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R.I.P. Tomie de Paola

March 31, 2020

Children’s book writer/illustrator/artist Tomie de Paola died this week. His books and his art are deceptively simple, unfailingly gentle, and unspecifically spiritual.

Several years ago, I spent an afternoon with Tomie and his partner/business manager at their home in New London, NH. I’d been assigned to write a profile for a local magazine. It was an amazing experience. In honor of Tomie’s passing, I’m posting my profile in this space (which has otherwise been dormant since 2011, as my life has gone through many changes).

Here you go.

A Very Lucky Man
The Life and Art of Tomie de Paola
By John Walters

“I love Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday.”

If you visit Tomie de Paola’s New London home at this time of year, you’ll see just how true that is. The prolific writer and illustrator loves to surround himself with the stuff of Christmas. “I read once that Christmas is the artist’s feast day,” he explains, “because it’s when the invisible became visible.”

His celebrations have been toned down in recent years, due to a late-in-life case of common sense: “I used to go all-out and just have thousands of dollars worth of poinsettias, and then it was like, ‘I’m not a department store.’ I decided to try to be a little restrained,” he says.

But Tomie’s restraint is another’s extravagance. The living room is dominated by a giant tree full of paper roses, a remembrance of his early years as a struggling artist. In his entryway there’s a smaller tree covered with ornaments he designed himself. There are still plenty of poinsettias around. Plus there’s his massive collection of folk art from around the world, with Christmas-themed items on display at holiday time.

Oh, and there’s a stunning rendition of the Madonna and Child, a large painting in a recognizably Tomie style with strong hints of a late-Matisse influence that he’s happy to acknowledge.

(If you wonder why I call him by his first name, well, that’s what everybody calls him. He’s Tomie, pronounced “Tommy.” He signs his artwork “Tomie” with a heart dotting the letter “I”. There’s no room for formality in his genial, approachable personality.)

His love of Christmas is also reflected in his books. He’s published dozens of stories on holiday themes, including his latest, The Birds of Bethlehem, a gorgeously illustrated telling of the Nativity from an avian point of view. It’s an example of Tomie’s gift for finding a new way to tell an old story.

A master of his genre
At age 78, Tomie has lived a life of accomplishment. He’s one of the masters of children’s literature. He’s published somewhere close to 250 books. He’s won the Caldecott Honor for illustration, the Newbery Honor for writing, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a lifetime-achievement award that’s only been given to 18 people. And he’s won the Sarah Josepha Hale Award — the only children’s book writer to do so.
Ask him which honor means the most, and he’ll mention something humbler but more lasting. In 2011, his hometown of Meriden, Conn., named its children’s library for him. “Which is,” he notes with a chuckle, “while I’m alive, really saying something.”

Of all his characters, the most beloved is perhaps the most unlikely: Strega Nona, “Grandma Witch” in Italian, the wise old woman in a small Italian village. “When I wrote the first Strega Nona book, I had no idea that she was going to have this life of her own,” he says.

In fact,, when he first created Strega Nona, he had no idea it would lead to anything. Back in the early 1970s, he was teaching art at Colby Junior College (still a women’s school, not yet named Colby-Sawyer). One day, during a faculty meeting, he was killing time in the usual manner. “The administration thought I was taking notes,” he recalls. “I was, as usual, doodling.” And out came the profile of an older woman wearing a headscarf; he scribbled the words “Strega Nona.”

He’s written 11 Strega Nona books so far, and is rather amazed at what his humble doodle has become. “We did some publicity stuff where an actress dressed as Strega Nona has gone to bookstores, and children just run to her and love her so much! The actress who plays her says it breaks her heart when an appearance is over and the kids are saying ‘Don’t go, Strega! Please don’t go!’”

The swimming duck
The hallmarks of Tomie’s style are simplicity in art, and honesty in story. “Honesty is the most important,” he says. That principle can be seen in his 26 Fairmont Avenue books, a series of chapter books about his own childhood. “I try to tell it as it actually happened. I want children to know that I wasn’t a good boy all the time. In one book, I deal with this other boy who laid in wait for me every day and beat me up!” In future books, Tomie will write about life on the home front during World War II.

As for simplicity, “I don’t want my art to be difficult to look at,” he says. “I have chosen to put my energy into books for children, and I want children to be able to decipher the art with ease.”

But for an artist — as for the duck that’s calm on the surface but kicking furiously underneath — simplicity isn’t easy. Tomie is a trained, skilled artist who can comfortably discuss the intricacies of modern art.

