Monday, June 8, 2015

Wanda Ga'g Will Be An Artist

The Little European Girl from New Ulm, Minnesota

In 1929, the Newbery Medal Selection Committee named Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga'g as one of six Newbery Honor Books.  Originally published in in 1928 by Coward-McCann, Cats was a small book physically, measuring 7" x 10", with not even a 1/2" thickness, but the impact and influence of that little book on the development of the modern picture book was enormous. Cats remains today the oldest children's picture book in continuous print in the United States. It was the first picture book to use a double-page spread, and the text was hand-lettered as opposed to typeface, the result being text that visually was perfectly aligned with the artwork, which in turn enhanced the actual telling of the tale. Cats also contains one of the most memorable refrains of all children's books:

Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The author and illustrator of Millions of Cats was thirty-five year old Wanda Ga'g, a well-known and widely respected artist with a background in both commercial and the fine arts. Ga'g had under her belt several individual shows featuring her lithographs and wood-engravings, one at the New York City Public Library in 1923 and another at the influential Weyhe Gallery in New York City in 1926.  It was after attending the Weyhe Gallery exhibition of her work that Ernestine Evans, the children's editor at Coward-McCann, approached Ga'g with the proposal of illustrating a children's book, Ouida's The Nuremberg Stove. Evans was impressed by Ga'g's work, which she described as beautiful, very simple, and full of the wonder of common things. Evans wanted to enlist America's artists in the service of children, and Ga'g was at the top of her list.

The Nuremberg Stove never happened. As it turned out, Ga'g had previously submitted several children's books to publishers without generating so much as a nibble. With Evans, Ga'g wrote, rewrote and revised one of those books, which became the wildly successful Millions of Cats. Other books followed, The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1931), The ABC Bunny (1933), Gone is Gone, or, the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (1935), Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917 (1940), and Nothing at All (1941).  Ga'g also translated, adapted and illustrated a number of Grimm's fairy tales, winning a Caldecott Medal runner-up in 1939 for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The illustration of children's books, prior to Ga'g's arrival on the scene, was viewed as a not quite respectable undertaking for "serious" artists, but Wanda Ga'g changed all that.  She took to book illustration the same dedication and commitment she applied to her fine arts work, and the world of children's picture books is infinitely the richer that she did.

Book #19: The ABC Bunny (1933) by Wanda Ga'g, illustrated by Wanda Ga'g. 34 pages.

Wanda Ga'g was often asked by children if she drew her characters from models or from memory. She did both.  In the case of The ABC Bunny, Ga'g studied dozens of rabbits, finally selecting one little snub-nosed specimen as her hero, sketching her live model in a myriad of different poses.

The ABC Bunny is an alphabet book that tells a story.  When a big, red apple crashes down from its tree, it startles the sleeping little bunny, who dashes off to Elsewhere. Along the way the little bunny meets a variety of creatures, including a lazy Lizard, a jaunty Jay, a prickly Porcupine and some very unpleasant weather (G for Gale! H for Hail!).  Finally, the little bunny heads back to Bunny Town, is welcomed home by family and friends, and the tale is over.

Like the majority of Ga'g's books, the artwork in The ABC Bunny is black and white, the only color relief being the bright red capital letters of the alphabet that appear at the start of each page.

The ABC Bunny was a family affair, with Ga'g's brother Howard hand lettering the text, and her baby sister, Flavia, an illustrator in her own right, composing the ABC Song appearing in the front and back of the book.

The ABC Bunny Song on YouTube

I love The ABC Bunny above all but one* of the wealth of alphabet books out there because it tells a story, and is not just a list random objects whose names happen to start with a certain letter.  Stories are always better than lists, stories are almost always better than anything.

Artwork is always subjective but quality is not.  Whether of not Ga'g's work appeals to you, the superior quality of her work is indisputable.  I love it.  It's deceptively simple, warm and never an assault on the senses. Her writing style reflects her background, a childhood grounded in folk and fairy tales, another of my favorite types of stories, so this book is a win-win for me anyway you look at it.  And for you.

The ABC Bunny was a Newbery Honor runner-up in 1934.

The good news is that most of Ga'g's books are available through the University of Minnesota Press.  If you don't already have Millions of Cats, The ABC Bunny, or Done is Done, or, the Man Who Wanted to Do Housework in your collection, there's no time like the present.  Pair any one of them with Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw by Deborah Kogan Ray and present them together, a small glimpse of the big picture.

