Illustrators guild to host art show in Greenfield

  • Diane deGroat made this picture as a cover for “Ladybug” magazine. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Diane deGroat wrote and illustrated books about Gilbert the Opossum, a character she created, for about 20 years. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Sean Wang, a comic book illustrator and writer, made “Last Can” for an exhibit at the Dr. Seuss museum in Springfield. The theme was “cats in hats,” Wang said. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • “Forget Me Not” shows Elisabeth Alba’s interest in medieval and Renaissance imagery, she said. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Elisabeth Alba’s “The Birdcatchers” is based on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • “Moonlight Feast” shows Astrid Sheckels’ recent style, which is less realistic than her past work. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2019 3:26:16 PM

Illustration is the art of telling stories with pictures.
“We tell stories, whether it’s one picture or a whole book,” said Diane deGroat, who lives in Amherst and has been illustrating children’s books for 45 years. “That differentiates it from fine art. It’s art, but its purpose is to enhance a story, or to tell a story without words.”

See what she means at the Greenfield Gallery, which is showing work by 14 members of the Western Massachusetts Illustrators’ Guild, starting tomorrow and running through Oct. 25. There’s an opening reception tomorrow from 6 p.m. to 8, and a closing reception Oct. 25 from 6 p.m. to 8.

The Illustrators’ Guild was founded in 1982 by several members of the Society of Children’s Books Writers, Hatfield chapter. One of the founders was Jane Yolen, a novelist especially known for her children’s books (and a Smith alumna).

For some reason, Western Massachusetts seems to draw illustrators to it, said deGroat, who is also the treasurer of the Illustrators’ Guild. “Dare I say, ‘it’s something in the water,’” she said. “People are beginning to move here because of that.”

The Guild’s website lists 31 members, and the group currently has a cap on membership, deGroat said.

About half the members work primarily in book illustration, deGroat said; others make book covers or imagery for Dungeons and Dragons-type games and other fantasy and science-fiction applications.

The Guild itself is basically a professional network for illustrators to share knowledge of their craft and business, deGroat said.

The illustration business is such that most work is on a freelance basis, deGroat said; and changes to the publishing industry in the last three decades have made it increasingly necessary for artists to have some business acumen.

Harry Potter marks the line between the way the business of children’s books used to work and the present mass-market approach, deGroat said. Ideas now have to go through a publisher’s marketers, who are usually gaming for something that can produce multiple sequels and that address topical issues, deGroat said. It used to be that the editor had the final say on acquisition and his goal was to find good books, rather than to reverse engineer a formula for a hit, deGroat said.

“Now everybody wants a Harry Potter,” she said. “It’s harder to break out and try new faces and new styles.”

The present business model tends to favor books with recognizable brand names, like characters from popular children’s cartoons, because they’ll sell regardless of whether or not they’re good, deGroat said.

But readers can tell the difference, and they prefer good books.

“Teachers love it when they can read a book and discuss it with their kids, as opposed to just having Dora the Explorer finding the treasure,” deGroat said. “I think it’s the duty of libraries and schools to present and have available real literature — books that have an emotional impact, that have literacy, that have a conversation.”

To that end, here are a few of the artists whose work will be at the Greenfield Gallery:

Elisabeth Alba

Beyond book illustrations, Elisabeth Alba has also done stylized maps and a tarot card deck.

“I like to tell stories,” she said. “It can be based on something, and the viewer can make up their own story about it.”

“The Birdcatchers” is based on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” in which the birdman Papageno dreams of meeting a Papagena, Alba said. “Forget Me Not,” a picture of a Renaissance-looking woman playing a lute by the water, doesn’t reference anything specific. It’s a recreation of a similar image Alba made as a teenager, she said, now with the greater technical power of a professional artist.

In college, Alba studied English and art, then earned a master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She started working in illustration in 2008 and has been doing it full-time since 2014. She has now lived in Turners Falls for two years.

Astrid Sheckels

Working mostly with watercolors, Astrid Sheckels writes and illustrates children’s books, and also does portraits and fine art for galleries.

Originally from Hatfield, Sheckels studied art at Greenfield Community College and graduated in 2004, knowing she wanted to work in illustration. She got her first professional work in 2008, illustrating a book called “The Scallop Christmas.”

Differing from that book’s realistic illustrations, Sheckels’ recent work is fantasy-themed and features anthropomorphic animals, like “Moonlight Feast,” a standalone painting she did in July.

Of the seven books Sheckels has illustrated, a book she wrote in 2014 called “Hector the Fox and the Giant Quest” best shows the style she is now exploring, she said. Sheckels, who lives and works out of a studio in Greenfield these days, is working on more “Hector the Fox” books.

Sean Wang

Comic books have been Sean Wang’s medium since the mid-1990s, both through licensed work and his own books.

Drawing was a hobby for Wang growing up in Miami. He went to MIT to study architecture, but found that he was more interested in storytelling, he said. He has been in Massachusetts ever since and now lives in Easthampton.

Wang got into making comic books in the mid-’90s as a way of making the kind of science-fiction story he wanted to read but couldn’t find, he said. (The genre wasn’t especially popular before Star Wars was rebooted, Wang said.)

He came up with a comic called “Runners,” and wrote and illustrated two books’ worth of it, despite not having any experience writing. When Wang brought the project to New England Comics, the company hired him to write and illustrate its “The Tick” series.

Recently Wang has been doing freelance work. He is also working on rebooting his “Runners.” Last year he created plot outlines for books three through 10 in the series, and is now working on book three. The first two books of “Runners” can be read for free online at, or in physical books which will be available at the Greenfield Gallery.

Wang’s “Last Can” was done for a show the Illustrators’ Guild had at the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield. It had to fit the theme of “cats in hats,” he said.

“I wanted an excuse to do a ‘Mad Max’-inspired cat fight,” Wang said.

Diane deGroat

After working in the New York City advertising business immediately after college, Diane deGroat moved into freelance illustration and has been doing it for 45 years now.

“It was a very comforting, low-stress job compared to advertising,” she said.

deGroat’s picture of a girl holding a bird on her arm, which she made as a cover for “Ladybug” magazine, demonstrates her realistic style, in which she uses a real person as a model for reference, she said. “Naptime,” from the “Gilbert the Opossum” series that deGroat has been writing and illustrating for about 20 years, demonstrates her other style.

deGroat is originally from the New York City area, and has lived in Amherst for 22 years, she said.

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