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Drawing Stories: Four Illustrators for Kids at Hess Gallery

Ed Shems, "Hop and Skip," digital.

By Kristin Wissler

The Hess Gallery at Pine Manor College is displaying a different sort of exhibition this summer. Instead of serious fine art pieces, whimsical pictures decorate the walls. “Drawing Stories,” displays the artwork of four children’s book illustrators: Priscilla Alpaugh, Wayne Geehan, Ed Shems and Toby Williams. Their fun, yet technically beautiful pictures show that drawing for children is an art all its own.

Priscilla Alpaugh’s pieces are from the children’s book Hold This!, a story by Carolyn Cory Scoppettone about a little girl finding little treasures to hold as she walks through a forest with her father. The sketchy lines of Alpaugh’s pencil work give a sense of playfulness to her pieces. The colors are light and gentle on the eyes, creating a relaxing mood within the work. The endpaper art of Hold This! is particularly sweet, showing several woodland animals each carrying their own small treasure.

Wayne Geehan, on the other hand, uses deeper, lusher colors to evoke atmosphere. Of all his pieces being displayed at the Hess Gallery, perhaps his best is “Troll Bridge,” which depicts a ghastly troll emerging from beneath a bridge as a terrified knight crosses above. His deft use of shadow amplifies the emotion of the scene and makes the ugly troll all the more frightening and the passing knight all the more frightened. Geehan does a good job making the picture scary enough to give a child a shiver without giving him or her nightmares.

Toby Williams was the illustrator for Ilona Kemeny Stashko’s The Secret Treasures of Coco Island, a story about a group of pirates looking for treasure but finding talking parrots instead. Not only are his finished pieces shown, but some process sketches as well. The work starts out as pencil sketches and ends as cut and collaged paper. The bright colors and almost 3D medium give the works a tropical feel and serve the story being illustrated well.

Ed Shems has an assortment of digital illustrations on view, including “Hop and Skip,” which shows a young boy with a technological gadget on his arm and a frog in a purple shirt seemingly about to face a foe not pictured — or to start a big adventure. No one drawing of his is the same, nor does each one use the same style, as he uses the digital medium to its fullest. “Hop and Skip,” while fun and lighthearted, has an undertone of seriousness in the dark background and the expressions of the characters that older viewers can appreciate.

I spoke to Shems via email about his work and why he draws for children. His biggest influence is his own two children, whom he strives to entertain. As he wrote, “My Instagram description includes: ‘If it makes my kids laugh then it’s gold.’” To him, illustration is especially rewarding in and of itself. He highly values in collaborating with an author or publisher to create the best illustrations possible.

For Shems, it always comes back to the children themselves. He wrote that he’s demonstrated his illustration process at his son’s school, and takes pride in inspiring the next generation of artists. “It really helps to meet a person who draws books (and authors as well!) so they can see how the process works and they might start creating their own books or artwork and then one day become my competition,” he said. “Uh oh.” Competition aside, I’m sure that Shems and all the other illustrators in the “Drawing Stories” exhibition would agree that if the showing inspires even one child to become an illustrator, it’ll have been worth it.

(“Drawing Stories: Four Illustrators for Kids” runs through August 1 at the Hess Gallery at Annenberg Library at Pine Manor College, 400 Heath St., Chestnut Hill, Mass. For more information. call (617) 731-7157.)