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Under the North Light: Webster book looks at Petersham work as WAAM show highlights it

by TINKER TWINE on Oct 4, 2012 • 5:00 pm1 Comment

In a beautiful, insightful book, Under the North Light, The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham (Woodstock Arts) born of personal experience and skillful research, Lawrence Webster has written the first comprehensive examination of a remarkable pair of artists and the stories and illustrations they created for children during a 40-year career. Since their marriage in 1917, when Maud and Miska Petersham weren’t traveling the world collecting authentic costumes and toys to be translated into pictures, much of their lives were spent facing each other at drawing boards placed next to the north-facing window in their Woodstock home.

Fortuitously, and symbolic of their complementary abilities, Maud was left handed, Miska, right. Maud liked to start the drawings, while Miska enjoyed finishing them. And so they worked, creating a vast oeuvre of colorful images in folk art styles specific to each setting. Their renowned children’s books comprise an even share among illustrations they created for other authors, new editions of classic fairy tales and Bible stories, and textbooks. Their work reached beyond their home at the foot of Byrdcliffe to an international audience, and now spans generations.

The Petershams were an unlikely couple. Maud, daughter of the minister of the Wurts Street Baptist Church in Kingston, graduated from Vassar and went to New York City to study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, founded by William Merritt Chase. Miska was born Petrezselym Mihaly in Hungary. The grandson of a shepherd, he arrived at Ellis Island in September of 1912. Webster writes, “He brought with him a degree from the Royal National School for Applied Arts in Budapest, no money, boundless energy, and an expectation of cowboys and Indians in the streets.”

They met while employed at their first jobs, at the International Art Studio on West 42nd Street opposite the New York Public Library. Miska took Maud under his wing and shared his professional secrets with her. They married in 1917, just four years after the famous Armory Show, when modern European art was introduced to America.

These were heady days for young artists, and Woodstock was already a rollicking art colony. It’s not surprising, especially given Maud’s local background, that the pair settled here in 1920. Their only child, son Miki, born in 1923, fit comfortably into their daily routine with the help of Maud’s “Auntie,” Celia Jane Sisson, who lived with them.

The Rooster Crows, a book of American rhymes and jingles won the 1946 Caldecott Medal. In 1942, An American ABC won Caldecott Honors. In the days before the Caldecott awards were established, the Petershams were recognized by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. These awards don’t reveal the sheer volume and consistent high quality of their work, as much of it was done for other writers. Attention to this fascinating couple is long overdue, and no one is better qualified than the author to have written this important contribution to art history. Thanks to the research and warm, well-organized writing of Woodstock native Lawrence Webster, knowledge of the Petershams is accessible to all.

“Children’s books are the most difficult to produce and they’re the most influential on human development,” Ms. Webster said this week. “They’re a reflection of what we wish we were as a society. I think most of us have memories of pictures from books we read as children. I was intrigued with the Petershams because of their unique and long-lasting collaboration and for their unspoken values,” she said. Among the values instilled by the Petershams is the sense of fundamental safety that allows an adventurous youth to go forth in life without undue fear; the coziness of a loving home; a friendly, cooperative spirit and a reverence for nature.

Under the North Light: continued

There’s poignancy, too, as Noah cries when he realizes he accidentally made the Ark too small for mammoths and dinosaurs, who had to be left behind in the flood. Webster ‘s understanding of publishing and all aspects of book production enhances the history of the Petersham’s career. Each of seven chapters is interspersed with bright reproductions of their illustrations and photographs of the couple and their extended family (including professional associates). Every fact is footnoted, and credit is generously attributed to all who helped bring this book to fruition.

Lawrence, known as Larry, was raised on Byrdcliffe mountain. Grandparents on both sides built their own summer houses there, and her parents met when her father was directing a play at the Byrdcliffe Theatre while her much younger mother was painting benches. Larry grew up in Avanti, where the book’s designer, Abigail Sturges, lives now. The Websters and the Petershams became friends during the 1920s. Larry keeps over her bed a drawing and congratulatory note the Petershams gave her mother when she was born. She and the Petersham’s granddaughter, Mary, remain friends today.

Not content to rely on memories, Webster’s intellect led her to the University of Southern Mississippi where the Petershams’ personal papers are included in the duGrummond Archives of Children’s Literature. There she pored over 30 boxes of original notes and letters, a project she thoroughly enjoyed. The book took more than four years to produce, from the moment Julia and Weston Blelock (co-owners WoodstockArts) suggested it to the advance copies that will be available at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum on October 6. Larry hopes the Petershams’ story will foster the same cooperative spirit among Woodstock’s arts and educational organizations that Maud and Miska embodied in their lives. As a former Assistant Librarian and former board member of the Woodstock Library, she singles out one creation from the Petersham collection that symbolizes this spirit. It’s Peter the Horse, carved by folk artist William Spanhake and painted by the Petershams, which resides in the children’s room at the Woodstock Public Library.

Webster writes: “Countless youngsters have climbed the booster steps for a ride, and many adoring arms have encircled Peter’s neck since he moved into the library in the 1950s. Peter was one of five horses carved by Spanhake and painted by different Woodstock artists for an auction to benefit the library.” Larry added this week, “Peter will travel from the Library to WAAM for the Petersham show. I hope this is the first of many more collaborations, in the spirit of the Petershams.”

1 comment

  1. DANIEL GREENE says:

    Oct 5, 2012


    I am looking forward to getting my copy of this marvelous book. Congratulations to Larry for work well done.

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