Art Appreciation: Karen Provensen Mitchell Discusses the Legacy of The Provensens and a New Monograph of Their Lives and Work
“When you’re little, your sense of things is heightened.”
It was 2009 and the Eric Carle Museum was honoring Alice Provensen for her lifetime of work. Each year the Carle bestows four specific honors (Artist, Angel, Mentor, Bridge). That year, Ms. Provensen was accepting, in person in New York City, as the “Artist” of that year. She was introduced by Paul O. Zelinsky who spoke on a very personal level about his appreciation, in both childhood and adulthood, for The Color Kittens. As he walked us through the story, he explained how it was that this Little Gold Book truly encapsulated the power of the page turn. Do you remember the moment when you’re supposed to count to three and then you turn the page and all the roses on the tree have turned white? It was, for him, life changing.
Ms. Provensen passed away nine years later in 2018 but the legacy that she created with her husband Martin has continue long past their lifetimes. As evidence, this year we’re seeing the publication of The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen (available now) from Chronicle Books. Here’s the rundown of what it consists of:
“The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen is the first-ever monograph on this beloved midcentury husband-and-wife illustration team who together created more than 40 children’s books over the span of seven decades. From early favorites for Golden Books like The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown (1949) to their Caldecott-winning title The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot (1983), the Provensens’ books inspired generations of young readers. They also illustrated several books for adults, including The Fireside Cookbook (1949), and even created Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger mascot in 1952.
The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen features hundreds of the Provensens’ illustrations, including original paintings for treasured classics such as A Child’s Garden of Verses (1951), The Iliad and the Odyssey (1956), Myths and Legends (1960), Tales from the Ballet (1968), My Little Hen (1973), A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1981), and many more. The book also showcases never-before-seen paintings, drawings, and travel sketches by the Provensens, as well as personal photos, quotes, speeches, and other memorabilia from their archive. Rounding out the volume are an interview with the Provensens’ daughter, Karen Provensen Mitchell, and essays by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus and celebrated editor Robert Gottlieb.”
In celebration of this release, I was delighted to get a chance to speak with Karen Provensen Mitchell, daughter of Martin and Alice Provensen, about the logistics of this book and her life growing up with two seriously talented parents.
Betsy Bird: Thank you, Karen, for joining me today. Before we start to delve into your parents’ legacy, I wonder if you could first tell us a bit about how you were approached by Chronicle when they were first thinking of creating this book. What did your initial involvement in the book look like?
Karen Provensen Mitchell: Chronicle first approached my mother about a Provensen artwork book in 2014. At that time, we declined their offer because my husband was ill and my mother, who had been living with us since the age of 90, was 96 years old and needed assistance……… plus I was still working full time. A few months after my mother passed away in 2018, Chronicle contacted me again about the book. At that time, my husband, unfortunately, had passed away in 2016 and I had just retired from being a special education teacher/music teacher/music therapist so I began talking to Chronicle about the creation of an artwork book. The husband and wife team of Steve Crist and Gloria Fowler came to my house in San Clemente, CA in the beginning of 2019 and I showed them all of the original artwork from books I have in my house plus Provensen sketchbooks, preliminary artwork for books, dummies, paintings, artistic projects etc. We informally discussed what this book would like. They brought copies of similar artwork that Chronicle had published for me to see.
BB: Since part of your work with this book involved organizing the archive of your parents’ work, what did that entail? Where has their work been kept? And how much organization would you say was necessary?
KPM: My parent’s studio was in the barn on the farm. When my mother sold the farm and moved in with us in 2008 at the age of 90, she brought all of her studio with her….original illustrations, preliminary work for many books, dummies, paintings, palette, travel sketchbooks, speeches, memorabilia, professional correspondence, contracts, art supplies, paper etc. After my mother died in 2018, sometimes with the help of various friends, I slowly sifted through everything and organized the illustrations by book in flat files. It was a lot of work but also a joyful experience in that I found many artistic things and a lot of artwork that I had never seen before. I actually designated one of my bedrooms as a “Provensen art” room so every time I found a something having to do with their careers, I put it in that room. At least it is all in one place now!
I have had various favorite illustrations framed. My father liked to paint in other artist’s styles, such as Claude Lorraine, Picasso, Corot, Braques etc. and my mother brought these paintings with her so I happily have much Provensen artwork and memorabilia on the walls, book cases and tables of my house.
The process of choosing and providing artwork to Chronicle for consideration in this book was a huge job. Also, my parents had given away and sold many illustrations that I felt were necessary for a book about their careers….so I had to track down friends, relatives and people who had bought that artwork and get it photographed for consideration in this book. This whole process made me look much more comprehensively at their illustrations, their books, their artistic lifestyle etc and understand it all at a more heartfelt and deep level.
BB: I know that both your mother and father studied art in Chicago in their early years. Later they would go on to create books together. When couples create art together, I think that there’s a real fascination with their process. How did your parents make the art for their books that became so well known?
