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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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The Big M-T
Illustration—Hell Yes, It's Art

A mixture of opening your favorite book, standing in an intimate art gallery and settling in for a bowl of popcorn before a movie: “Tiny Pie,” by Edward Hemingway, is a show you need to experience.

Take a step into the Little Gallery. The small space enriched with nineteen oil paintings on wood panels tucks you in.

Wait. How about a drink of water?
An extra goodnight kiss?
One more story?

Hemingway’s paintings, like the periscoped screen shots on your grandparents’ television console, focuses your eye. The colors, almost touching on pastels (but not really) feel like something captured by a time machine and refurbished for modern consumption.

The show is a collection of original paintings used for a picture book to be released in May. The story, written by Mark Bailey and Michael Oatman, is about Elli, a young elephant. Her parents are throwing a grown-up party (the lion lies with the lamb and the rooster gets a martini). Elli gets bored until she discovers a mouse hole where they’re filming, Hole in the Kitchen Wall, a cooking show for mice. As the storyline develops, the mice come over to cook for her.

Every painting builds on the one before, eventually creating not only characters, but a story, a narrative. Like a series of landscapes done in the same sweet spot over the course of a year, the paintings in this show progress and change, as the characters grow.

When starting of a project of this scope—the picture book has 32 pages—Hemingway starts with imagining the main character, then he checks with the art director/editor to make sure he’s got the subject’s traits down.

“I’ll begin painting one or two scenes that excite me,” he says. “For ‘Tiny Pie,’ I started with the exterior painting and the party scene. I needed to get the mood right. And they set the tone for the rest of the work.”

The images created by Hemingway, inspired by 1950s animation, engage you in the first moment.

“I had a very specific color palette for the series,” Hemingway says. “I used a lot of white, I wanted a frosting feel. And I wanted to push my style. I had a vision and I wanted to play with it or I didn’t want to do the project at all.”

Hemingway plays with idea of flatness, instead of merely suggesting the traditional perspective of near and far, ceilings and walls, which leaves a kind of innocent openness to the overall show.

“A picture book is so important because it’s a child’s first art gallery,” Hemingway says. “It’s an intimate experience the child has in his own home and holds in his own hands.”

Think about it. Upon opening a book a child can touch the pictures—not so much in a museum or a gallery. But more than simple a tactile experience, the art has to hold up. Maurice Sendak’s paintings in "Where the Wild Things Are" reach a place within most of us. Costumes evoking characters from the book could be seen around Bozeman at Halloween, forty-nine years after Sendak’s book was published. The story is part of it, but the image of Max dressed as a wild thing, riding on the monsters in the forest is what brings it all home. Weren’t you ever a wild thing? I know I was.

“When I’m illustrating a book I have to ask myself – not what is art, but what is good art,” Hemingway says. “Because art that makes you feel something, or art that speaks to you, is the kind of art that stays with you – for years.”

Isn’t that we want our children to learn? That art can conjure emotion? It can make you laugh and it can bring you to tears. Art engages us.

And that’s just what Hemingway’s pieces in this show do. Each piece stands on its own. They’re being sold as such, individually. But when put together something bigger than the sum of its parts begins to emerge. You, we, big or little, become enveloped by synergy.

One of the best pieces in the show is “The Crazy Mouse Party.” The jubilant rodents are singing, dancing and overeating, they’re baking pies and floating balloons. I want to go this party.

It’s also the small things, the voice of the artist overlaid on the story that heightens the paintings. The little alphabet blocks that spell out “No Fun Elli” in the opening piece; the two rabbits that are late to the party (rabbits are supposed to be fast); a mouse passed out on the kitchen stool; and Elli’s ears – they’re shaped like pastries of the same name.

“Originally, the story was about a baby,” Hemingway says. “But I didn’t want to paint a baby for a whole book. So I went with Elli the young elephant.”

Elli has the giant head of an elephant and the body of a young girl (shown right, not nearly as disturbing as it sounds). In fact, all the characters have animal heads and smaller people bodies.

“'Tiny Pie' plays with the idea of size,” Hemingway says. “When you think about how small a mouse is compared with an elephant – there’s this whole David and Goliath thing going on.”

It wasn’t easy to change the main character from a baby to an elephant. Hemingway had to battle for this idea with his editor at Running Press Kids Publishing. Which is another thing that most fine artists don’t have to do. They don’t have editors approve each painting in a show.

“I actually like to get a little direction,” Hemingway says. “And sometimes I have to fight for what I think is needed. But most of the time the editors are right and I appreciate their input.” A good editor, he’s found, will enhance and streamline the narrative.

“Being an artist, it’s always hard to have someone criticize your work and it’s hard to change things,” Hemingway says. “It’s important to listen to what they say. But it’s hard. No doubt about it.”

If you still don’t think it’s art, if you still harbor some prejudices about picture books, go to the bookstore and start turning the pages. Don’t let the little chairs scare you. Big ideas can come in small packages, thirty-two pages at a time.  -TBM

Michele Corriel created a few ripples in Bozeman's art pond with last month's "Rift."

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