Whimsical and inspiring, illustrators' works earn a whole show at
the Housatonic Museum
New Haven (CT) Register
By Judy Birke, Contributing Writer
BRIDGEPORT -- Everybody loves those clever illustrations that appear
on the covers and in the pages of major publications like The New York
Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Rolling
Stone and Sports Illustrated, to name a few.
But nobody loves them more than Robbin Zella. For Zella, director
of the Housatonic Museum of Art, the illustrations became the inspiration
for an extraordinary exhibition. "Illustrating Connecticut: People,
Places, Things," currently on view at The Burt Chernow Galleries
at the museum, has been a real labor of love, which Zella, its curator,
refers to "as a valentine to the state of Connecticut," and
she's not wrong.
"In doing this show I sort of have fallen in love with Connecticut
and found a real appreciation for the people who were born here, or
those, like Mark Twain (an illustration of Twain is in the show), who
did some of their most important work here and came to call Connecticut
The exhibit of works in various media by 33 leading illustrators is
an exploration of the history and culture of Connecticut through the
art of illustration. The stories they tell are informative, humorous
and aesthetically appealing. Each piece is accompanied by a wall label
that offers meticulously researched contextual information.
"Two years ago, we started going through the art in the historical
societies of all the towns in the state to see what each town was most
proud of. I went to 169 historical societies and discovered all sorts
of things, like Colchester, for instance, was proud of its reputation
as a home for vulcanized rubber, while Danbury was proud of its title
as the hat city."
Explains Zella, "I called up all these illustrators. Not all
of them are from Connecticut, but their images are of Connecticut.
Initially, I wanted to get them to do something specific for the show,
but that was impossible for some artists, so we came up with a balance.
Some of the works already existed, some are contemporary, done specifically
for the exhibit. As it turned out, this was a really good thing, with
different artists suggesting others whom I didn't even know about."
Robert Crawford, for example, who's been featured on the cover of
Yankee magazine and created the softly rendered illustration "Sugar
Time," (2001) that so embodies the state's production of maple
syrup, suggested that Zella contact Nancy White Cassidy, whose haunting
illustration "Shhh, You Must be Quiet," (2007) was inspired
by the escaped slaves of the Underground Railroad and the New Milford
Quakers who assisted them.
Notes Zella, "The thing that is so fabulous about the state is
that everybody was here. Since colonial times, Connecticut has been
a major player in business, technology, literature and art. In view
of the leading role, it's appropriate that we have some of the most
important illustrators in America today capture its prominence in their
The works run the gamut and are wonderful.
A series of pencil drawings like "Elias Howe Patents the Sewing
Machine," "Simon Lake Builds Submarines" and "New
London Whaling Industry" (all c. 1940), by the late Walter O.R.
Korder, an important Connecticut illustrator during the W.P.A. period,
reveal the state as one of inventors and industries, while his "Capture
of Nathan Hale" points to its status as one of great patriots.
Christopher Passehl offers a contemporary take on "Benedict Arnold" (2007),
who, though his name remains synonymous with treason, at one time owned
a successful apothecary and shipping business in New Haven.
"I was as interested in Benedict Arnold as I was in Nathan Hale,
and I felt I had to give them both the same attention."
A highlight of the show is "The Original Mad Hatter" (2007),
a colored drawing by Blaine Kruger of New Haven, the image based on
Zadoc Benedict's hat factory, which opened in Danbury in 1780, earning
the town the title of hat capital of the world. The founder, reputed
to be insane, inspired the term, "mad as a hatter."
Merle Nacht of New Haven includes some lyrical illustrations of the
Old State House in Hartford (1997), the oldest state house in the United
States, and "Connecticut Cookbook" (1995), the first American
cookbook published in Hartford in 1796, purportedly written by a domestic
In Leslie Cober-Gentry's humorous watercolor collage, "The First
Hamburger Comes From New Haven" (2007), the artist pays tribute
to the Lassen family, founders of Louis' Lunch on Crown Street in New
Haven, which lays claim to serving the first hamburger in America in
John Dyke's wonderfully whimsical illustrations of offbeat eateries,
hot-dog joints and doughnut shops in the state, like "O'Rourke's
Diner" (2000), for example, (the concept of the diner originated
in New England) in Middletown, or "Swanky Franks," (2000)
in Norwalk, revel in the various histories of fast food and roadside
architecture, the imagery including all sorts of narratives that introduce
one to the eclectic cast of characters that hangs out in those snack
shacks. A sign warning that "your life will never be complete
if you don't experience the cheeseburger, grilled onion, french fries,
thick shake and congenial atmosphere of Swanky Franks," graces
the illustration. Somehow you can't help but believe it.
The late Steven Dohanos, who painted more than 125 Saturday Evening
Post Magazine" covers and founded the Famous Artists' School,
is represented by "Fourth of July Parade, Bridgeport" (1947),
a painting of local family, flags and homecoming from war.
But Zella had much more up her sleeve. She wanted the exhibit to be
more than just a display of Connecticut's great imagery and ideas.
"I wanted to tie it in with tourism. I wanted to create a mini-round
trip around the state. How many times do you drive by a historic marker
and never really look? If they never knew it, would people go to Flanders
Nature Center in Woodbury and participate in making syrup? Would they
go to the underground railroad walking tour in New Milford?
"I felt so proud of Connecticut and its history. There's so much
more here that hasn't been capitalized enough and hasn't been presented
in a way that makes it a destination trip. I want them to come here
and go there. A slogan could be we're on the way -- so why not stop?"
Title: "Illustrating Connecticut: People, Places, Things"
The Burt Chernow Galleries, Housatonic Museum of Art, 900 Lafayette
When: Through April 4; 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays,
9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays
Info: (203) 332-5052, hcc.commnet.edu/artmuseum
Judy Birke of New Haven
is a freelance writer and art consultant.
(c) 2008 New Haven Register - a Journal Register Property. All Rights