KPM: In a two page brochure published by Viking in approximately 1984, my parents wrote, “The illustrator’s task is to do the text full justice, trying, as the actor does, to find the right line, the right tone, and rhythm, and the right spirit with which to bring a manuscript written or edited for children to the fulfillment of its intended purpose- a children’s book……..We try to choose a format for the book that will be suitable to the subject matter and the age group of readers……We work toward (this goal) by making rough layouts and actually constructing crude dummies……the right solutions come through the process of experimentation. Once we have chosen on a format, chosen the type, and agreed on what the spirit of the book should be, we try to set our individual egos aside and devote our individual drawing styles and painting skills to the service of accomplishing that image.
We have been working together for so long that it has ceased to be a question of ‘who does what’. In any given finished illustration, one of us may have done the first sketch, the other may have painted what we hoped was to have been a finished picture. It almost always has to be done over several times: we pass it back and forth between us until we are both satisfied. It is a happy collaboration. If someone reaches a degree of frustration, there is a certain joy in giving up and saying, ‘Here, YOU do this one.’ Since we are not competing with each other but rather are working toward the same goal, we are delighted if one of us can paint a better picture.”
In this same brochure, my parents also say, “We have traveled a great deal…and have carried our sketch books around the world…..We have voluminous records of our trips abroad and use them as research material for those books that require settings historical, foreign or fanciful. We live on a farm ninety miles north of New York City. Our own landscape and our (travel) experiences have inspired and influenced much of our work.”
BB: There’s a longstanding tradition amongst children’s book creators of buying old farms and converting them into studios (heck, Sophie Blackall’s doing it herself right now with Milkwood Farm). Your parents created Maple Hill Farm. Could you tell us why they chose the location they did and what they did with it?
KPM: My parents were both raised in cities and lived together in both Washington DC and New York City. I think they both wanted to try the rural life style for a change. They drew a circle around NYC of a two hour driving distance (to stay reasonable close to their publishers in NYC) and started looking at farms in NY, CT, and NJ. They fell in love with and bought the abandoned Maple Hill Farm in 1951, ninety miles north of NYC. It took several years to rebuild the foundation of the barn in order to turn it into their studio and many more to clear the overgrown fields, fix up the house and barn, create a big garden, etc. The farm became their beloved lifelong hobby.
BB: In THE ART OF ALICE AND MARTIN PROVENSEN you mention at the beginning that you were adopted when you were nine months old by your parents. What was the experience of growing up in a dual picture book creators’ home like?
KPM: As a young child, I grew up in a house built in 1830 on a beautiful farm with two parents who worked as illustrators in the studio in the barn. I was exposed to magnificent artwork and beautiful visual aesthetics on a daily basis as well as being exposed to the “artistic life style” and “artistic priorities” such as our trips to museums in places such as New York City, California, Europe, east coast, Mexico etc. As a child, I was offered many artistic opportunities (including coloring, painting, designs, sculpture etc.) But in later elementary school, I realized that I was more talented in music than art …..plus I honestly thought that two artists in a family of three was enough….especially since they were so extremely talented! I went on to learn to play flute, piano and guitar and have a career as a music therapist/music teacher. Looking back, I definitely reaped the benefits of my “artistic” childhood in many, many ways, even though I did not become an artist. For many reasons, I was very lucky to have been adopted by them.
BB: This may be an impossible question, but which of their books is your favorite now? Was it always your favorite? And have your favorites changed over the years?
KPM: As a child, I think I liked Karen’s Curiosity and Karen’s Opposites the best, simply because they were about my best friend, Anne, and me. The books they wrote and illustrated about the farm I grew up on (Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, The Year at Maple Hill Farm, A Horse, A Hound, A Goat and A Gander and An Owl and Three Pussycats, A Day in the Life of Murphy) are like animal autobiographies for me and full of wonderful memories.
I have many , many favorite Provensen books, too many to name…. but here are a few…… A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, Charge of the Light Brigade, Iliad and the Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, Tales from the Ballet, Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare:Ten Great Plays, My Fellow Americans, The Golden Serpent, etc etc etc! I sincerely respect their artistic versatility and the way they changed their artistic style depending on the individual text and setting of the each book.
BB: Finally, what, to you, is the part of your parents’ legacy that you hope lives on the longest?
KPM: I hope that people remember their outstanding artistic talents, the many beautiful books they created together, how much they loved their careers as children’s book authors/illustrators and the very happy life they created for themselves at Maple Hill Farm. As my father said in an interview in 1985, “In the forty years I’ve been working, I don’t believe I’ve worked a day (in my life), I play, that’s all. To me, it’s play, drawing and painting; it’s not work. What has it got to do with work?”
I cannot thank Karen enough for taking the time and patience to answer my many questions. Thanks too to Diane Levinson and the folks at Chronicle Books for connecting us. The Art of Martin and Alice Provensen is available now at all locations where all fine books are lent or sold.
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