4/18/2013 - Strega Nona, the plump, big-nosed Italian woman who has a knack for making just the right amount of pasta, is a well-known fictional character throughout New Hampshire’s elementary schools.
Forty years after the original Strega Nona was first published, New London author Tomie dePaola is still in awe at how well-received his children’s books became, particularly those featuring this headscarf-wearing Italian woman.
“I’m still blown away,” he said in a phone interview last week.
His success has won him numerous awards, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, Newbery Medals, the Golden Kite Award, the Aesop Prize, the Caldecott, and the Jeremiah Ludington Medals. He’s not quite sure what it is about this old woman that kids are so attracted to, but he suspects it might be that she’s warm, friendly and funny-looking. Plus, she does magic.
dePaola’s work extends beyond Strega Nona, beyond children’s book illustration. At 78, he still paints every day in the 200-year-old renovated barn attached to his rural New London home, but he also makes prints, etchings and abstract paintings, and he practices calligraphy.
These works (in addition, of course, to his world-famous illustrations) will decorate the Mill Brook Gallery & Sculpture Garden this spring. This is not the first time his work has been seen at the gallery — some of his illustrations were part of a larger exhibition featuring work by children’s book illustrators a few years back — but for many of the pieces, this is the first time the artwork will be for sale.
Some of these paintings were held on to for sentimental purposes.
“Whenever I’m working on a book, there are always one or two illustrations that speak to me deeper,” he said. “Sometimes it’s in illustrating a personal experience that I like. Or it’s the color and shapes in the painting. ... But this year I’m releasing them. The originals haven’t been seen. I decided it’s time to let them loose.”
The display will feature canvas paintings that aren’t as recognizable as well, featuring soft orange squashes, pumpkins, pink apple trees, pale orange pear trees, watermelons and pansies. Viewers may recognize some illustrations from books; some have no such affiliation.
But they all have that Tomie dePaola-likeness about them: simply drawn but full of color and character.
“I think if someone is very familiar with my work, they’ll see the relationship,” dePaola said. “Sometimes, what will happen, if I’m working on a series of paintings, is that it will kick off an image I want to use in a book. Sometimes books will kick off an idea in a painting. But many of these pieces are meant to stand alone, meant just to be images enjoyed.”
Gallery owner Pam Tarbell says that dePaola is likely the best-known children’s author in New Hampshire.
“The shapes in his paintings are simple, but his illustrations are very well done,” Tarbell said as she gestured to a pink, blue and orange illustration from his picture book.
The image was of a young boy blowing bubbles with his cat, from Benny’s Big Bubble.
“My publisher works very hard to get the reproduction as beautiful as possible,” dePaola said. “But no matter how good the reproduction, people will often say the originals are so much more beautiful. And I say, ‘Of course they are!’ The printing process only uses four different color inks.”
The exhibit offers a chance to show work near his home.
“I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to show work close by,” dePaola said. These next seven months will make up for that. Besides his show at the Mill Brook Gallery, one of his paintings, “Artist at Work,” is also up for grabs at the Friends Program auction on May 3 in Concord (friendsprogram.org/events/auction). This fall, Colby-Sawyer College in New London will host an exhibition, “Tomie dePaola: Then and Now,” featuring his artwork from junior high through the mid-1970s.
“It’s interesting to see my work when I was 12. I wasn’t very good,” dePaola chuckled. “My work has changed, but it hasn’t. If anything, it’s gotten more refined.”
Practice, he says, is essential to his painting. So is his barn work space.
“I have a painting area, an illustration area, and my assistant has an office in the structure. My dog, Brontë, has eight beds here,” dePaola said, laughing. “It’s just inspiring to come in here every morning.”
He’s looking forward to showing because he loves New Hampshire — and his New London home in particular.
“I’m the kind of artist who needs that sort of quiet. I’d have too many distractions if I were in the city. I’d be out all of the time — at a restaurant, at the theater, at the night clubs,” he said.
Back when he lived in New York City, he said, he got along with very little sleep.
“The minute the sun went down, I went out!” he said.
And New Hampshire, he said, was where he came up with some of his most popular work. He’s told the story many times. His book were just beginning to get noticed, and his editor, Ellen Roberts, suggested he look into re-telling a folk tale.
But he wasn’t thinking about that while he was drawing during a faculty meeting at Colby Sawyer (they thought he was taking notes). He had started drawing the Italian commedia dell’arte character Punchinello but found himself creating an old Italian woman instead.
He wasn’t thinking about using her specifically for this folk tale story when he first drew Strega Nona, but he made a note to keep the drawing.
“I never dismiss an idea because I never know where it’s going to lead to ... I don’t judge them, either. I let them develop. I’m never surprised if an idea I put aside comes back or leads to something else. It could be a doorway to something really remarkable,” dePaola said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned in being an artist. You never know when the brilliant ideas will come.”