The kids will love you for it.

The ABC Bunny at the University of Minnesota Press

Wanda Ga'g (rhymes with JOG) was born on March 11, 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, the oldest of seven children of Bohemian immigrants, Anton Gag and his wife, Elisabeth, called Lissi, Biebl.  Wanda's father was an artist who made his living painting and decorating churches and houses in the New Ulm area. A fine artist himself, the son of a woodcarver from the Bohemian Forest, Anton encouraged all his children's artistic endeavors, and was particularly close to Wanda.  New Ulm at that time was a truly European village, German being the dominant language, and Wanda did not speak English until she started school. The family was close-knit, loving and supportive. Wanda later described typical evenings filled with music, story-telling and drawing. She described her "drawing fits", periods where she would block out the world and draw, as beginning in her childhood.

When Wanda was fourteen, he father died of tuberculosis. On his deathbed, Anton reiterated to his oldest the importance of her pursing her artistic career, a career denied him, by telling her, "Was der Papa night thin knot, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen." In English, "What Papa has left undone, Wanda will have to do."

This was a formidable task. With a sickly mother and six younger siblings, Wanda became the de facto head of the household.  Determined to keep the family together, and insistent that each child should earn a high school diploma, Wanda supported the family through a combination of insurance money, sales of her sketches and stories to magazines, painting lampshades, and designing greeting cards and calendars, all while attending high school. Food and other necessities were scarce, and Wanda was criticized by many who believed that she should quit school and take a solid job to support the family. Thankfully, she didn't listen.

Eventually, after the next two sisters graduated high school and could contribute financially, Wanda accepted a scholarship to study at the Minneapolis Art School.  When her mother died in 1916, she moved some of her younger siblings in with her, and continued studying and working. The series of journals and diaries she kept during those years were later published in 1940 as Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917.

In 1917, Wanda won a scholarship to the Art Student's League in New York City, where she studied, continued to support her family, and gained financial security as a commercial artist in fashion illustration. It wasn't enough, and it wasn't what she wanted. Taking her savings, she secured a house in Connecticut, in the countryside, where she focused on her art, and developed her individual style. Critical success followed, along with her fateful meeting with Ernestine Evan, launching Ga'g on an additional career of children's book author and illustrator.  In 1930, Ga'g married Earle Humphreys, a salesman, and the two resided at "All Creation", a country estate in New Jersey, along with Ga'g's brother Howard, and sister, Flavia.

In 1946, Wanda Ga'g died of lung cancer in New York City. She was 53 years old.

Wanda Gag Papers at the University of Minnesota

Wanda Gag Papers at Penn State University

Wanda Gag Papers at the University of Southern Mississippi

In May of 1947, less than a year after her death, The Horn Book published a commemorative issue devoted to Wanda Ga'g. The issue contained articles about Ga'g by friend and biographer Alma Scott, founder and director of the Weyhe Gallery, Carl Zigrosser, Coward-McCann editor and director Ernestine Evans, editor Rose Dobbs, artist and illustrator Lynd Ward, and her husband Earle Humphreys. They are wonderful articles, reflecting the love, respect and admiration each felt for Wanda Ga'g.  There's a motherlode of information here that goes well beyond the scope of a blogpost, but I do want to share two points before I go.

The first is from the article by Lynd Ward, entitled Wanda Ga'g, Fellow Artist.  This is what Ward had to say about her art:

     …grounded in a very basic sympathy. Despite the great success that her books
     brought her, her spiritual home was always among those, both artists and laymen,
     who were pushed around by circumstances and less than well treated by a world
     that in our lifetime has too often seemed patterned more for the strong and ruthless
     than for those who, to put it more obliquely, believe that cats and trees and
     old spinning wheels are pretty important in the scheme of things.
                                                                                            (The Horn Book, May/June 1947)

The second is from the article by her husband, Earle Humphreys, entitled Letters from Children to Wanda Ga'g.  A group of schoolchildren, asked to vote for their favorite illustrator and give the reason why, voted for Wanda Ga'g. One of the reasons given, by a child unaware of the artist's death, was this:

     "She was so young and she drew such lovely pictures."

That she was, and she did.

 *The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) by Edward Gorey.  Most definitely NOT for children.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article about Gág. The University of Pennsylvania Libraries also has a significant Wanda Gág collection: