The Art of Eric Carle

Great art hides in kindergarten libraries everywhere.


From the detailed line drawings of Sir John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, to Maira Kalman’s blotchy New York–ites and Robert Sabuda’s brilliantly engineered pop-ups, great art is subversively hiding in grade school libraries everywhere. This point is illustrated convincingly in Tacoma Art Museum’s current exhibit, “The Art of Eric Carle,” a respectful and, by virtue of the subject matter, cheerful display of the beloved children’s illustrator/author’s work. Though the artwork in Carle’s 70-odd books are already appealing in print, it’s only up close that you realize how many layers are involved in each sea creature, polar bear, and strand of kelp. Carle’s technique of painting patterns and colors on tissue paper first, then slicing shapes for his scenes with a scalpel-size X-acto knife, demonstrates both his rich imagination and deft precision. (In the exhibit’s charming 27-minute video, Eric Carle: Picture Writer, he shows how it’s done.) Exhibit highlights include the pretty seahorses from Carle’s award-winning underwater ode to fatherhood, Mister Seahorse (pictured), a wing-stretching whooping crane and an elegant lion fish who disappears behind seaweed, among a host of other very clumsy, lonely, busy, quiet, and, of course, hungry creatures. Born in Syracuse in 1929 to German parents, Carle was lured away from advertising by Bill Martin Jr., who asked him to illustrate his Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Since then, Carle primarily pens his own work, most famously, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In November 2002, Carle opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. Its mission is to recognize the great work being done by what some may mistakenly consider B-grade artists. There’s no hyperbole when Carle says, “I steal from the Impressionists! When I look at my finished work, the colors and textures, that comes from Impressionism, but my finished artwork, I think, is Expressionism.” Coincidentally, local artist Cathy Sarkowsky’s current show of mixed-media ink and collage paintings at Ballard Fetherston Gallery in Seattle, features a series of “Fantastic Creatures,” the most eye-catching of which are colorful ink and collage hippocampi—AKA seahorses. SUE PETERS