October 12, 2012
AN ILLUSTRATING COUPLE
Maud and Miska Petersham, married book illustrators in Woodstock, N.Y., sat across from each other as they worked. From the 1920s to the ’50s, they ran a prolific studio at their handmade stone house. They took on classic stories like “Heidi” and “Rip van Winkle,” along with nonfiction about rayon and wool that is now obscure, and Queen Marie of Romania’s fairy tale starring a magic doll.
Children and teachers sent fan mail. “It has gone through the school like wildfire,” a Utah schoolteacher wrote to the Petershams in 1941, praising the couple’s alphabet book with patriotic pictures.
The Petersham archive survives in the hands of family members and the University of Southern Mississippi’s library. The historian Lawrence Webster mined the material for a book, “Under the North Light: The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham” (WoodstockArts), and an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.
In the show’s 100 illustrations and family photos and greeting cards, one unifying theme is bright colors and floral patterns resembling Hungarian folk art. Miska Petersham grew up in Hungary. Around 1912, shortly before he moved to New York, he Americanized his original name, Mihaly Petrezselyem.
As a child in the 1950s, Ms. Webster met the illustrators. Maud Petersham was shy but tireless about executing ideas, and her husband was “big, noticeable and impressive as a presence,” Ms. Webster said in a recent phone interview. She added that he never lost his accent and “called everybody ‘Sveetie Dear.’ ”
The Petershams’ house on Glasco Turnpike, with floor-to-ceiling windows that illuminated their drafting tables, is largely unchanged and has been on the market for about $440,000.