If it hadn’t been for some quick thinking (and perhaps a little lying), the world might never have enjoyed The Polar Express and Jumanji.
As a high school student in East Grand Rapids, Mich., Chris Van Allsburg never took a single art class. But that didn’t stop him from telling a recruiter from the University of Michigan that he wished to attend the university’s art school. When the recruiter looked over Van Allsburg’s transcript he noted the young man’s lack of experience. Van Allsburg replied that he had never taken an art class at school because they were too easy. He had been taking art classes on the weekends for years and was now an accomplished oil painter.
This was a lie.
For a test, the recruiter asked Van Allsburg what he thought about Norman Rockwell. Van Allsburg thought for a moment. Some people loved Rockwell. Others thought he was overrated. What did the recruiter think? Van Allsburg went for it. He told the recruiter Rockwell was unfairly criticized for being sentimental when in reality his paintings captured the American spirit. The recruiter pounded the table in agreement. That’s exactly what I think, he said. Van Allsburg was accepted to the University of Michigan’s art program that day.
Thus, Van Allsburg explained in a phone interview from his new home on Massachusetts’ North Shore, began the career of one of the most successful illustrators of our time, the man who gave the world Jumanji, its sequel Zathura, Two Bad Ants and The Polar Express.
The next year, 1968, the University of Michigan changed its requirements so students needed an art portfolio to get into the art school. Van Allsburg admitted that if he were a high school student today, he wouldn’t be such a wise guy. He would play it straight and probably would have majored in computer science.
“The passage from high school to college is a much bigger deal now,” said Van Allsburg, who is the father of a high school junior and college junior. “There is way more anxiety and stress. Americans have decided the path to success leads through college and the better school the more likelihood for success.”
Van Allsburg is sure to give great first-hand advice when he addresses an audience at the New Hampshire Institute of Art this December. He is one of three big-name speakers the school has secured for the inaugural Distinguished American Artists Discussing Art series (DAaDA). The first artist was Alice Aycock, who is known for her architectural sculptures. Coming on Thursday, Nov. 3, will be photographer, master printmaker, author and workshop instructor John Sexton, who in his early years was Ansel Adams’ protégé.
“These lectures are part of the school’s mission, [and] are essential because they reinforce to students that their goals are obtainable, provide first-person insight to the highest levels of excellence within one’s field, and add to the vibrancy of our community,” Jim Burke, Chair of Illustration at the NHIA, wrote via e-mail.
It was Burke who got Van Allsburg to schedule Manchester into his calendar.
“I’ve been very eager to invite Chris Van Allsburg to NHIA as he is such a powerful presence across multiple generations and genres,” Burke said. “In addition to sharing his biographical journey, he is gearing much of his lecture towards issues of inspiration and creativity, which is sure to ignite all creative types.”
Van Allsburg knows there is plenty for art students to worry about these days as the art world is in flux. While the digitalization of art has created new opportunities, it has also eliminated others.
“It is a complicated world and I’m not sure I am qualified to talk about it,” Van Allsburg said.
He did share some of what he has experienced as an artist — a writer, an illustrator and a sculptor — over the years. He said being an artist means you must be self-motivated.
“When work is going well, I’ll look down at my watch, wondering if it is lunchtime, and see that it is 3 or 4 p.m.,” Van Allsburg said. “When it isn’t going well, I’ll look and it’ll be 10 a.m.”
He said that artists need to find their own compensation for the work they create. It isn’t always public acknowledgement or financial rewards. Sometimes artists can only have that satisfaction for part of the day. He said actors are very familiar with this. Many wait tables and then go to auditions in the evening.
Van Allsburg said he would tell writers to distinguish their need to write from their need to be published. He said if you focus too much on getting published, you may not tap into the part of you that makes you the best writer.
“Publishing is irrelevant to the writing process,” Van Allsburg said. “The work has to be the reward.”
“Of course, that is easy for me to say,” Van Allsburg said.
He said he used to envy people whose work day ended when the tasks set out for them had been completed. As an artist, Van Allsburg said he is reliant on inspiration and self-motivation. This can be a challenge.
While many artists need constant stimulation to inspire them, Van Allsburg said he prefers routine and boredom — when he is bored, his imagination takes over.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time these days for boredom.
In November he will be out promoting his new book, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Burdick is a character Van Allsburg created who allegedly came to a Boston publisher’s office years ago with 14 drawings and captions to stories he had written, told the publisher he would be back the next day with the stories, but was never heard from again. Stephen King saw one of these images and created his own short story to go with it. Van Allsburg’s editor loved the idea and asked a bunch of Young Adult authors, like Lois Lowry and Gregory Maguire, to write stories for the other drawings. The first authors to respond got their first choice of the pictures and the final picture, the unchosen one, was given to Van Allsburg.