By Deanna Duff
Artist Eric Carle is a rock star of children’s books. The author and artist of classics such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar is often asked for hugs at book signings and kids are left speechless in his presence. Tacoma Art Museum’s current exhibit, Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle (through July 7), displays a selection of his iconic children’s images as well as his rarely seen “ArtArt,” pieces made for his personal enjoyment ranging from photography to sculpture and glass.
Carle and Nick Clark, director of Massachusetts's Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, visited Tacoma for the exhibition opening last weekend. Carle, sporting a Hungry Caterpillar baseball cap, sat down with ParentMap to discuss the exhibit, his artistic inspirations and upcoming plans. See our preview for more details about the exhibition.
This is the first major exhibition of what you call your “ArtArt,” work made for yourself rather than the public?
Eric Carle: I’ve had a number of shows of my picture book art. I don't think I’ve had a show of my ArtArt work. It’s different to see it in a museum. I’ve been doing it (ArtArt) for years, but I haven’t shown it much. It was my private entertainment and I wasn’t very ambitious about it. But I’m very pleased. Now I want to see it someplace else, too!
Eric Carle: It’s beautiful! It’s beautifully displayed and spaced and grouped. They have more space and that makes it feel more expansive.
Nick Clark: One thing that Eric likes is lots of space. If you look at his books, there is a lot of white on the page. To see it here in a more spacious setting adds further focus to each of the works because there is more real estate around them.
Your ArtArt is very colorful and engaging. It feels accessible to all ages. Do you feel there is a distinction between “kids” and “adult” art?
Nick Clark: One of the highest compliments we got about the ArtArt was during one of our student visits. A young student, probably third or fourth grade, looked at Eric’s exhibition and said, “Oh, this is what Eric Carle does when he gets to play.” That’s what we want, a sense of playfulness. Art doesn’t have to be scary. It’s about the conversation, not the answer.
Your art tends to be vibrant. What’s your relationship to color?
Eric Carle: Color, color, color! I grew up in wartime (WWII) Germany. I was 10 when the war broke out and the city I grew up in was about three-quarters of a million people. They painted all the houses in grays and browns and dark greens. There was no fashion, no color and very little entertainment. It was kind of sad. At least that’s my memory. When color came back, I just loved it so much. I keep saying that I wish our eyes could see more color. There are more colors out there. Some insects see it in different ways. Knowing the limits of (human) vision kind of bothers me. Color is a very important part of my work.
You work in many mediums. This exhibit includes painting, costume design, sculpture, glass photography and more. How do you choose?
Eric Carle: I’m interested in materials — silk, plastic, glass — that’s part of it. I like the variety and the opportunity. My photographs, for instance, that’s something I’ve done lately. I walk in parking lots and see all these little things on the ground. It’s the joy of photographing something everyone sees, but does not see.
You created two pieces specifically for the Tacoma Art Museum exhibit — the 14-by-20 foot, colorful murals. Will you be doing more large pieces?
Eric Carle: That’s my next step. I learned graphic design in Germany and graphic design is usually small format and small things. It’s really liberating to do the bigger things. I didn’t know I had it in me! I did my first one when I was around 70 (years old). Now I really enjoy it and I’d like to do more.
Your younger fans are incredibly devoted! What are some of your favorite fan stories?
Eric Carle: I get funny letters. One wrote me from Texas and said, “I’d like to visit you, but I’m not allowed to cross the street.” One of the funniest is, “Dear Eric, I love your work. Our teacher made us read all of your books. Will you ever retire?”
What are your future plans?
Nick Clark: Eric has been saying since 2000 that he’s retiring!
Eric Carle: I have another book coming out this fall, it’s about friends. Very simple. I’m also working on another one (book).
How important is arts exposure and education for children?
Eric Carle: I was born in the U.S. and my first grade teacher, Miss Frickey, discovered that I liked to draw and paint and that I was good at it. She called my mother and told her that she and my father should treasure that. They always did. People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was before I knew the word “art” or “artist.” I said that I would draw pictures for people. Kids are all talented. They’re born with talent.
About the author: Deanna Duff is a Seattle-based freelance writer who contributes to a wide variety of regional and national publications. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Press Association which has awarded her writing. A Northwest native, she grew up working on her family's organic farm and selling at the Pike Place Market. She enjoys featuring and celebrating all aspects of family life.