Whimsical and inspiring, illustrators' works earn a whole show at the Housatonic Museum

New Haven (CT) Register
03-02-2008

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 home."

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 work."

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 servant.

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 1895.

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"
Where: The Burt Chernow Galleries, Housatonic Museum of Art, 900 Lafayette Blvd., Bridgeport
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
Admission: Free
Info: (203) 332-5052, hcc.commnet.edu/artmuseum
Judy Birke of New Haven is a freelance writer and art consultant.

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