By Christine Hanson McKnight
Editor's note Marcia Brown, B.A.'40, will receive an honorary doctorate of letters from the University at Commencement this May. The University Art Museum is also organizing a major exhibit featuring the work of the celebrated illustrator of children's books in the spring of 1997. (This article appears in the Spring 1996 issue of Albany Magazine.)
At one time, Marcia Brown thought about becoming a doctor. If medical school hadn't been so expensive, she says, she might actually have done that. But as one of three sisters growing up in a minister's family during the Depression, she knew she had to settle on something more practical: teaching.
In the fall of 1936, Brown enrolled in the New York State College for Teachers, the University at Albany's predecessor, where she majored in English and drama. She went on to teach those subjects at Cornwall High School in the lower Hudson Valley, but left the profession after three years to move to New York City and pursue her dream of writing and illustrating children's books.
Today, Brown is an internationally renowned illustrator and author of children's books. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, awarded by the American Library Association for the most distinguished picture book of the year an unprecedented three times, Brown has produced over 30 children's books during her 49-year career. Many of her titles have been produced in other languages, including Afrikaans, German, Japanese, Spanish and Xhosa-Bantu. She is noted for her spare texts, strong images and the vitality of her experimentation with a variety of media ranging from her trademark woodcuts to pen and ink and gouache. Her characters -- lively and humorous, full of magic and enchantment -- include handsome princes, sly cats, evil sorcerers, flying elephants and snow queens.
"My sister, Janet, had graduated from the New York State College for Teachers in 1935. My family didn't have the money to send us to Ivy League Schools. This was the Depression, and we were delighted at the chance to get a good education at a state school," says Brown. "I had wanted to be a doctor and I even minored in biology, but it was just too expensive for me to consider."
At Albany, Brown served as a member of the State College Echo art staff, art editor of the State Lion and co-editor-in-chief of The Statesman. Her humorous sketches of mice, lions and other figures can be seen in University publications from that era. Brown especially recalls studying under the legendary Agnes Futterer of Albany's Department of Theatre and Harold Thompson of the English Department.
Many of the English and drama classes Brown took at Albany proved to be valuable training for her eventual life's work as an author and artist, she said recently. Even the biology minor turned out to be useful later when she developed an interest in nature photography.
"I took elementary dramatics and advanced dramatics, where we got a chance to direct and produce our own plays and act in them. We painted our own scenery. When I think of what Miss Futterer gave us in those courses, it was incredible. She was a brilliant teacher."
Brown studied Shakespeare and creative writing with Thompson. "On Friday afternoons, we used to sing Shakespearean songs, Elizabethan folk songs and English sea chanteys," recalls Brown, who received the University Alumni Association's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1969.
Brown never took an art class at the College for Teachers. But during the summers, she worked at a resort hotel in Woodstock, N.Y., and studied painting with Judson Smith, who remained an important influence.
Brown said she found teaching rewarding, but nevertheless yearned to be an artist.
"I enjoyed the teaching very much, but I wanted to write and paint myself -- and I realized that if I was going to stay up to midnight every night correcting my students' themes, I couldn't do it. I just wouldn't have the energy."
In 1943, at the age of 25, she took a deep breath, left her teaching job and set out for New York City to begin six years of service as a children's librarian with the New York Public Library. Her first four books were finished while she was working in the Library's Central Children's Room, where she gained valuable experience in storytelling and was exposed to the Library's extensive international and historical collections. At the same time, she continued to study painting under Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Stuart Davis at the New School for Social Research.
Brown's first book, The Little Carousel (1946), gained the attention of the critics. The adventure of a lonely little boy who hears the sound of a merry-go-round near his home, it features Brown's vivid description of a bustling neighborhood in Greenwich Village, where she lived upon first arriving in New York City. Her next book, Stone Soup (1947), now considered a classic, firmly established her reputation. The first of many folk tales she would retell and illustrate in her career, it is the story of stingy peasants outwitted by three hungry soldiers. Cinderella (1954), the text of which Brown had translated from the French of Charles Perrault, was her first Caldecott Award.
Her versatility as an artist is demonstrated in her two other Caldecott Award books. Once A Mouse (1961), with illustrations cut in wood and a pared-down text, is based on a fable from ancient India. Shadow (1982), a prose poem translated from the French of Blaise Cendrars, features collages and silhouetted Africans. At first, Brown intended to use woodcuts to tell the story, but arthritis prevented her, so she used a variety of techniques, including paper cutouts and blotted textures.
Mary Ann Heffernan, a Marcia Brown scholar at the University of Tennessee, points out that Brown has never repeated herself.
"What makes each (book) distinct is often a result of her continual exploration into different mediums," Heffernan wrote in one analysis. In 1979, Brown published Listen to A Shape, Touch Will Tell and Walk with Your Eyes, all of which were illustrated by photographs she took during her extensive travels and in the area around her in Connecticut. Her latest work, How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck, is an African folk tale retold by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Brown in felt pen line and water color. It was published last fall.
Now 77, Brown lives in Laguna Hills, Calif. Her studio is a brief walk from her home. She says she plans to continue working on children's books "if the right subject comes along and I feel like doing it. I don't know many artists who retire."
Brown moved to the West Coast in the fall of 1993, leaving her longtime home and studio in the small town of West Redding, Conn. ("The winters in West Redding were getting pretty horrendous," she says.) Before departing, she turned over the bulk of her life's work to the University at Albany. The collection, housed in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, includes 72 linear feet of material. It documents Brown's work from 1942 and presents a complete picture of how an artist develops a children's book, from the inception of an idea through rough drafts, book dummies and original art work to the color separations, final galleys and the published works.
"As far as the length of her career and the sustained quality of her work in a variety of media goes, she is without equal," said Dorothy Christiansen, head of Special Collections and Archives and curator of the Marcia J. Brown Papers. In 1994, Brown donated $10,000 toward organizing, cataloguing and preserving her papers.
She said that a number of universities had approached her about providing a home for her collection, but that she had decided on Albany for several reasons.
"I thought that Albany would be appropriate as a place that has always prepared teachers. I felt the normal tie of affection for the University, which didn't have much of this kind of archival material, whereas other collections, such as the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, had a great deal. I knew my material would be very useful in Albany."
Brown says there are some wonderful children's books being published now, but publishing has changed radically since she began her career in the mid-40s.
"Back then publishers could afford to experiment, but today it has to be a sure thing," she said. "It's caused an unhealthy trend in the field with artists emulating established people like (Maurice) Sendak, instead of developing their own style."
Her advice to artists just starting their careers in children's literature is this: "Be sure you have something to say that a child is going to be interested in, and then give it the best that you have. Study with the best teachers, and don't settle for second-best."