Artistic family depicts everyday life in children’s literature
PLAINVIEW – There are thousands of children’s books gracing the shelves of public libraries and bookstores in America. Few families can claim creative rights to many of those books, but Donald Crews can.
Crews and his wife, Ann Jonas, and their grown daughter Nina Crews, are all children’s book illustrators, and among them are many volumes of creativity and artistic talent. Work by the Crews family can be seen in the newest exhibit to the Abraham Art Gallery at Wayland Baptist University, running August 7 through Oct. 15.
An exhibit by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, the collection features works from 15 different books by the artists, each one representing a unique style and approach to the activities and experiences of everyday life.
“The artworks in the exhibit range in style from traditional watercolor illustration to computer enhanced photographic collage. It is fascinating to compare the original art on the walls to the printed versions in the books,” said Dr. Candace Keller, curator of the gallery and professor of art at Wayland. “Literacy is the foundation of learning and children's illustrated literature has always been the visual connection to the printed word. The exhibits from the NCCIL are great for all ages, and really allow the viewer to see the origins of the artist's vision, and how everything comes together in a finished product.”
Educated at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, Donald Crews draws on boyhood summers in Florida for several of his books, including the 1979 Caldecott Honor winner Freight Train, Bigmama’s and Shortcut. Raised by working parents – his mother was a seamstress and his father worked for the railroad – Crews had a typical American childhood. A high school teacher noted his skill and assured he would find later success, even helping him secure the entry exams for art school.
From that, Crews learned the great role of teachers and their ability to show confidence in children in such a way as to mold them, sometimes more powerfully than relatives can.
Crews worked as a graphic artist in New York before being drafted into the Army and drawing a stint in Germany. While looking for work before returning to the U.S., he created an alphabet book for his portfolio and was encouraged to get it published. Following the publication of We Read: A to Z in 1967, Crews began churning out his colorful creations, using a bold, bright, building-block style.
The success of Freight Train inspired a series of transportation-themed books, including 1981 Caldecott Honor winner Truck, School Bus, Flying and Sail Away. He also recorded colorful moments and events in life through Parade and Night at the Fair.
Jonas, a native of New York, enjoyed a traditional upbringing as well, marveling at a mother who painted, sewed and played piano and a father who worked as a mechanical engineer but also painted. Encouraged in the arts, Jonas recalls her that her family “attached great importance to knowing how to do as many things as possible, from skating to skiing to cabinet-making to repairing the family car….Drawing was considered an incidental skill, a tool for planning a project rather than an end in itself.”
Jonas also attended Cooper Union, marrying Crews after graduating, then working for an ad agency in Germany. Back in the U.S., she worked in graphic art in a freelance design business with husband Donald. When her daughters were nearing college age, Jonas wrote and illustrated her first children’s book, When You Were a Baby. More books followed, including Two Bear Cubs and Round Trip, a creative book featuring black-and-white art that creates a different scene when turned upside down.
Using a bright, colorful style with soft lines of watercolors, Jonas said picture books for children provide many possibilities.
“If I can stretch a child’s imagination and deal, even if only lightly, with some of a child’s deeper concerns, then I feel that I’ve served him or her as well as I can,” she said.
Surrounded by art as a child, Nina Crews takes after both parents in terms of artistic talent and an enjoyment of picture books. But her approach varies greatly from their more traditional painted illustrations.
At Yale University, Crews studied various art forms, but began to focus on photography. After graduation, she worked in commercial animation production for the TV show Pee Wee’s Playhouse, an experience which led to her illustrative style using photography collages to create stories through art.
Crews draws her inspiration from her childhood experiences in the city and the work of some of her favorite artists who also employ the collage approach she enjoys.
“Collage allows me to use photography playfully and to tell a story on many levels,” Crews said. “Picture books are the combination of two forms of poetry, the written and visual, and their flow should be musical.”
Among her works are I’ll Catch the Moon and Snowball, both featuring young children in urban settings, as well as You Are Here and A Ghost Story. Crews’ books invite young readers into the world of child’s play in colorful, imaginative illustrations.
The exhibit at Wayland features several pages from 15 different books, all hung at children's eye level for their enjoyment. School groups are encouraged to come enjoy the exhibit. There is no charge.
The art gallery is located in the lower level of the Mabee Learning Resources Center and is open during regular library hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday 2-5 p.m. For more information, call the gallery at 291-3710.