Leo and Diane Dillon

by Phyllis J. Fogelman

DIANE AND LEO DILLON were born just eleven days apart in the month of March and both recall loving to draw for as long as they can remember. Although there are other similarities in their backgrounds, there are also  great differences.

Leo was born and brought up in Brooklyn, New York. His parents came from Trinidad to this country as adults, and it was here that they met, married, and had two children. But because their formative years had been spent in the West Indies, they could not perceive the true state of race relations in the United States—a fact that was to be partly an advantage for their son but also an enormous burden. Not knowing they were supposed to stay in the ghetto, Leo’s parents made sure that they lived in the best neighborhood they could afford. Mr. Dillon owned his own truck, and Mrs. Dillon was a dressmaker. They rented at first and later bought a house on the same block in the East New York section of Brooklyn where they lived throughout Leo’s childhood. This meant that Leo went to better schools than most Black children, for then even more than in the 1970′s, ghetto schools got the fewest supplies and the least experienced teachers. His mother and father couldn’t understand discrimination, so when the inevitable racial problems arose or when Leo was excluded from things everyone else took part in, they blamed their son, refusing to entertain the possibility of discrimination.

Leo had to cover up his true feelings at school in order to cope. At the same time he was not allowed to discuss his feelings and anxieties at home. So out of necessity the young boy became secretive and something of a loner. Since he could always draw well he turned wholeheartedly to art which became both a source of pleasure and the main outlet for his feelings. His talent made Leo the center of attention at school and saw him through many painful times. “I could always draw my way out of bad situations,” Leo recalls.

His parents encouraged him. They were proud that he was so talented, and they always bought him paints and art supplies. But the thought never occurred to them that their son would pursue art as a career. They, after all, had come to the United States during the Depression, and the few artists they saw were on the dole.

His mother and father had always planned that Leo would study medicine or law, and they knew, of course, that he had to go to high school before college. What they didn’t understand and Leo didn’t tell them was that the high school Leo had chosen would not prepare him for these professions. Leo went to the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan which now, in its modern building on East Fifty-seventh Street, is called The High School of Art and Design. It was marvelous for Leo. He loved it, and the four years he spent there were years of bliss. For the first time he belonged. Race was irrelevant in this school; art was important. None of the students felt threatened—they were coming together to do creative work, which was all that mattered.

It was here that Leo met and was taught by Benjamin Clements. “Clements was a great teacher, an excellent draftsman, and a gentle person. He shaped my life.” After four happy years Leo made up his mind to join the Navy, a determination which was to serve two purposes: First, it allowed him to put off the decision of what to do with his life and second, it would make him eligible for the GI bill providing him with money for college. Leo found the experience boring but bearable. The combination of his physical strength and drawing talent again pulled him through some difficult moments, particularly with white sailors from the Deep South. After leaving the Navy he worked for a while with his father, building up the business. Then, on the advice of Benjamin Clements, he enrolled in Parsons School of Design.

Diane was born in Glendale, California. She always knew she wanted to be an artist, and therefore she drew all the time. Her father was a high school teacher, and her mother was a pianist and an organist. Although her family always lived in Southern California, they moved thirteen times, Diane and her older brother attended two elementary schools, three junior high schools; four high schools, and three colleges. The one constant in her life, other than her family, was art.

As a child Diane had no formal art training except during her eleventh year when she took oil painting lessons one hour a week from an octogenarian. Although her parents encouraged her artistic talent, their general attitude was that, while it was nice for her to have this ability, it really wasn’t important since she was expected to get married and be taken care of. “I went through a classic period as a proper young girl when I wanted to be a nurse,” says Diane. She also fleetingly considered being a stewardess and very briefly went to modeling school, but she really was determined to have some kind of career in art. During her high school years there were a number of discussions about money for college. Diane’s parents decided that if there was enough money for only one, her brother would go to college, since it was his work that would matter in later life.

The summer she completed high school, Diane worked at Lake Tahoe and earned enough money to pay for her tuition at Los Angeles City College, which she attended for two years as an art major while her family lived in Hollywood. She started in fashion design but switched to advertising after a year. Then she contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanatorium, reading most of the time. Then Diane went to live in Schenectady, New York, with an aunt and an uncle who sent her to Skidmore College, where she again majored in art. She commuted for a semester, but traveling was a great waste of time, and in her second semester she moved onto the campus. Diane recalls that she didn’t fit in at Skidmore and never felt she belonged. After a year her art instructor told her there was nothing more she could learn there in art unless she was interested in weaving or jewelry. She wasn’t, so after her third semester she transferred to Parsons.

