The artwork of six regional children’s book illustrators comes alive in imaginative and interactive ways in Miller Art Museum’s current exhibit, Beyond Words: The Art of Regional Children’s Book Illustration.
Designed to engage visitors of all ages, Beyond Words is a colorful exploration of children’s literature – both classic and modern – and the illustrations that help tell these stories. It incorporates hands-on activities, learning and reading spaces, and a delightful re-creation of the popular Alice in Wonderland scene, the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Inspiration for the exhibit came from the Miller Art Museum’s permanent collection, where the original illustrations of Baileys Harbor artist Malin “Tudy” Ekman reside. Ekman illustrated the 1988 edition of the World Book classic Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass.
“She’s done illustrations for everything from beer commercials to the sides of buses down to these smaller, more intimate things,” curator Deb Rosenthal said. “We had never featured her before so we took that as a starting point.”
Ekman’s artistic renderings of Alice falling through the rabbit hole and talking to the mischievous Cheshire Cat adorn the gallery’s walls. Her works hang alongside those of five other professional children’s book illustrators from Wisconsin, including two other Door County artists (Mary Ellen Sisulak of Ellison Bay and Bonnie Leick of Sister Bay). Enlarged illustrations of Ekman’s Alice, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit guide visitors through each stage of the exhibit.
In addition to the six illustrators, two local artists’ creative works are the centerpoint of a special interactive zone in the center of the gallery.
Jill Harding, also known as “The Sign Fairy” for the encouraging messages she posts on a rustic “Good Thoughts” sign along Garrett Bay Road, is the Ellison Bay author and illustrator behind The Sign Fairy (2015) and Dragonfly Magic (2017). Her books explore transformation and the power of positive thoughts, and pair text with multi-layered collages.
Her artistic and literary work inspires one Beyond Words activity center, where guests can create collages and be their own “sign fairy” by hanging encouraging words on a miniature version of Harding’s “Good Thoughts” sign. Her interactive space is flanked by a sensory exhibit featuring an exuberant, kaleidoscopic painting of local artist Hermke Timm.
There is also a scavenger hunt for each artists’ work, a book-making station, coloring sheets and a comfortable reading space where visitors can view the book versions of the Beyond Words artwork.
“We tried to do a range of things for more or less time that people might have here and layers of things,” Rosenthal said. “So we really encourage people to come more than once.”
The grand finale of Beyond Words is hidden beyond view of the main gallery, though a fanciful entryway and “green grass” carpeting give a hint to what lies beyond.
Upon entering the small gallery at the Miller Art Museum, children are greeted with an array of Alice in Wonderland costumes, from the Queen of Hearts’ red gown to white, rabbit-ear hats. Once properly attired, guests are invited to have a seat at a long table arranged with everything you need to re-create the whimsical Mad Hatter’s tea party. Ekman’s character sketches are properly displayed on the wall, alongside infographics on how picture books come together. Plush treats created by Cedarburg soft sculptor Mindy Sue Wittock await visitors on random platters and plates.
Rosenthal, who will retire at the end of the year, considers Beyond Words to be the most complex show she has helped set up. Since opening Nov. 4, it has proven to be a successful one as well.
“People are really enjoying it. I know they’ll come back so it makes me feel wonderful,” she said. “…The artists who were invited brought beautiful work that people can relate to and we really enjoy showing work by artists outside our immediate area as well as including artists who are in the Door County artist community. That’s a big success point as far as I’m concerned. This really was a collaborative exhibit. Beth [Meissner-Gigstead, executive director] had tremendous input and labor involved in this show, and so did Michael [Nitsch], our museum assistant.”
Beyond Words: The Art of Regional Children’s Book Illustration is on display through Feb. 14, 2018. Admission is free. For more information, call 920.746.0707 or visit facebook.com/millerartmuseum.