A Tribute to David Wiesner
By David Macaulay
There are three things about David Wiesner that stand out in my mind. The first is his imagination. The second is his skill. The third is his reserve. Actually, there is a fourth—the speed with which number three disappears when the conversation turns to the process that employs numbers one and two. David’s passion for making pictures–particularly pictures that tell stories—is clearly evident not only in his books but also in the enthusiasm and sincerity with which he animatedly describes their creation. Honored by his request to write the Caldecott Medal winner’s profile for the Horn Book, I found myself playing amateur reporter. David and I chatted one Sunday afternoon in March as I scribbled away. While I had no idea how or even if it would all come together, I was nevertheless delighted at having the opportunity to get to know a little better one of my very best former students turned colleague. Whether or not the following is what he actually told me, it is definitely what I heard.
On Sunday, February 5, 1956, the population of Bridgewater, New Jersey, increased by one. Born to Julia and George Wiesner on that day was their fifth child and second son in ten years. In addition to populating their house, the elder Wiesners also imbued it with a nurturing atmosphere in which creative endeavor, while never forced, was always encouraged. This, at least, is how David remembers it.
In fact, the cunning with which the minds of the unsuspecting Wiesner kids were shaped is perhaps best illustrated by the achievement-oriented wallpaper found on page thirteen of David’s unpaginated and highly autobiographical book, Hurricane. The stimulating pattern of rockets, magnifying glasses, elephant heads, ships in bottles, books, and believe it or not, medals comes directly from the walls of the very room in which he played, slept, and dreamt for the first eleven years of his young life—the formative years. I never did find out what the rest of the wallpaper in the house looked like, but whatever it was, it seems to have worked. His eldest sister and his brother were both artistically inclined and generously passed down their used or unneeded art supplies, along with a fair amount of natural reinforcement. His second oldest sister trained in opera. Her artistic impact on David has yet to reveal itself.
While it may seem presumptuous, or at least premature, to suggest that David was destined to become an artist, his early years could not have been more appropriately spent. Even trips to the local paint and wallpaper store were filled with special pleasures. There, in a small section devoted to art supplies, David found himself scouring the shelves and opening the drawers, to see, touch, and ultimately sniff the various materials housed in this exotic treasury.
The first non-family member whose artistic impact David readily acknowledges was the goatee-toting, plaid-clad, coolest of artists—John Nagey. The granddaddy of television art teachers, Nagey took to the airwaves every Saturday morning, after the agricultural shows, and took over the imaginations of thousands of impressionable viewers, and young David and his similarly inclined siblings were among them. Introducing the ideas of a light source and simple perspective, Nagey made one drawing a week in which he transformed circles into form and straight lines into depth. In the brief fifteen-minute process he transported a ten-year-old New Jersey boy to new heights of ecstasy and ambition. Over the months and years that followed, David faithfully completed almost every sequential exercise in the accompanying workbooks, learning not only how to create illusion but also about the joys of drawing from direct observation. As his ideas and skill grew, so did his interest in storytelling through pictures—an interest fed both by comic books and repeated television showings of such classics as King Kong.
David’s early artistic education was not just an indoor activity. In fact, whatever familial life did for young David’s imagination, it was at least equaled, if not surpassed, by life outside. His Bridgewater neighborhood was one of those perfect places to grow up because it encouraged playing outside. First, there were people to play with. Like his house, but on a larger scale, the neighborhood was populated with kids of different ages. The older ones invented games for the younger ones, who in turn looked up to, idolized, and in time became the older ones. Second, there were many wonderful places to play. A network of lawns, trees, and shrubs linked the houses, while at the edge of the neighborhood there were woods and a brook. Armies could freely chase and stalk each other through the vegetation, but once they hit the sidewalks, the rules changed. Because these were the rivers, both feet had to be kept on the ground at all times. Fleeing the enemy was now much more problematic since only very small steps were allowed and you had to carry your stick—which was loaded—over your head to keep it dry.
As the neighborhood kids grew, their games became more sophisticated. In UFO, a favorite, a wire coat hanger was bent into a circle and attached to the open end of a plastic bag. Across the diameter of the circle another piece of wire supported a wad of burning fabric. As the bag filled with hot gas, the whole flimsy contraption lifted into the air and drifted dangerously away. The journeys of these to-it-yourself hot-air balloons sometimes covered two miles and were tracked by the walkie-talkie bearing pyromaniacs, either on foot or by car.
Meanwhile, at home, the older Wiesner siblings were slowly moving on and, more importantly, out. David eventually occupied his own second-floor room, and into it came one of his prized possessions—a sturdy oak drafting table lugged home by Dad. Its very presence underscored the importance of the act of drawing and transformed a mere bedroom into a studio. Now with a suitable environment, the young artist increased production. There is a price, however, for the extraordinary pleasures associated with the primarily solitary process of making art. Whether or not David’s increasing artistic conviction grew in response to a pre-existing shyness, or whether it helped create it, is neither here nor there. The fact is that he was an extremely reticent youngster. It wasn’t until high school that his self-esteem got a boost from his growing identity as class artist. Although this did nothing to seriously elevate his status, Wiesner, like all teenagers, was grateful for any identity.
