Children's book illustrator Alice Provensen busy as ever at 91

Peter Larsen
The Orange County Register (MCT)

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — Alice Provensen acts at first like she doesn't really want to talk about the honors and awards she's earned in a career as a children's book illustrator that reaches back more than 60 years.

The Caldecott Honor and Newbery Medal she and husband Martin Provensen won for "A Visit To William Blake's Inn" back in 1982? Or the Caldecott Medal they earned for "The Glorious Flight" two years later?

"It stays in print forever," the 91-year-old finally allows. "That's the main thing."

The Carle Honors Award she flew to New York City last month to receive?

"Yeah, it's enjoyable," she admits of this latest honor, a lifetime achievement award given each year by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

"Let's face it, it's not a jab in the eye with stick!" Provensen says with a smile that finally reveals a little of the pride she feels for the work she's done in her life. "And you meet other artists and they're very nice."

Oh, and then there's this: "And it gets you more jobs, too!" she adds, sitting in the studio built on to her daughter's San Clemente home.

No resting on laurels here, in other words. For despite reaching her 10th decade, Provensen still has books to illustrate and stories to tell.

As a child, Provensen bounced back and forth between Chicago, where she was born, and Los Angeles, where her mother harbored Hollywood dreams.

"My father and mother didn't get along, and she was always leaving and coming to California," she says. "Hoping that she would get into movies, and if she didn't, maybe I would."

As a sixth grader, Provensen won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago that allowed her to take classes there on weekends and her summer break.

"I had paints, and my mother encouraged me — my bedroom always looked like this," she says, gesturing at the brushes and paints and other art supplies lined up by the drafting table where she works.

Eventually the Hollywood dream turned into real life in Los Angeles for mother and daughter, both eventually working regular jobs as the Depression eased and World War II began.

The war actually helped her break into full-time work as an artist, Provensen says. Before that, women weren't typically hired as artists in the animation studios, but as men left to fight, Provensen landed a job as an animator at Walter Lantz (Studios), animating Woody Woodpecker cartoons.

There she also met Martin Provensen, her future husband and artistic collaborator, who had worked as a Disney animator but after joining the Navy was assigned to the Lantz studio to develop training films there.

She moved with him to Washington, D.C., where an artist friend saw their work and decided to help them break into book illustration.

The first job they landed was a hit: The "Fireside Book of Folk Songs" used their illustrations to accompany the words and music for a host of traditional tunes.

From that one success, steady work soon flowed. At first they worked as contract artists for publishers, such as Golden Books, for which they illustrated many well-loved Little Golden Books including "The Color Kittens," "The Fuzzy Duckling" and "Katie the Kitten."

As popular as those were, though, Golden Books at the time wasn't a good employer, Provensen says.

"I hate to say this, but they were one of the cheapest, wicked publishers that ever was," she says. "They didn't pay you anything, and they didn't give you the royalties, either."

So after a few years in New York City, the Provensens bought a farm in the Hudson River Valley, and started creating their own books. At first they picked works in the public domain, things like the Old and New Testaments or poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson, things that anyone could adapt and use.

"After that we started writing our own books," Provensen recalls, often using their farm and the animals they kept as inspiration, including "The Year At Maple Hill Farm," which remains one of their best-loved works.

They built a studio in the barn, and worked when inspiration moved them, she says.

"I'm not very structured," she says. "That's one of the great advantages of working for yourself, isn't it? If I don't want to go in on a Wednesday, I don't."

Still, she and Martin worked constantly, with the research trips a great part of their enjoyment.

"'The Glorious Flight' I think was the most fun," she says of the Caldecott Medal-winning book about Louis Bleriot's quest to make the first flight across the English Channel. "We both liked the research, and going places to research it."

Back in the studio, they worked almost as one artist with four hands.

"Sometimes we'd work on the same page," Provensen says of their collaborative creations. "I'd see something, or tell him how to fix something.

"We never tried to develop a style. We tried to work with the material: You couldn't do something from the Bible in the same style you'd do an animal book."

When Martin Provensen died in 1987, Alice Provensen found herself on her own in life and in art. But in time she returned to her studio in the old barn on the farm and picked up her paints and brushes again.

Solo works flowed from her imagination through her hands and new stories unfolded. "The Buck Stops Here" told the story of America's presidents. "Punch In New York" imagined the classic English puppet's adventures in the Big Apple.

For "A Day In The Life Of Murphy," she found inspiration, as she often had in the past, by the animals around her, in this case a trouble-making cairn terrier.

"He was a terrible dog," Provensen says with a touch of mock indignation over his betrayals. (He'd wander off to the neighbors so often, she explains, that she eventually let them adopt him.)

Last fall, she finally accepted that it was too hard for a 90-year-old woman to continue living by herself on a rustic farm, and so Provensen moved to San Clemente to live with daughter Karen Mitchell and her family.

They expanded the house to add a bedroom and a studio, both filled with light and color, art supplies and books. Throughout the house, paintings from six decades of book illustrations hang on the walls. Scenes from "Tales From The Ballet" in the living room, a pair from "The Charge Of The Light Brigade" over the mantel.

"That's quite a good drawing," she says after a compliment about the "Light Brigade" pieces. "Even I admit it."

She's got ideas for new books, too, though her editors and publishers want an update for the presidential book and a sequel to the Murphy book first.

And, of course, that trip to New York City a few weeks back to accept the award given by the museum founded by Eric Carle, the artist and author responsible for books such as "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

It is, despite all her modesty and protestations to the contrary, a wonderful thrill, Provensen eventually makes clear.

"It not only keeps you going," she says of the honor, "but it keeps you in people's consciousnesses, too."

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