History comes alive
A brunch with Wendell Minor & David McCullough
“Two-thirds of what goes into a painting you never see.”
— Wendell Minor
If you’re unfamiliar with the name of Wendell Minor, his works of illustration are no further away than your local library, bookshop or the shelf in your children’s room. A prolific artist, with a career spanning almost a half-century, he has produced 2,000 book jacket covers and artwork for some 50 children’s stories, many of which he’s also authored. His precise line and jeweler’s eye for details can now be viewed at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum through May 26.
Minor and the historian David McCullough have been friends for the past 40 years. In 1972, the illustrator produced the book cover design for “The Great Bridge,” McCullough’s definitive story of the historic span linking Brooklyn to New York.
“I really wanted to meet the person who’d done the jacket because I so admired it,” McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, told museum members on a recent Sunday morning. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but in came this hippie, with hair down to his shoulders.”
A smiling Minor then stroked his own bald head, suggesting the breadth of time that had passed. Since that meeting, the artist has created all but one of the historian’s book cover designs.
“He has been a great teacher and a great mentor,” Minor said of his colleague. “(He) has shown me that my early childhood value, of an appreciation of history, is an ongoing process.”
If you’ve never read any of McCullough’s books, you’d be familiar with his narrations for the PBS series “The American Experience.” He’s also lent his distinctive, sonorous voice to several of filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentaries, ranging from “The Civil War” and “The Statue of Liberty” to “The Congress.”
Minor’s artistic style draws inspiration from such icons as Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth and Rockwell Kent. A well-known image is his steadfast profile of our 33rd president for McCullough’s “Truman.”
“He’s highly successful in his chosen field,” the historian said. “He has some faults that I’ll get to later,” McCullough joked, bringing a gale of laughter from the audience.
Accolades aside, the two men spoke more of grave issues than of gravy during their discussion.
“We both have the concern that we have a nation of historically illiterate children,” Minor said.
“It’s a serious problem,” McCullough added. “One that a number of us have been trying to address for about 25 years or more.”
The author recalled a lecture he’d given at a California University which he chose not to identify. During the question and answer period, a bright young coed asked
“Aside from Harry Truman and John Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?”
“I said ‘Appearances notwithstanding, I had not met Mr. Truman or Mr. Adams,’” the 80-year-old noted. “(The students) had no idea when they lived. At least, that’s my interpretation.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient was just warming up. He recalled another experience when a young woman gushed to him that “until you talked this morning I hadn’t realized that all of the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”
McCullough explained that the educational abyss was only partially the student’s fault. The difficulty, in his opinion, is that school teachers often graduate with a degree in education, rather than a specific field.
“You can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know,” he said. “The greatest teachers are the ones that bring their love of the subject to the classroom.”
For the past 25 years Minor has directed energies to the illustration and frequent authorship of children’s books engaged with the story of our country. Subjects have ranged from big names in the Colonial era to Abraham Lincoln, John James Audubon and the Wright Brothers to the artist Edward Hopper and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“He’s all over the lot as history should be,” McCullough said. “It isn’t just a department ... it’s all part of the same thing. It ought to be taught that way, written that way, perceived that way.”
The artist as historian
But for perseverance, talent and a certain vision, the formidable artistic career of the 69-year-old Minor may have never been. His first-grade teacher, Miss Coddington, wrote to his parents that, regarding independent reading, “Wendell seems to be at a loss as to know how to do it.”
Calling himself “a recovering dyslexic,” the artist had difficulty in grade school identifying words and letters correctly.
“In my day, there was no word for it, except ‘you were slow,’” Minor said. He was placed in a special reading classes.
“You sort of wore a ‘scarlet letter’ with a big ‘S,’ not for Superman, but for ‘slow.’ That always bothered me,” the artist said.
“I like to talk to the kids who are slow, because you know what? That’s Bill Gates, that’s Steven Jobs, that’s Thomas Edison. Some of the most creative people who ever lived were slow. They learned at their own pace, in a different way.”
