In November 2002, the late children’s author and artist Eric Carle and his wife Bobbi helped open the doors to a new museum in Amherst specifically dedicated to the exhibition and collection of picture book art, from illustrations to collages to paintings. It was something the couple first envisioned after seeing museums in Japan dedicated to precisely this type of work.
Twenty years later, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which began with just 75 artworks, has over 8,500 such pieces in its collection, representing more than 250 artists. To date, the Carle has created or hosted more than 140 exhibitions and established ties with museums and galleries in the United States and abroad—a touring exhibition program that, according to Alexandra Kennedy, Carle’s executive director, reaches more than 500,000 museum visitors annually.
Looking ahead to the next few decades, Kennedy says the museum hopes to build on his work and the overall vision of Eric Carle, longtime Valley resident and noted author of the seminal children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar and many other children’s books, who died last spring at the age of 91.
“This desire to bring picture books to a wider audience will definitely guide our decision making and our priorities over the next 20 years,” Kennedy said in an email.
“For us, this work is urgent,” she said. “We truly believe that great picture books can bring joy and comfort to children, and that they can help encourage us all to be more compassionate and tolerant.”
And fittingly, to mark its 20th anniversary, the museum has opened a new exhibition of the kind of artwork that helped Eric Carle put children’s books at the forefront a little over 50 years ago: collages.
Celebrating Collage: A 20th Anniversary Exhibition, which runs through December 31, features more than 90 works in total and comes from exactly 20 artists who specialize in collage, including masters in the field such as Lois Ehlert and Ezra Jack Keats , and Carle himself, as well as younger artists exploring new possibilities of the medium.
Nina Crews, for example, creates digital photo collages by bringing together a wide range of materials, including photographs, to create prints that sparkle with color and a variety of shapes and perspectives.
To showcase work from one of Crews’ latest books, A Girl Like Me, the museum has collected about 20 different objects – hand drawn sketches, paper cutouts, star shapes and photographs of seawater, the sky and a young girl – representing the Artist combined to create her final images.
Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says that one of the charms of the exhibition is that viewing the original artwork from collage books “gives a real sense of the three-dimensional aspect of the art. This is something that is difficult to fully capture in print.”
Case in point: For the 2017 book Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poetry, artist Ekua Holmes created an image of a kitchen table with a spoon and a bowl of oatmeal—and she used real dried oatmeal in the collage. For her 2022 story Just Like Me, Vanessa Brantley Newton uses layers of tissue paper, newspaper strips, artificial flowers, and other materials to give her work a highly textured look.
The artists also sometimes provide hilarious testimonies as to why they work with collages (texts for deceased artists were provided by various scholars and other museum staff, says Keiter). Susan L. Roth, who has illustrated nearly 60 books in her career, gives 10 reasons why she works in the medium. Number one? “I cut better than I draw.”
Roth says she doesn’t paint either. But in a nutshell, she writes, “It’s fun putting things together in totally illogical ways until (hopefully) I get it to work coherently.”
Amherst artist and author Micha Archer, whose book Wonder Walkers was named a Caldecott Honor Book late last year, works in oils, watercolors, pen and ink, in addition to collage. She says she often looks for “ways to make sunlight and shadows dance on leaves, make waves sparkle on water, or make grass sway in the wind. Collage comes closest to me.”
What is striking throughout much of the exhibition is the exquisite attention to detail the featured artists bring to their work, from the hundreds of tiny dots of color Archer pasted onto paper in her 2016 book Daniel Finds a Poem to create a spider web to create the dozens of paper tendrils used by the late artist Steve Jenkins to depict the quills of a porcupine in one of his collages.
“This kind of work requires a lot of patience and dedication, as well as talent and foresight,” said Keiter.
She says it was a challenge selecting the works of just 20 artists for the exhibition, but the museum has made it a priority to bring together a diverse group that takes age, ethnicity and style into account. The exhibition includes a light table where visitors can create their own collages using translucent color shapes on the table.
This hands-on exhibition component reflects another aspect of the Carle Museum’s work: offering numerous art classes and workshops for children (and adults), inviting guest speakers, and forging links with local children’s book authors and artists. Kennedy notes that three of those artists — Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Grace Lin, and Mo Willems — have curated all online exhibitions with the museum during the pandemic.
She says she’s impressed by how many of these artists — over 25 — now call the Valley home and how many of them, including Krosoczka, Lin, Willems, and Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi, have moved here in recent decades “from Brooklyn and other creative hubs,” she says.
For Kennedy, the Carle’s success can also be measured by the tremendous growth of its art collection, which includes picture books dating back more than a century.
“More than 90% of the collection was donated by artists, their heirs and collectors,” she said. “They see the Carle as a fitting home for their cherished work because it is preserved, studied and shared.”
Looking ahead, the museum is striving to offer more virtual exhibitions and programs — a result of demand that has surged during the pandemic — and to host hybrid shows that have both an in-person and online component. The Carle is also beginning to digitize its collection, Kennedy noted, to make it available to online scholars.
And diversification of collections and museum programs remains a key goal, Kennedy said: “We will … continue to champion picture books by artists and authors whose voices and visions have historically been excluded from publishers and museums, such as B. People of Color and Women.”
Visit carlemuseum.org for more information on the Carle Museum and Celebrating Collage.