Litchfield County Times

02/07/2008

The Inner Artist Comes Out

By: Nancy Barnes

Nancy White Cassidy makes a good argument for choosing the right career. The New Milford resident, whose studio takes up the lower level of her home high on a semi-rural hill, spent 20 years working for a phone company, while stage fright impeded her pursuit, albeit as a serious hobby, of the piano. "Ever since I could walk and talk, I drew," said the diminutive woman who now works as an illustrator. "I have drawings from when I was four years old that are so highly realistic. I always drew, and very realistically.

"My parents had no money," she continued. "So, they told me when I was in high school, either you pay for your own college, or you have to go to work. I didn't have any support for college, so I didn't know where to start. By the 12th grade, I was through with school. So, I went to the phone company ... . I took the test and I got in. But I hated it. I hated it. I hated it," said Ms. Cassidy, who spent the last 14 years of her tenure with the phone company as a technician in a central office.

"It wasn't until I met my husband, Larry," she said of her astrophysicist husband, "and he saw my drawings, and he said, 'Why don't you go to school?' He said, 'You have to have an education.' He understood the value of an education. ... I went to [Western Connecticut State University]. I went in, and I was on the dean's list for all four years," said the illustrator, noting that she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in art with a concentration in illustration in 1996. She took her Master of Fine Arts in illustration degree in 2006.

"It was something I didn't think would every happen. You start to see possibilities in your life where you didn't think you had any," she enthused. After taking her undergraduate degree, Ms. Cassidy taught at art associations and community colleges, serving, among other responsibilities, as a juror for the Connecticut Scholastic Art Awards, where she judged high and middle school submissions for entry into the National Competition in Washington, D.C.

Since taking her master's degree, she has concentrated on her work as an illustrator, even forming a monthly critique group for illustrators of children's books. From the 1880s through the mid-20th century, the golden age of illustration was nourished by the mass production of books and magazines. Among the publications in which illustrations ran was Harper's Monthly, launched as a general interest magazine in 1850. Life magazine debuted as a humor magazine in 1883, with what was initially called Collier's Weekly first published in 1888.

"Howard Pyle," said Ms. Cassidy, citing the legendary figure (1853 to 1911) who is viewed as the father of American illustration. "At Collier's magazine, he had carte blanche to create whatever he wanted where the magazine fell open, right in the center of the magazine-that's generally where he had a spread. It didn't necessarily illustrate a story. It was just something he wanted to do and it went into that magazine," she said of the latitude Mr. Pyle enjoyed.

Today, much illustration appears in children's books, and, according to Ms. Cassidy, much of children's illustration is educational-and even that field is awash in a new order. "Especially in the educational field, they don't want to talk to the illustrator," said Ms. Cassidy. "The agent does the legwork, and a lot of publishing houses now, especially in educational, they subcontract onto book packagers and book studios. I would say 50 percent of my work now comes out of these packagers and book studios.

Pearson, which is the largest educational publisher, used to have on-staff art directors, art buyers ... they probably had illustrators on staff. And now what they do is they subcontract out the art buying and design portion. And they'll subcontract out to places called packagers. The packagers find the artist. They commission the artwork. ... It's a different world. It's a totally different world."

"We have to be constantly creating samples," she said. "My agent [takes them into New York]. "That's how we get jobs. And every illustrator here that I know of is always creating samples, all the time. So, in between jobs, we're creating new ideas, new samples that our agents can take around."

She noted that large projects, such as illustrations used for wraparound murals for buildings, do exist, but she is realistic about who gets them, and why. "People who are in my age bracket have been at this for 30 years," she said. "I'm getting better and better jobs, but some of my colleagues get incredible jobs. They've been in the business so long."

An honor that recently came her way was her selection as a participant in an exhibition at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport entitled "Illustrating Connecticut: People, Places and Things." In the exhibition, according a release, "leading illustrators whose work has appeared in national publications will act as 'storytellers,' conveying such things as the rocky solitude of Connecticut's farms, its inventors (Elias Howe; the sewing machine), its military contributions ... and the shaping of a national identity through a shared language (Noah Webster)."

There, Ms. Cassidy, who said the direction of her work is taking a more historical bent, will exhibit with Connecticut illustrators as prominent as Westport's Bernard Fuchs. She will display a work entitled "Shhh! You must be quiet!" that depicts the underground railroad, with a fictitious Quaker family assisting slaves in their escape from the South.

Deborah Calhoun, director of the Afrikan-American Cultural Awareness Association Inc. that oversees New Milford's annual walking tour of the local underground railway, was, Ms. Cassidy said, a great help to her, speaking with her at length and putting her in touch with a New Milford couple who now own a barn that was one of the area's safe houses for slaves.

"I visited the barn on Old Town Park Road," said Ms. Cassidy, who uses photographs for reference material and as a guide-nine or 10 times, she said, for figures. "John and Julie Parker's barn. They let me into the barn, and I took probably 100 photos in there. But for the story I had in my head that I wanted to do, the barn itself, as is, didn't work. So, I took bits and pieces of my photos and I incorporated them into that ... ."

She also has created a series of illustrations that accompany a children's picture book she wrote entitled "Pat and the Longjohns Run," for which she is currently seeking a publisher, that is loosely based on her father's youth during the 1920's in far northern Maine. The works in the series highlight her switch in 2006 from pastels to acrylics, a medium which gives the style of the images she now creates a more deliberate look.

Ms. Cassidy is a member of the New England Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, the College Art Association and the Washington Art Association, where she has studied life drawing to continue to hone her skills. As for the piano that Ms. Cassidy found freighted with stage fright, she sold it to create her studio space, having found that her stage fright does not accompany her career in art.

"I was a very serious pianist, but I could never able to get over stage fright, which is really weird because, with this, I am able to give demos in front of huge groups of people," she said. "This I have a lot of confidence in. I didn't have confidence in my playing the piano. So, one day I came downstairs and my [Steinway] piano was there-a gorgeous piano, gorgeous-and I made the choice and called Steinway, and they bought it sight unseen. So, it's a great space, because I have my office down here and I'm able to teach down here," she said, gazing around her studio where some of her work hangs on the walls.

"Either your work speaks for itself or it doesn't," she said of the career she practices now.

"Illustrating Connecticut: People, Places and Things" will remain on display in the Burt Chernow Galleries at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport until April 4. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Ms. Cassidy's Web site is http://www.nancycassidy.com.

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