Thursday, January 17, 2013

Virginia Lee Burton - A Life in Art - Barbara Elleman

Some books from childhood remain indelibly imprinted on our hearts and in our brains. We all have our favorites - One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Story of Ferdinand, The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Corgiville Fair, King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, Strega Nona. These are some of my favorites.

Some come from childhood storytimes with my Mom and some come from the years that I read bedtime stories to my own small children. The title that was a favorite for me (as a child) and my children was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

There is something so fun about this ingenious story of Mike and Mary Anne - it was all about doing good work and cooperating and bringing out the best in each other and solving problems and being useful. It's a wonderful story with wonderful pictures that are full of movement and strong images and excellent design and detail - pictures that hold a listener's interest while the story unfolds to their ears. It has stood the test of time; it's a favorite!

A couple years ago, I found a biography of Virgina Lee Burton, Mike Mulligan's author and illustrator at a used bookstore in, of all places, Prague. Yes! In the Czech Republic! I didn't buy it that day, but it haunted me until I did an Alibris search and found it again. It came in the mail the other day and I have poured over it for the past two evenings. It is a rich presentation of the life of Virginia Lee Burton, but it's much more. Barbara Elleman, the author, is an esteemed professor of children's literature and has spent much time researching the details of Burton's life and even more time analyzing and engagingly discussing  Burton's artistic esthetic, her design theories, her published works, her interest in designing printed textiles and specialty papers and cards, calendars, and stationery.The book has lavish illustrations in the form of photos from Burton's life, her paintings and sketches, linoleum designs and prints, her sculpture, and much more.

Her life was so fascinating! She was a dancer, an artist, a devoted wife married to a wildly successful sculptor and art professor, a gardener, a mother of two active boys, a design teacher, a mentor to young designers. All these things and yet, she passed her life at a small farm in the Folly Cove section of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was there that she raised her boys, formed the Folly Cove Designers with her husband, George Demetrios, maintained an illustration studio in which she wrote and did the artwork for her children's books, and built a pastoral life in which she could always be close to nature and her circle of friends and artistic associates. She traveled out into the world to research her stories and to promote Folly Cove Designs, but she always returned to Folly Cove and her home. She was remarkable!

I came away from reading this book wishing that I could have met her in the grocery line or at the counter at a farmer's market just so that we could have a casual conversation and perhaps share a cup of coffee, talk about our kids, chat about gardening, talk about sewing and fabrics. Alas, she was of another time and place - a powerhouse of a woman who accomplished all these things during the 30's, 40's and 50's. Virginia Burton died of cancer in 1968. Her husband sculpted a beautiful statue of her flinging herself with abandon out into the world. The lines of the statue are long and arced, evoking a semi-circle as Virginia embraces life. She'd have loved it. I just know it!

Check this book out, if you get a chance. It is such a great study on an amazing woman! Thank you, Mrs. Elleman for a wonderful look at Virginia Lee Burton and her work!

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