'Tell Me a Story: Folktales and World Cultures': Forget cute, illustrations by Maine artists for children's books are 'sophisticated and superbly ...

'Tell Me a Story: Folktales and World Cultures': Forget cute, illustrations by Maine artists for children's books are 'sophisticated and superbly designed'

Before I could read, my mother read to me and guided me through the pictures. From first-grade on, I found my own way through the many adventures that sprang forth from the words and illustrations on the pages.

The title of a childhood book, “Little Folks From Other Lands," came to mind when I stepped into the Atrium Art Gallery, where Maine artists are showing original illustrations done for children's books.

I suspected that the "Tell Me a Story: Folktales and World Cultures" exhibit at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College would take me back to my childhood days. It did much more. It illuminated them in a new way for the adult I am now.

The exhibited works are original compositions done for children’s books reflecting folk tales from around the world. Represented are books about Uganda, Russia, Thailand, Paris, Korea, Ireland, Bangladesh, Japan, Jamaica, Romania, Ethiopia, Spain, the Pacific Northwest and Passamaquoddy Native Americans.

These are not illustrations taken from the books, but rather compositions that were reproduced into the books. A surprising number are complicated multimedia works involving anything from colored pencil to graphite, watercolor, ink, woodcuts, and cut and torn paper and fabric. Some are collages that combine many of these forms.

All of the works are strong, some of them very strong. Styles differ, from the simple to the complex, but every piece carries its own. “And, surprisingly,” curator Robyn Holman said, “There’s not much 'cuteness' here, even though these are illustrations for children’s books — but a great deal of sophistication and superb design.”

A certain amount of scholarship also had to go into each illustration because the artists had to be familiar with visual concepts of the place, time and culture they depicted.

A few of the stories represented in these illustrations are put forward in the contemporary, “intercultural” mode, as shown in Aileen Darragh’s illustrations for “Give a Goat," in which American schoolchildren help ensure that a goat is delivered to the children of a village in Uganda. Other examples are Melissa Sweet’s imaginative map of Paris drawn by a fictional American girl in “Charlotte in Paris;” and Wendy Kindred’s strong woodcuts for “Negatu in the Garden," the story of an Ethiopian girl visited by two American girls her age.

Also on display are Anne Sibley O'Brien’s illustrations of an Iranian-American family celebrating Ramadan, and her portrayals of villagers in the north woods (I suspect Scandinavian, although the country remains unnamed) for “Spirit of the Snowpeople." The most striking portrayal, in my opinion, is of two sleeping children and a cat visited by fireflies that have flown in through an open window.

On another wall, Leane Morin’s illustrations help tell the fact-based Pakistani story of “The Carpet Boy’s Gift."

Holly Berry depicts two Irish children's adventures with a passing gypsy in “Market Day” and created wonderful images of Russian-Jewish life in “How Mama Brought the Spring."

Holly Meade did simple but striking pictures for “Peek," the story of little girl playing peekaboo with her dad in Thailand; as well as for “Rata pata scata fata," a story involving a word game played by children in the Caribbean. She also did illustrations for a Japanese tale, “Sky Sweeper,” about a boy and later a man who tends the grounds of a temple, never wanting anything more, and finally ascending into the heavens, where he sweeps the clouds and mists of the heavenly gardens.

Native American cultures are represented in the exhibit, most strikingly in Robert Shetterly’s beautiful dark blue portrayals of night and water in “Raven’s Light," a mythical tale of the Northwest Coast peoples. They are also seen in “The Dwarf-Wizard of Uxmal," his totally different rendition (so like the original art of the ancient Maya themselves) of their legend of Tol, the dwarf born from an egg and reared by an old woman and her snake, who rose from outcast obscurity to his prophesied place as the leader of Uxmal.

The artist afforded the most space in this exhibition is internationally known African-American writer, artist, poet, professor and storyteller Ashley Bryan, now in his 80s and living in Isleford. On display are illustrations from 11 of his many award-winning books on African folk tales, ranging from the heavily dark woodcuts of “How God Fix Jonah” to the bright, splashing colors of “All Night, All Day — a Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals."

Bryan's work rises from the page — literally — with his encouragement to read aloud, going well beyond language into any sound the story might hold. This is richly borne out in the exhibit’s 20-minute video of his life.

All of the exhibited pieces were designed to open young minds to imagination and a wider understanding of the world as it is and was — from their own backyards to Ghana, Japan, France, Thailand and even long-gone Uxmal and all the places in between.

"Tell Me a Story: Folktales and World Cultures" continues through Aug. 12. The Atrium Art Gallery, at 51 Westminster St., is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday. For more information, call 753-6500 or visit www.usm.maine.edu/lac/art.

Jim Glenn Thatcher is a poet and writer who lives in Yarmouth and often writes about nature and the arts.

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