“When I was right out of art school, I was hot to go. I was going to change the world! But it took me a while, to grow not only as an artist but as a person, to become more mature. And then the time came when I could unlearn what I’d learned.”

When he was younger, he adds, “I never really understood Matisse. I didn’t understand the simplicity that he was able to engender. And since that’s what I do myself, I know how difficult it is. But the whole purpose is to make it look easy.”

A youthful dream comes true
“When I was very young, I knew I was going to be an artist when I grew up.” And Tomie’s parents encouraged him. “When I said I’m going to be an artist, they said, ‘Okay, we’ll get you art supplies so you can practice.’”

And his mother gave him a love of books and reading. “My mother read aloud to me every night,” he recalls. “I was a rather difficult child. I didn’t go to sleep; I didn’t want to miss anything. But I did love my mother reading to me.”
She was also a sucker for traveling encyclopedia salesmen. “I always thought we had a secret ‘X’ on our door: ‘That lady will buy the books!’ We ended up with three sets of encyclopedias. And I used to sit and read them, from A to Z, because I just loved reading. And I still do!”

Tomie got his formal art training at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and went on to the inevitable next phase — starving artist — by way of a monastery. “I wanted to be a Benedictine monk,” he says. He entered the Weston Priory in Weston, Vt., but “I lasted about six months, max.”

Then came the “starving” part. “I lived in a little old farmhouse. I started doing Christmas card designs for a woman who had a business in Pittsford, Vt. She kept me in Spam and coal, so I could eat and stay warm.”

This was where the paper roses came in. “I had absolutely no money, but I had 88 acres. So I cut down a tree, and I made paper roses. Paper roses have always been on my Christmas tree since then.”

A showing of his art at a Boston gallery led to a career as an art teacher — in Boston, San Francisco and finally in New Hampshire at Colby-Sawyer College and New England College.

Teaching gave way to full-time writing and illustrating when, one day, he received a royalty check from his publisher that was bigger than his college paycheck. “I always enjoyed teaching,” he says. “But to have that dream come true. You know, it’s a wonderful thing to make your living doing what you really want to do.”

Home base
“My house is an extension of myself as an artist and a person,” he says, sitting in a big white-walled open room that he designed himself. The room, like the rest of the house, is full of items from Tomie’s extensive collection of folk art and decorative objects — “the things that I love,” he says. There’s a bit of a Southwestern feel to the room, because of the spare white walls and the many Mexican and Native American objects displayed on built-in shelves.

The rest of the house has a different feel, although the two parts somehow work together. “This was the original Yankee Barn home,” he says. Tomie bought it from the late Emil Hanslin, founder of Yankee Barn Homes. The barn-turned-studio next door was the original office space of the company, now headquartered in Grantham. Tomie’s house and property are located almost literally a stone’s throw from Main Street in New London, but it feels much more secluded. He owns 14 acres of land, some of which is used as a cornfield by Spring Ledge Farm. In return, he says with obvious relish, “I have picking privileges!”

We take a walk across a courtyard to Tomie’s office and studio. This is where his partner, Bob Hechtel, handles the business side of the operation, and where Tomie makes his art. The studio has an incredible array of art supplies of all kinds; Tomie calls it a necessity. “Living in the country, you have to buy in bulk,” he says. But one also gets the impression, from house and studio, that Tomie feels most at home when he’s surrounded by a bounty of well-organized, beautiful, purposeful things.

A lucky man
“I’ve always said that I was very lucky,” Tomie says. That even applies to growing older. His creative pace has slowed, matching a decline in the publishing business. “Sales aren’t like they used to be,” he says. “That’s a worrisome thing. We had a meeting with my publisher, who told me, ‘We don’t know what’s going on.’ I don’t think anybody has any idea where this electronic revolution is really going to take us.” He acknowledges a certain sense of relief that the bulk of his career occurred before this age of uncertainty.

His own future nearly came to an end just before Christmas 2011. At the end of a busy book tour, “I had some serious and mysterious health issues.” He was hospitalized for most of December. They never figured out exactly what the problem was, but he did recover. Now, he’s looking forward to writing and making art for as long as he can, and celebrating as many Christmases as he can.

As he approaches his 80th year, Tomie can look back on a career that could hardly have gone better. “When I think of where I’ve gotten, I’m humbled by it,” he says. “To be an artist, to have some of my books in print for 25 years or more and they’re still in print, they’re still selling. That’s my immortality, you know. When I realize that these books will outlive me, I’ll never die as long as my books are in print. And that’s very, very mind-blowing for me.”



From → Writing

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