For the first time she felt at home. She began attending classes in the summer, and one of the first  things she noticed was a painting of Leo’s. When she saw it, her immediate thought was, “If that’s the kind of work that’s done here, I’ll never be able to compete. I don’t belong here.” She was intrigued by the enormous talent of the student who could do such work, and she asked about Leo. She was told he was a loner, that he took his lunch and ate it down by the river. Diane, who by all accounts was rather shy and unaggressive, introduced herself. Leo gave her the distinct impression that he wasn’t interested. Shortly after this their class had to move to another room, and Diane sat next to Leo. Later she found out he was furious, since he’d hoped to have the drawing board to himself. Leo had always been the best artist in their class at Parsons and had had no serious competition until Diane arrived. He felt Diane was better than he was, and he became very competitive. In the beginning he didn’t even want to talk to her. Diane, too, was very competitive, but Leo recalls that she never showed it.

While at Parsons these two highly talented students experienced similar unpleasant incidents that each remembers vividly. One instructor took Leo aside and told him that although he was an excellent artist he wouldn’t be able to get work in the art field because of his race. Another instructor told Diane he hated talented females because they always got married and had babies, and all the talent and training were wasted. Despite these discouraging comments, both of them continued to learn as much as they could and planned careers in art.

Diane and Leo both speak of their three years in school together at Parsons as a time of intense competition, anger, and constant fighting. Although after a while they fell in love, their rivalry didn’t end, and their different backgrounds caused them a great deal of suffering. Eventually they became so miserable they decided to separate. After college Diane moved to Albany, and they cut off all communication. But they discovered that they were even more miserable apart than they had been together, so Diane returned to New York, and they decided to get married. Both families were against their marriage because of the racial difference, but Leo and Diane were determined; and once they were married their fighting stopped.

At that time Leo was an art director for a magazine, and Diane was the only woman artist in the advertising agency she worked for. Diane soon left her job to be a proper housewife in the accepted 1950′s fashion. She concentrated on cooking, specializing in intricate hors d’oeuvres to go with the cocktails she served Leo when he arrived home from work. Every day Leo would ask her what she had done, and she would point to the gourmet food. This nightly exchange continued until one evening Leo became furious with Diane and told her she was wasting her talent. The next night there were no drinks and no hors d’oeuvres. When Leo asked Diane what she had done, Diane pointed instead to a painting.

Now Diane and Leo decided to do freelance work together. They had spent three years in rivalry and competition and were too happily married to risk that again, so they decided to collaborate on everything. They had no money in the bank and no freelance work yet, but Leo, who found his nine-to-five job unbearable, quit. Thus began the Leo-and-Diane-Dillon collaboration which has continued  throughout the twenty years they’ve been married.

The next two years were a time of intense poverty. Often they didn’t even have enough money to go on the subway to pick up a job someone had asked them to do. During this time Leo’s father fortuitously had a number of deliveries to make in their neighborhood. Once or twice a week he would appear with a bag of groceries, explaining that he had a job on the next block and thought he’d drop in. Diane says it was only after that period had passed, and Mr. Dillon never seemed to have any more trucking jobs in their neighborhood, that they realized what he’d been doing.

On February 28, 1965, their son Lee was born. Soon afterward, they bought their own brownstone house in Brooklyn, fondly called Dillons’ Folly, which they have been renovating ever since. Their partnership continued in everything: art work, child care, and running the house.

During their first years the Dillons had worked together on album covers, advertising, magazine illustrations, movie posters, and paperback covers. While continuing their other art work, they now did book illustration, too, and in 1968 my relationship with them began when I called to ask them to illustrate their first picture book, The Ring in the Prairie: A Shawnee Legend, which The Dial Press published in 1970. Illustrating children’s trade books offered them a kind of freedom they had never before experienced; no one told them what to draw or asked them to repeat a style. And I believe it is this creative freedom which allows these enormously talented artists to capture the essence of a story and to select the style and technique that perfectly complements it.

In 1969 the Dillons began teaching at the School of Visual Arts while continuing their art work. The course is “Materials and Techniques,” and at first Leo and Diane taught it together. Later they each had a separate class. Diane left teaching in 1972, but Leo continues.

Although Diane, Leo, and I have worked on only four books together—the fourth, Ashanti To Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove, is not yet published—not a week goes by without some artist walking over to one of their paintings on my office wall, gazing in admiration, and saying in wonder, “I don’t know how they do it.”

“Frisket with pastel and watercolor,” I say, if it’s the jacket painting for Behind the Back of the Mountain.

“No,” is the inevitable reply, “I mean I don’t know how they work together on the same painting.”

“Neither do I,” I used to say, “but when I find out I’ll let you know.”

And now we all know, to some extent, at least. But the more I know, the more I marvel—at their talent as artists who collaborate so completely; at their amazing ability to capture so sensitively such warmth, humor, and feeling in art as stylized as that for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears; but mainly I marvel at these remarkable human beings who make seemingly impossible things work because of their particular wonderful qualities.

From the August 1976 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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