By this time, David had become familiar with the images of such artists as DaVinci, Dali, DeChirico, Brueghel, and Dürer—all available in the Time-Life Books of Great Artists and all contained within the Wiesner home. Fed by these artists’ often fantastical landscapes, David’s imagination touched everything before it was rendered. He realized that just by changing his point of view, the Derailleur gears on his bike or even the vacuum cleaner could become an amazing technological landscape–jumping-off places for invention and creativity. Nowhere is the power of point of view more clearly displayed, or more masterfully handled, than in Tuesday. In addition to the creation of his own comics, which described the exploits of anti-hero "Slop the Wonder Pig," David and his high school friends produced a live action vampire film entitled The Saga of Butchula. This silent classic was accompanied by a taped musical soundtrack which was best played on a variable-speed tape recorder so that the music and the action could be kept more or less in sync. One of David’s most "satisfying moments" came at the senior talent show where, during the film’s screening, people laughed at the right times—to his relief and amazement.
It is hardly surprising that Bob Bernabe, the art teacher at Bridgewater Raritan High School, would be the first in a series of in-person teachers, as opposed to television or book folk, to influence and encourage young Wiesner. He was undoubtedly delighted just to get someone in his class looking for more than credits and a rest. In this case he got someone looking for much more. Motivation was never an issue, and Bernabe soon had his eager pupil working well beyond the assigned problems, exploring the possibilities of print making, photo silk screens, and watercolor. An important, out of school experience was a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. When young Wiesner first saw Guernica, he was bowled over by the power and size of the work—and Picasso’s work finally began to make sense. On that same trip he also saw Dali’s Persistence of Memory—only in this case he couldn’t believe the smallness of a work he found so powerful.
For better or worse, high school, as those of us who have experienced it know, doesn’t last forever, and there is always that nagging question of what comes next. For David, this question was answered while he was still a sophomore. Sometime in 1971 Mr. Bernabe’s art class was visited by a college student who showed films he had made and with great humor talked about something called art school. For David the experience was both revealing and reassuring. "You mean there are places where I can go? You don’t have to get a real job? Wow!" And in one fell swoop, the school’s guidance counselor was off the hook. It would no longer be his or her responsibility to figure out what to do with this very shy, intensely curious, and passionately creative young man.
In September of 1974, David left New Jersey to study illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. He left behind a mountain of drawings but brought with him an imagination and level of commitment which those of us who had the pleasure of working with him quickly realized was exceptional. As a sophomore, he produced a ten-foot-long by forty-inch-high mural in response to a problem called "metamorphosis." In it orange slices turned into sailboats, which turned into fish. He recalls putting it up and hearing a deep reassuring chuckle from his teacher, who was standing at the back of the room. The teacher went on to point out all the things which came naturally to David‚ such as choosing unique points of view, or pushing things up to the front of the picture to enliven the composition and reinforce the depth. The metamorphosis that evolved on paper encouraged another, albeit slower, transformation from shy, retiring person to confident, retiring person. It also served as the genesis of a wordless book that would emerge some thirteen years later and win David his first Caldecott Honor medal.
Also during his sophomore year, David began oil painting. Although he valiantly struggled with it, he never enjoyed it and eventually returned to watercolor. Under the tutelage of Professor Tom Sgouros, David found that his technical and conceptual skills continued to soar. The extent of Sgouros’s influence and the importance of his contribution are best illustrated by the fact that it is to him that Tuesday is dedicated.
During his senior year, having been inspired by a Lynd Ward wordless picture book, David designed and began producing one of his own. Although he finished only two watercolors, he thoroughly explored the process, creating mounds of sketches. A department-wide problem called "series" resulted in another sequence of wordless images. In eight steps the image of King Kong on top of the Empire State Building gradually became Leonardo’s famous study of human proportion. The simpler and more open-ended the problem was, the more inventive would be David’s solution. He remembers students continually asking one professor questions about a problem he had assigned and thinking that each answer, while illuminating, was also a kind of restriction. The more ambiguous the problem, the more he liked it, and the better it served his inventive mind.
By June of 1978, we had all done all we could for David Wiesner, so we graduated him. From Rhode Island School of Design he traveled to New York and began his career as a free-lance illustrator. In March of 1979, he was commissioned to do a cover for Cricket Magazine. Three years later, he found himself working on his first jacket and interior art for a book called The Man from the Sky (Knopf) by someone named Avi. He has just been asked to create a new jacket for the book’s reissue. This he agreed to do as long as the publisher promised not to use the original illustrations. David’s standards have been growing along with his self-confidence.
In 1983 an apartment fire destroyed all his possessions, including work done up to that time. Also lost in the fire was the precious oak drafting table his father had retrieved. But it would take more than a fire to stop this smitten bookmaker; The Loathsome Dragon (Putnam), a story retold by David and his surgeon wife Kim Kahng, was published in 1987. Take a look at the watercolor landscapes it contains and tell me you don’t see a little Da Vinci in there. In 1988 came the Caldecott Honor Book Free Fall (Lothrop), a direct descendent of that ten-foot long mural and either the second appearance of the loathsome dragon or a very close relative. In 1990, Hurricane blew into town. It is no coincidence that the names of the two young boys who play on the tree toppled by the storm are David and George—alias the brothers Wiesner–since the story is based on a real incident. And finally in 1991 came the glorious culmination of his efforts to date—which brings us back to Tuesday.
"So, why frogs?" I asked. In 1989 David was asked to create his second Cricket cover. When he asked what kind of an image they were looking for, they wisely suggested that he should do whatever he wanted. The only clue they offered was the theme of that particular issue: Frogs. And that, as usual, was all it took.
Since the publication of his first book Cathedral, David Macaulay has acquired international acclaim. His books have been translated into a dozen languages and he has been honored with countless awards, including a medal from the American Institute of Architects for being "an outstanding illustrator and recorder of architectural accomplishments." His book The Way Things Work was a New York Times bestseller and his children’s bookBlack and White was the 1991 Caldecott Medal winner.