A Maine Library Sketches Out the Career of Children’s-Book Virtuoso Robert McCloskey

The exhibition is a rare chance to examine the loose, lively feel of McCloskey's lines up close.

whale tail illustration from "Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man," by Robert McCloskey
By Will Grunewald
From our September 2023 issue

The new mural in the lobby stairwell at Curtis Memorial Public Library, in Brunswick, depicts a bear ambling through a blueberry barren, a small cub close in tow. Against the white wall, neat brushstrokes by muralist Pat Corrigan are a deep purple that looks nearly black, a shade of late-evening shadows. The scene, though an original, is meant to feel pulled from the pages of Blueberries for Sal, author and illustrator Robert McCloskey’s beloved 1948 picture book about two mothers, one human and one ursine, taking their offspring to pick wild blueberries. 

The mural was occasioned by Robert McCloskey: The Art of Wonder, an exhibition, co-produced by Portland’s Illustration Institute, of sketches and paintings that McCloskey made for his books. The library isn’t the most orthodox space for mounting a significant art show, but the mural has a sort of unifying effect, leading visitors between the ad-hoc gallery spaces that span the building’s two floors. Plus, where better to glean a fresh appreciation for McCloskey’s talent than a place you can take out copies of his books?

Downstairs is a display of preparatory sketches for McCloskey’s most well-known story, 1941’s Make Way for Ducklings, about a family of ducks trying to find a home in Boston. The sketches, on thin and increasingly fragile tracing paper, are out on loan for the final time — archivists at Kansas’s Emporia State University, where McCloskey’s editor reposited all of the works in the show, decided the Ducklings drawings couldn’t endure another trip after this one. They present, consequently, an especially rare chance to examine up close the loose, lively feel of McCloskey’s lines — the seemingly energetic way he went about making his ideas real. 

Upstairs, images from McCloskey’s Maine books decorate the walls. In 1946, the author bought a small island off Stonington, and the coast — and his young family’s life there — quickly turned into his greatest inspiration. Along one wall, Blueberries for Sal plays out through spreads of McCloskey’s playful, deep-blue line drawings. (There’s no text, but how many readers are, right now, reciting to themselves the lines “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk”?) Seeing them this way, framed and hung, there’s no page to turn or written narrative to follow, just artwork to appreciate. It’s interesting, too, to notice how, in McCloskey’s next project, 1952’s One Morning in Maine, a slice of life that features his two daughters, Sal and Jane, his lines become a bit more flowy, his vision more expressly focused on the beauty of a place and a lifestyle.

Then, from 1957’s Time of Wonder and 1963’s Burt Dow Deep-Water Man, the exhibition offers a series of McCloskey’s paintings. None of the watercolor landscapes for Time of Wonder, about a family vacation on Penobscot Bay, would look out of place in a contemporary Maine gallery today — the distant view of a lobsterboat skirting an island at dusk, its wake glinting in the fading light, is especially memorable. Then, with Burt Dow, McCloskey seemed to find a whole other voice. Like the biblical Jonah, Dow, a fisherman with a leaky old boat, gets swallowed by a whale. To escape, he splatters paint all around the whale’s gut, a la Jackson Pollock. Indeed, many of the splashy, vibrant illustrations contain notes of abstract expressionism. And when Dow finally gets spit back out, he lands among a trippy pod of multicolor whales. 

Are we seeing the evolution of the artist or, rather, an artist attuned to how different approaches suit different stories? A little bit of both, probably, which makes it all the more surprising that McCloskey gave up creating books after Burt Dow, even though he was only in his late 40s at the time and would live another four decades. His work certainly hasn’t gone unappreciated over the years — he won two Caldecott Medals and was thrice a runner-up, and his fans, old and young, are still legion. But after visiting the exhibition in Brunswick, even his most loyal readers will surely think that his artistry deserves another look. 

On view through October 15. 23 Pleasant St., Brunswick. 207-725-5242.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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