the Founding Fathers read to their children, the real First Americans told their own children creation stories by candlelight and campfire light.

Psychologists and educators agree: without a doubt, reading to children, and making picture books available to them, is a valuable steppingstone to a healthy life.

I can hear Mother's voice now: The twelve dancing princesses had to travel underground where the trees had silver leaves. And I loved the pictures in Cinderella, and The Goops, forerunners of The Simpsons!

At Riffe Gallery, Mother Goose has a wall to herself. You can see Caldecott's 1880 pen and ink sketches from his Mother Goose portfolio. And Maryann Kowalski's Rain Rain Go Away (1984), a pen and watercolor, is a delight. Washy, rendered in sparse lines and hues, the little girl wearing a red raincoat and yellow boots is jumping puddles near her house while a weird spider looks down from the chimney. Could this be the itsy bitsy you know what?

Can you remember Bobby Shaftoe, that pretty guy - he went to sea and he'll come back and marry thee? He's around too, in a small detailed lino-cut by Ashley Bryan.

In Mary Had a Little Lamb, a stout teacher scowls when a disguised and bonneted Lamb takes up space at a desk, like Mary and the other pupils. By Robin Spowart in acrylic, 1987.

Around the corner, more updated tradition: Tucked in Bed, graphite and water, by Willy Schermele for the book Goldilocks and the Three Bears, 1951. Baby Bear, traumatized by Goldilocks, lies tucked in his own bed, fretting about Goldilocks who is long gone. All three Bears are as cute as honey pots.

He Blew in the Stick House honors the The Three Little Pigs, of course. Debbie Dieneman painted this delicate huff and puff watercolor in 1990. And we know who blew the stick house down - he's roaring today. Again, in a traditional but "modern" mode, a lone pathetic little pig flees in a vintage sailor suit. (These are actually two small attached paintings.)

Animals, indeed, dominate the Carnival, and softly but accurately rendered animals thrive in Lynne Cherry's The Great Kapok Tree. Cherry has used various combinations of graphite, color pencil, pen and ink. End Papers displays a large exquisite map framed by an inter-connective table of living creatures. Cherry recently traveled to the Brazilian rain forest, and her resulting book, gorgeous and educational, is dedicated by the author/artist to Chico Mendes who gave his life in order to preserve the forest.

The hero, a dark, gentle young man carrying an axe, falls asleep in the rain forest. He has come to cut down the great Kapok Tree. He dreams, and in his dreams, the creatures including gleaming little tree frogs, come to him. The large exhibit panel includes photos and original drawings. Cherry is a meticulous and poetic artist.

The Fire Engine Book contains a bow wow of peppy spotted dogs. For example, The Alarm Sounds: Inside the firehouse every dog is bustling. One dog is sliding down the pole, and somebody, probably the doggy Chief, answers the red phone. We see one bright red fire truck; one is yellow. The black-and-white spotted pooches run to and fro in gray rubber boots with orange tops. Carol Nicklaus has made her colors bright, clear and happy thru airbrush, pen and ink.

The Carnival exhibit has used Victoria Chess' Cover, an illustration used in the The Bigness Contest, as a motif for their brochure. We hope Columbus' high listing on the recent national "obesity list" has nothing to do with that choice!

Or, maybe this motif is a good thing. Here, in watercolor, pen and ink, twelve half-submerged hippopotami lounge in a soft blue flowing river, their forefeet gesturing, expressing width. Who will be the biggest and laziest? Dominating center space, Hippo Thirteen, in short jammies, spreads his arms "so big." His hippo tum is obvious. Slender palm trees dance while the pale blue river will always win The Bigness Contest. Chess' hippopotami are a riot.

Ohio's Chris Canyon has done beautiful paintings for Sandra De Coteau Orie's Did You Hear Wind Sing Your Name? An Oneida Song of Spring. The entire inside cover consists of a large white flower which has yellow and green seeds (or beads) at its center. We see lively purple flowers in the right corner. They gleam. A big shiny red ladybug is devouring the yellow beads, pistils. The first pages of text are adorned with traditional bead designs.

Farther on we see Three Sisters - Corn, Beans, and Squash - who were very important to the Oneida or Standing Stone People. (And to Ohio's Wyandots.) We learn how "The Bean vines wrap them-selves around the cornstalks and the squash plants provide ground cover."

We read "Traveling North Did you see Spirit Hawk dancing on the Wind?" Canyon's Hawk is eagle-like, big no-nonsense and soaring, bathed in deep gold.

A centerpiece to the show, Canyon's White Birch has been beautifully executed in acrylic on illustration board. Perspective and tone of color are striking. The viewer, indeed, gazes upward at the aspen (or Birch) which, like Hans Christian Anderson's tin soldier, is steadfast.

Yet, its gray-white ridged trunk nearly makes us dizzy. Sunlight hits the tree at just the correct angle and the Birch stands front dead center. The dark bare branches grab at the sky. Left, a robin in flight. Right, a robin building a nest. Lower down, saplings and foliage dance; small green leaves sparkle.

The wind is wild, we see it and feel it. The sky is bluer than a robin's egg; the clouds as fluffy as a kitten's fur. The artist knows how to paint in straightforward colors, quite realistically, without being a "tight" painter.

Congratulations! Canyon has recently been commissioned to illustrate one of John Denver's songs. Sunshine on my Shoulders will be the theme of his presentation at the Riffe Gallery on Sunday March 28 at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Celebrate "sunshine, pure joy, and messages of friendship" thru Canyon's adaptations. Come, see, listen enjoy.

The Riffe Center Gallery is not only beautifully hung for the Carnival exhibit; the walls have been embellished. Freelance artist/educator Chris Hutchins has been at work. A long comical alligator, a wacky ostrich, and large red paw and thumb prints adorn the gallery in just the right spaces.

Perhaps the most fascinating and substantial work in the show is a pale two-tone etching by Arthur Geisert. Aesop & Company Poster from the book Aesop & Company (1990) honors and explicates tradition with a large panorama in dark and tan (or dull white). Complex lines render a scene in which a barefooted mother reads to her young son under a tree.

The mother leans against the tree trunk, and the son leans against Mom's shoulder. Town and outlying farmlands and live-stock have been rendered with patience and authenticity. The wiley cricket, the crow, and the grasshopper are in evidence. A variety of Fables, on quilt-like squares, hang on wooden pinch-pegs from a clothesline above Mother and Child.

The book and the large wall etching present an authentic and fascinating tribute to Aesop, who may have been more than one person, but was a slave nonetheless in what Rudyard Kipling would call "the far-off dreaming times of remembering."

Aesop & Company, definitely not a first reader, honors literature, language, and story telling itself. The positive transmission of culture.

Opening day for "A Carnival of Animals" was freezing and windy. The luncheon tables were adorned with bright coated-paper "blossom sculptures" from Passionworks, an Ohio studio for artists who have suffered with illnesses and difficulties. Channel 10's Chuck White, a perennial arts advocate, was apt in referring to the ambiance of the entire Carnival show as "uplifting."


A Carnival of Animals runs through April 18 in the Riffe Gallery, 77 South High Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Contact: 644-9624 or