A Profile of Gerald McDermott

by Priscilla Moulton

 A Profile of Gerald McDermott

from left: Gerald McDermott, Priscilla Moulton, and former Horn Book editor Paul Heins. Photo courtesy of the Association for Library Service to Children/American Library Association. Used with permission.

The awarding of the 1975 Caldecott Medal for Arrow to the Sun (Viking) concludes a critical period for Gerald McDermott, a  period begun two years earlier when Anansi the Spider (Holt) was designated a Caldecott Honor Book. Gerald then realized that his work as a book illustrator was valued by children’s librarians, even though he was at first a film artist. Gerald originally produced Anansi the Spider as an animated film; and since he knew of no precedents for transforming a film into a picture book, he made it his responsibility to solve the technical problems involved.

We met in 1973 at the Newbery–Caldecott announcement reception. In my town of Brookline, Massachusetts, Gerald began speaking about his work as a filmmaker and as a book illustrator, giving Arrow to the Sun its initial public showings. It was Gerald’s first opportunity to learn how children reacted to his art. “I was tremendously excited,” he wrote afterward, “by the sessions at the various schools. Until recently I’d spent so much time working in my ‘monk’s cell’ that I rarely had contact with the real world — with the people…who see the films and the books…There was…joy…in meeting the children and in watching their faces as they watched the films and listened to my stories.” At those sessions, children seemed to see more in Gerald’s films and books than adults did. But both listened to Gerald describe how he works with story, folk art, and music. The audiences began to sense the discipline required: the extensive reading, the self-searching, the weeks and months of meticulous effort — all to produce the thousands of separate drawings needed for a ten- or twelve-minute film.

Gerald McDermott grew up in a family in which no one was associated with the arts. When, as a very young child, he began to draw, his parents wondered at it. Realizing the boy had a special interest, they enrolled him in Saturday classes for children at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He was only four, but he derived so much enjoyment from these sessions that his mother and father continued to encourage and support him in the classes for over ten years. Thus Gerald spent every Saturday of his childhood immersed in the images of the museum, absorbing their variety and richness, storing up inspiration for later life.

Of his elementary-school art experiences, Gerald remembers nothing. He does recall, however, the importance of winning a poster contest in a school competition when he was about ten. This was his first award — the first of several which stimulated and motivated him. About this time he auditioned successfully for a part in a local radio show dramatizing Detroit’s two hundred and fiftieth anniversary. This led to small parts in other programs and subsequently to his becoming a member of the regular cast of a Saturday morning show called “Storyland.” For a couple of years Gerald read for these programs; he learned about music and timing and sound effects and gained invaluable experience.

For Gerald his high school days were a most significant part of his training to be an artist. He attended a special public school which focused on the artistically talented with a student body from all over Detroit. A rigidly designed curriculum was based on Bauhaus principles. Here was the formal approach to drawing and painting — in fact, the whole systematic organization which underlies Gerald’s work today. In addition, Gerald studied music for four years and classical ballet for two. School was totally consuming. Gerald developed an intense interest in producing live-action films and worked at this on his own time, alone or with friends. In his senior year he began experimenting with graphics on film. During this period, his parents were enthusiastically supportive.

A Scholastic Publications scholarship offered the means for art training at Pratt Institute. He expected to devote himself to his studies as he had done in high school, but the Pratt program proved disappointing. He felt that it failed to carry him forward, so he left and went to work in television. He had spent his summer vacation making a film, The Stonecutter, and because of this production he was hired as a graphic designer for New York’s public television station, Channel 13. Here Gerald did all kinds of film work, learning as he went; the following fall he submitted this work for Institute credit and returned to Pratt with permission to engage in independent study — a privilege not usually granted at this time.

Between his junior and senior year at Pratt, Gerald made his first trip to Europe. The Stonecutter served as an entree to film studios in England, Yugoslavia, and France. Visiting and making friends in these studios, Gerald experienced for the first time a sense of kinship with those who saw their own film work as art. He was greatly stimulated by the excitement pervading this field in Europe.

After graduating from Pratt, Gerald moved to Manhattan and pursued his work as a filmmaker. He spent most of his time trying to interest someone in producing his films, but he met with little success and became discouraged. During this period, however, his work began to assume a shape. He was making Flight of Icarus when he met the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell. Gerald had been reading Campbell’s writings and had found in them a great source of inspiration. Now, through a growing knowledge of Campbell’s ideas, Gerald began to focus on the theme of the hero quest as the subject of his animated films. At this time, Gerald met a particularly fascinating young woman, with whom he shared many interests. She was a painter, recently graduated from Brooklyn College, where she had studied under Ad Reinhardt. Beverly Brodsky and Gerald McDermott were married in 1969. Gerald was at work on his films, Anansi the Spider and The Magic Tree, but there seemed to be little support for his work, and the newlyweds sought a change of environment. They moved to southern France where they fell in love with the quality and the pace of Mediterranean life.

Just before they left New York, however, Gerald had met George Nicholson, who was to be an important figure in Gerald’s professional career. George made Gerald aware of the world of children’s book publishing and offered him a multi-book contract. Gerald then left for France, where he set to work transforming his first films into picture books. These two years in southern France were active, stimulating, and wonderfully satisfying for the McDermotts. Then Anansi the Spider was cited as a Caldecott Honor Book. Back in the United States to receive the plaudits, Gerald was encouraged by the recognition of his work. The warmth of this reception suggested new possibilities for his future so he and Beverly refurned to this country. Gerald went to work simultaneously on the book and the film, Arrow to the Sun.

Gerald is now a recognized illustrator and filmmaker. He is satisfied that within the last couple of years people have begun to look at his work differently and to accept it as a departure from familiar styles of illustration. He speaks to us visually, this reteller of myth, firing our imaginations and arousing our wonder.

This article, originally published in the August 1975 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Gerald McDermott and Arrow to the Sun.

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