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Studio Views: What a Find!

sv_stead_philipstead_collageA long time ago, long before I could call myself a bookmaker, I was just a lowly college student in Ann Arbor working toward my degree in art from the University of Michigan. I like to tell people, though, that my real education came from a ramshackle bookstore a few blocks off campus called Kaleidoscope Books. Kaleidoscope had stacks upon stacks of dusty and long forgotten used and out-of-print children’s books—the largest collection of such books anywhere in the country, I tell people (even though I have absolutely no proof of it). Nearly every week I would walk in and ask Jeff, the deceptively surly but warm store owner, what he had to show me. He’d taken the time to learn my tastes and always kept a few books aside that he knew I’d love. This is how I discovered Martin and Alice Provensen, Evaline Ness, and so many other illustrators whose work from the 1950s and 1960s still informs my own bookmaking today.

One night I walked into the store and Jeff, as usual, handed me a book that I had never seen before—The Mountain That Loved a Bird, by Alice McLerran, illustrated by Eric Carle. Of course I knew Eric Carle’s work, but not this book. I think it’s possible to believe you really know an artist by virtue of being familiar with their most important works. But sometimes it takes a lesser-known work to help you see that artist in a new light—to get acquainted with their creative spirit. I felt like Jeff was introducing me to a completely unfamiliar artist. How exciting! Really, is there any place better for discovery than a used bookstore in a college town?

I’d never experimented with collage before, but I began work immediately, trying to decode Carle’s techniques while also adding a little bit of my own fledgling style. I had a project due in illustration class that week, to design a poster for a local children’s science center. Even though I was a complete novice, I submitted a collage to fulfill the assignment. It was the most fun I’d yet had as an art student. And I was completely hooked.

I’ve always been a collector, but especially so when I was a kid. First there were baseball cards. Then came stamps, comics, coins, and who knows what else. I think collage speaks to the collector in me. Better still, it allows me to share my finds with others.

Some of my best-ever collage materials came from a little junk shop in Brooklyn. Much of the ephemera used in my book Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat came from that store. There were steamboat tickets, nautical charts, star maps, and, my favorite of all, a mimeographed typewritten letter by a very unsatisfied customer aboard a cruise ship in the 1970s. What a find! I couldn’t wait to tear it up, glue it down, and share it with the world.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

About Philip C. Stead

Philip C. Stead is Erin E. Stead’s husband and the author of the Caldecott Medal–winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

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