Litchfield County Times
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.
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."
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
"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.