By fourth grade, Minor knew that he had a profound visual acuity. Obsessed with pictures, he wanted to become an artist.
Instilled with a love of the outdoors from a childhood spent in the rural heartland of Aurora, Ill., he set out for New York soon after graduating art school.
Within three weeks, he was hired by the illustrator Paul Bacon, well-known for his cover designs of classic bestsellers from “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Sophie’s Choice” to “Catch-22.”
Just two years after arriving in New York, Minor owned his own art and design studio.
His highly detailed technique in watercolor and gouache is light and airy, dramatically capturing starlit skies with crescent moons or sunny days overflowing with promise.
He’s also studious in understanding subject matter. For Anita Silvey’s story “Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot,” Minor immersed himself in the study of the poorly educated Bay Stater, who, in a masterstroke assisted in driving the British from Boston during the Revolutionary War.
Over a six-week period in the winter of 1776, Knox led teams of oxen, cannons and men 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights. To add accuracy to his illustrations, Minor found rare Randall Lineback oxen, the same breed that undertook the journey, in a New York pasture just waiting to be sketched.
To add authenticity to Jean Craighead George’s book “The Wolves Are Back,” he traveled to Yellowstone Park to sketch the animals in the wild. For Silvey’s account of Amelia Earhart’s 1932 flight across the Atlantic, he found a duplicate of her Lockheed Vega and posed a model in the cockpit to create the proper image.
“We’re storytellers,” Minor said. “Just as we were when we drew on the cave walls. We’re still trying to document our existence, trying to say ‘We were here.’”
A view to last horizon
McCullough stressed that historians too often mistakenly chronicle an era based upon politics and military events, often overlooking the endeavors of the human spirit.
The historian recalled his occasional frustrations with PBS executives while working on “The American Experience.”
“Let’s do a special on Edison, I’d say.”
“No, no, that’s for ‘NOVA’” was the response.
“Let’s do Willa Cather.”
“Oh, no, no. That’s for ‘American Masters.’”
“Pretty soon they were discarding all the suggestions and we’re right back to politics and the military,” he said.
McCullough was asked what he found most annoying about American culture.
“It would be a long list,” he said. “The decline in courtesy, manners, the abysmal use of the English language.”
“Imagine if John Kennedy had said ‘Ask not, like, y’know, like y’know man, what your country can do for you, actually do ...’”
McCullough said that he often knew historical characters better than his friends “because for one thing, in real life you don’t get to read other people’s mail.”
He concluded with sage advice, noting that nowadays important people usually don’t keep diaries out of fear of a subpoena.
“If any of you are interested in immortality, keep a diary,” he said. “When you feel the curtain about to come down, send it off to a historical society. It’ll be quoted for hundreds of years because it will be the only diary in existence!”
Laughter and applause filled the room.
Also on exhibit is the fairy tale art of Ruth Sanderson, who, from her Golden Wood Studio in Easthampton, has created some 80 children’s books. Her works range from “Mother Goose and Friends” and “Cinderella” to “The Snow Princess” and “The Firebird.”
“I paint what I love,” the artist said recently to a Springfield reporter. “I don’t take jobs where I don’t care for the subject. If it appeals to me, I will definitely paint it.”
In viewing her 64 artworks on display, you’ll find that her labors are as intricately painstaking as Norman Rockwell’s. She uses story boards to track her narratives and costumed models to pose for medieval scenes that are then rendered virtually photographic in rainbows of colors.
“Wendell Minor’s America” continues through May 26 and an eponymous 144-page exhibition catalogue is also available at the museum. “Dancing Princesses: The Fairy Tale Art of Ruth Sanderson” continues through March 9. Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Open weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day. Adults, $16; college students with ID, $10; ages 6 to 18, $5. The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. For more information, www.nrm.org.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.