Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Illustrations I Loved in My Earliest Years 3

When I was very small, my mother read to me from Thornton W. Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind, which had a publication date of 1910 by Grosset & Dunlap. I will not pretend that I understood all the details at such an early age, but I delighted in George Kerr’s illustrations, which depicted such animals as foxes, rabbits, and raccoons wearing gingham shirts and knee britches with suspenders.

One of George Kerr’s Illustrations
In Thornton W. Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind (1910)

As I grew a little older, my appreciation for Kerr’s art also grew. My mother drove me to the public library in Oxford, Indiana, five miles from my hometown of Pine Village. I was thrilled to find shelves full of other books by Burgess and Kerr. My mother showed me how to check out a few of them. The fact that I could take them home and read them before they had to be returned was so astonishing that I thought public libraries must be the most amazing humanitarian institutions ever invented!

Oxford’s library was archived in a relatively small building underwritten by Andrew Carnegie. At the time, it seemed large to such a small me. The fragrance of bindings, paper, ink, glue, and wax permeated the rooms with their tables and chairs wearing the glorious patina of years of use. I paid the nearly silent librarian the highest respect as she stamped the papers affixed inside the covers of the books I would read.

I returned to the library again and again, until I had read all the Burgess books in the collection. My young mind was filled with the exploits of the animals that lived in Mother West Wind’s world. Otters, squirrels, skunks, turtles, frogs, and owls joined the raccoons, rabbits, and foxes in action-packed story after story. The magnificent illustrations led me from chapter to chapter. Is there a word more sweeping than joy? If so, I would use it now to describe my response to Burgess’ many books.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, an idea had taken root: I wanted to become an artist. I wanted to bring viewers the joy that Kerr’s illustrations brought me. The idea quickly flowered, as I copied drawings in my books in the first grade. My mother had encouraged me to draw since I was tiny. At the age of three, I had created a pencil portrait of my grandmother. My father kept it in a cabinet. When I found the drawing years later, I was surprised that it so closely resembled my grandmother, even though the sketch was obviously that of a child. Now double the age when I drew my father’s mother, I thought I should be constantly drawing. The practice anticipated my sideline as an illustrator when I attended Indiana University. During my career at Northern Kentucky University, I created dozens of drawings for campus publications.

My love for black-and-white sketches in particular and for entertaining illustrations in general gained impetus from Old Mother West Wind long ago.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Illustrations I Loved in My Earliest Years 2

A book that my mother often read to me was The Story About Ping, written by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. I understand that Flack’s work, published in 1933, is among the top hundred children’s books of all time. As a very small child, I was unsure what to think of the story. At the end, the duckling Ping is spanked. Even though the last duck in the line of ducks was spanked as a matter of course, I was convinced that spanking was reserved for children that had misbehaved. Ping must have done something wrong! … but what? As he knew he would be last in line and he did not want to be spanked, he hid. Was his choice so bad as to deserve a spanking? I never thought so.

Illustration by Kurt Wiese in Marjorie Flack’s The Story About Ping (1933)

What I did admire, though, were Wiese’s illustrations. I loved the easy flow of the black brush outlining Ping. Even though the strokes are simple and minimal, the duck is as lifelike as those my parents raised on the farm.

Crayon tones of blue and yellow dominate the book. Whenever I recall the work, I think of yellow and blue. Orange and green are also used sparingly to excellent effect. I always referred to the work as “Ping the Duck,” and, in the back of my mind, I think that that is the title, even though it is not.

A few years ago, I decided to make my own paper to wrap a gift, and I tried to duplicate Wiese’s Ping in various poses. I am no stranger to painting with black ink, but, despite my facility, I felt increasingly challenged to express Ping as brilliantly as Wiese did.

During my childhood, my job was to feed the ducks. A short distance from the gate dividing the back yard of the house from the chicken yard stood a black tub. Every day, I emptied a bucket of water in the tub. Next, I poured ground feed from a sack into the center of the water. I thrust my arms into the cold water and began squeezing and stirring the dampening feed so as to create a smooth mixture. The feed felt grainy between my fingers. Brave ducks sneaked their bills into the dinner while I was still combining the ingredients. After scooping a mouthful, they bustled around, tails wagging, as if they were eager to eat without my arms in the tub. “Shoo! Shoo!” they seemed to say.

Closely acquainted with ducks from observing them daily, I recognized that Wiese shared my perceptions. He gives his ducks not only their natural forms but also their comical personalities. I may not have loved the spanking that Ping received. I, too, hated spankings. … but I loved Ping, even as I loved my parents’ ducks.      

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Illustrations I Loved in My Earliest Years 1

My mother was enamored with books by Wanda Gág (1893–1946), whose Millions of Cats is still in print. When first published in 1928, it won the Newbery Honor Award. Another of her books also received the Newbery, and two others won the Caldecott Honor Award. In New Ulm, Minnesota, Gág’s childhood home is a museum celebrating her life and work. I guess my mother had good taste in authors of children’s books!

