Artists’ early works can be fascinating for how they hint at their later, mature styles. Years ago, for instance, I saw a landscape Piet Mondrian had painted in his teens or twenties in which the stylized, angular rendering of a tree trunk and branches felt like an arrow pointing toward the grid-like geometry of his signature abstractions. Foreshadowing! But how much more revealing—or at least fun—might it be when the early work is literal juvenilia and the artists are illustrators whose primary audience is kids? That’s the backward-and-forward premise behind “Now & Then: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Childhood Art,” a delightful and even moving show that asks 19 established illustrators to pair a piece of their own childhood art with an illustration from one of their grown-up books.
As you’d expect, there is a lot of playfulness in the kid art, but also hints here and there of the anxious, obsessive labor that can lead, for better or worse, to a career. Nothing too virtuosic, though: encouraging rather than intimidating young museum-goers is one of the show’s aims. According to co-curator Grace Lin (herself a Caldecott Honor winner), “We were hoping the artists would put in their really really bad childhood art, because we wanted to show kids that we started from all different places.”
There is a lot of playfulness in kid art, but also hints of the labor that can lead, for better or worse, to a career. Nothing too virtuosic, though.
There’s range here, for sure, from the stick-figurative and even borderline scribble-scrabble to efforts demonstrating more mature apprenticeship, such as Raúl the Third’s homage to Michelangelo (the comic-book turtle, not his Renaissance namesake). The work was drawn when Raúl was 12, using a black ballpoint pen. It’s a medium he’s stayed with, as seen in the adult illustration with which the turtle is paired: a spread from the graphic novel Lowriders in Space (written by Cathy Camper). “I use red, blue, black, green Bic ballpoint pens as a way to show kids you don’t need fancy-schmancy art materials to make awesome artwork,” he told me. “The tools you have on your desk are more than enough.”
My favorite piece of kid art in the show is Barbara Lehman’s The Giant Fried Egg Machine. It depicts an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian contraption that starts with egg-laying hens and ends with a conveyor belt feeding fried eggs—sunny-side up!—to a prone and presumably ravenous giant. Lehman executed it in red marker when she was 12, and it sings with the same combination of unfettered imagination and buttoned-down ingenuity that underlies the conjoined, Möbius strip–like narratives of her picture books The Red Book (a Caldecott Honor winner) and its prequel/sequel, Red Again.
Like many of the illustrators, Lehman didn’t have a lot of kid art left to choose from, just a couple of notebooks that randomly survived. “Besides that,” she said, “I had a small folder of stuff that my mom had kept, but it was more stuff a mom would like, like kids flying kites.” No knock on the taste of anyone’s mom, or dad, but here’s to 12-year-olds—and 42-year-olds—heeding their own peculiar muses. —Bruce Handy