In November 2002, the late children’s book author and artist Eric Carle and his wife, Bobbi, helped open the doors to a new museum in Amherst, one specifically dedicated to exhibiting and collecting picture-book art, from illustrations to collage to paintings. It was something the couple had first imagined doing after they’d seen museums in Japan that were dedicated to just that kind 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. Meanwhile, the Carle has created or hosted over 140 exhibitions and built connections to museums and galleries across the U.S. and abroad — a traveling exhibit program that reaches over 500,000 museum-goers a year, according to Alexandra Kennedy, the Carle’s executive director.
Now, looking ahead to the next few decades, Kennedy says the museum hopes to build on its work and the overall vision of Eric Carle, the longtime Valley resident and renowned author of the seminal children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and many other children’s books, who died last spring at age 91.
“That desire to get picture books out to a wider audience will definitely guide our decision making and priorities over the next 20 years,” Kennedy said in an email.
“For us, there’s an urgency to this work,” she said. “We really 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 enough, to mark its 20th anniversary, the museum has opened a new exhibit of the kind of artwork that Eric Carle, beginning a little over 50 years ago, helped bring to the forefront of children’s books: collage.
“Celebrating Collage: A 20th Anniversary Exhibition,” which runs to Dec. 31, features more than 90 works in total, and it’s drawn from precisely 20 artists who specialize in collage, including masters in the field such as Lois Ehlert, Ezra Jack Keats, and Carle himself, as well as younger artists exploring new possibilities of the medium.
Nina Crews, for instance, creates digital photo collages, merging a wide range of materials including photographs to make prints that sparkle with color and a variety of shapes and perspectives.
To showcase work from one of Crews’ newest books, “A Girl Like Me,” the museum has collected about 20 different items — hand-drawn sketches, cut paper, star shapes, and photographs of ocean water, the sky and a young girl — that the artist combined to create her final images.
Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says one of t he exhibit’s appeals is that viewing the original artwork from collage books “gives you a real sense of the three-dimensional aspect of the art. That’s something that’s difficult to fully capture in print.”
A good example: For the 2017 book “Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poetry,” artist Ekua Holmes crafted 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, strips of newspaper, bits of faux flowers and other materials to give her work a highly textured look.
The artists also provide some occasionally funny testimonials for why they work with collage (text for artists who are deceased was provided by various scholars and other museum staff, Keiter says). Susan L. Roth, who has illustrated nearly 60 books in her career, lists 10 reasons she works in the medium. Number one? “I cut better than I draw.”
Roth says she doesn’t paint, either. But more to the point, she writes, “It’s fun putting stuff together in utterly illogical ways until (I hope) I make it work coherently.”
Amherst artist and author Micha Archer, whose book “Wonder Walkers” was named a Caldecott Honor Book late last year, works with oil and watercolor paint along with pen and ink, in addition to collage. She says she’s often looking for “ways to make sunlight and shadows dance on leaves, ripples sparkle on water, or grass blowing in the wind. Collage gets me closest.”
What stands out in much of the exhibit is the exquisite level of detail the featured artists bring to their work, from the hundreds of tiny colored dots Archer glued to paper to create a spiderweb in her 2016 book, “Daniel Finds a Poem,” to the dozens and dozens of paper tendrils the late artist Steve Jenkins used to represent a porcupine’s quills in one of his collages.
“This kind of work requires a lot of patience and dedication as well as talent and vision,” Keiter said.
She says it was a challenge to choose the work of just 20 artists for the exhibit, but the museum made it a priority to pull together a diverse group, factoring in age, ethnicity and style. The exhibit includes a light table where visitors can create their own collages using translucent color forms on the table.
That hands-on exhibit component is a reflection of another aspect of the Carle Museum’s work: offering numerous art classes and workshops for children (and adults), bringing in guest speakers, and forging connections with local children’s book authors and artists. Kennedy notes that three of those artists — Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Grace Lin and Mo Willems — all curated online exhibits with the museum during the pandemic.
She’s says she’s struck by how many of these artists — over 25 — now call the Valley home, and how a good number of them, including Krosoczka, Lin, Willems, and Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi, have moved here in the last couple of decades “from Brooklyn and other creative hubs,” as she puts it.
For Kennedy, the Carle’s success can also be measured by the enormous 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 will be preserved, studied and shared.”
Looking ahead, she says the museum is committed to offering more virtual exhibits and programs — an outgrowth of demand that soared during the pandemic — and staging 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 accessible to online scholars.
And diversifying the collection 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 by publishers and museums, such as people of color and women.”
More information on the Carle Museum and “Celebrating Collage” can be found at carlemuseum.org.