Illustration in Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats

I found Millions of Cats enchanting! Every time my mother read the book aloud to me, I was entranced. My imagination ballooned with vistas of cats. Gág’s art opened my eyes to such surprising possibilities.

On my desk is a snapshot of my mother feeding her cats just outside the door to the porch on our house east of Pine Village, Indiana. With her trademark smile, my mother stands holding an enameled bowl from which she is about to pour something (chicken skin?) onto a plate for the outdoor cats to consume. At my mother’s feet are eight cats looking up at her expectantly. Every tail is pointed straight up. In any given year, my mother fed scraps to perhaps double that number of cats. When I was a child, Gág’s account of herds of cats stretching to the horizon struck me as plausible. After all, did not my mother’s cats multiply with astonishing rapidity?

I never considered that I, too, would be caught feeding cats, cats, and more cats, but, after I moved to a somewhat rural area in Ohio, I began serving chicken and dry food to feral cats. In a peak year a few years back, I was providing dinner for fifteen cats. So I suppose the line between fiction and reality has long been blurred for me.

Gág’s art is so odd as to be captivating. Her trees are heavy lumps yet strangely graceful blobs like cauliflower. Her clouds are handfuls of dough. Cats surround huts as organic looking as igloos. In Millions of Cats, her pointy-nosed “very old man” is elfin. His hat is like a bowl. Gág’s landscapes are never rectangular; rather, they flow like lava diagonally across pages. In short, Gág’s illustrations defy academic analysis. They prompt expressions such as “What a hoot!”

I will admit I am as enthralled today as I was when I first listened to my mother’s voice give expression to Gág’s bizarre story about a flood of felines. The ending of the tale reminds me of my earliest memory, dating to when I had not quite seen two years of life. It was summer, and my mother was working in her large garden where we lived on the edge of town. She had smashed down weeds in a space serving as a crib for me. I could not penetrate the thick profusion of unsmashed weeds about me. Suddenly, a white kitten parted the stems and stepped into my enclosure! I screamed with joy. My mother came running. She scooped me under one arm and the kitten under the other arm and took us both to the breezeway of our house where she fed the kitten a saucer of fresh milk from our dairy. “What shall we name it?” my mother asked. I tried to say “Fuzzy,” and my mother heard “Fuzz,” which became the cat’s name then and there. My father often used the nickname “Lieutenant Fuzz” from the Beetle Bailey cartoon strip. Fuzz lived for many years and “was the most beautiful cat in the whole world.”    

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Experiencing Nature in Warren County, Indiana 6 (Last Installment in This Series)

It’s odd how the memory works. When I was in high school, I parked my 1953 Packard along Old 55 and took a short walk down a narrow stream that fed Big Pine Creek nearby. It was noon on a summer’s day. The red-winged blackbirds were trilling. The general buzz of insect life was less along the water than in the meadows above, and I heard the water trickling around smooth stones.

The Tranquility of a Stream
Drawing by Bruce Crane (1857–1937)
Engraved by John Sanderson Dalziel (1839–1937)
In The Closing Scene
Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1887

The colors in the stream bed were magnificent: pale green rocks within a setting of vibrant ocher and tan. I was surprised but not scared when I detected the tail of a blue racer snake as it hid from me in the sedge. Higher up the bank, monarch and black swallowtail butterflies visited the tall flowers of the old meadows. The stretches of pebbly earth beside the water twinkled with cabbage, sulphur, and alfalfa butterflies. An occasional dragonfly buzzed past, as if on a mission.   

I recall feeling at peace with the earth. The sensation was profound. It endured for the interval of time that I was strolling near the water. The drifting clouds in the bright azure sky accompanied me both above and in reflection while I took a few steps and paused to appreciate a wildflower before taking a few more steps and pausing again.

Since that summer’s day years ago, I have met celebrities, toured historical sites, visited great cities, and crossed the ocean, but none of the memories that I have made while engaged in these later activities have been as sharply detailed, as deeply engraved, and as often revisited as my recollection of the tributary to Big Pine Creek in my hometown. When I parked my car that day, I had no intention of making a mental archive of details that I would examine again and again for decades, but a treasury of a fleeting moment was stored in my mind forever.

During the harrowing events of life later on, the memory of looking closely at an often overlooked section of a stream has helped restore tranquility in the midst of chaos.

Whenever the author and editor William Dean Howells broke in a new ink pen, he wrote the name of his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio. One of America’s literary giants, Howells published 35 novels, 35 plays, 34 miscellaneous books, 6 books of literary criticism, 4 books of poetry, and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. He shaped the destiny of fellow writers by editing their work for The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. In his book titled A Boy’s Town (1890), Howells wrote that Hamilton “was a town peculiarly adapted for a boy to be a boy in.” Although Howells lived and worked in Boston and New York, as well as having served as a consul in Venice, his pleasant upbringing in Hamilton was his foundation. While I remember the tiny stream that flowed into Big Pine Creek, I understand why Howells wrote the name “Hamilton” as naturally as he took his next breath.