introducing Phoebe Wahl

One Monday afternoon in October, I had the pleasure of meeting Phoebe Wahl, who is a junior illustration student at RISD. She’s taking a class with my friend and former teacher Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges this semester, so Phoebe must have learned about my artwork from her. She sent me an e-mail with a link to her website and I was so charmed by her paintings and cloth characters that I invited her to visit my studio. It’s a manageable distance, so she took the bus from Providence to my home on Cape Cod. She gave me this gnome doll, which she had made the night before.

I love how she works quickly, so her dolls are fresh, not fussy. She draws beautifully, too and she showed me her sketch book.

Look at this juxtaposition of pages!

After talking with Phoebe for a bit, I spontaneously called my neighbor, illustrator Molly Bang and asked if we could walk over for a short visit. Phoebe remembers seeing Molly’s book, The Paper Crane when she was young, so it was nice to connect the two. Molly enjoyed meeting her and looking at her work, too.

I recently saw on Phoebe’s blog that she’s made an animated film called CIRCUS. In a few weeks, she made a whole cast of animals and performers, then made the film all by herself in one weekend! The character’s movements could be smoother, but this animation shows such potential!  She describes the film as an experiment and she plans on learning more about stop motion animation this winter. I’m so impressed by her diligence and artistic drive. She is really taking advantage of her time in school to try different ways of bringing her artwork to life. CIRCUS can be seen on vimeo here.

Phoebe describes the project in her own words:

“I made ‘CIRCUS’ for Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges’ Artist Book class. The assignment was to make a large book, using no paper, and we had another assignment where the theme was ‘circus’ or ‘carnival’. I was stuck trying to think of ideas for traditional artist books and decided to combine both assignments. My visit to your studio definitely inspired me to start incorporating the handmade dolls and animals I have always loved to make into more of my schoolwork. Working hands-on sewing my characters into life is what feels right a lot of the time, although I will always love to make more traditional on-paper illustrations as well. I loved seeing your work from when you were my age at RISD, how even then you were making things that spoke in your voice, and your characters were so wonderful and created with so much love. I was inspired to take my little dolls and animals further even if it meant stretching the boundaries of assignments, since the process of making them is so important to me.
Originally I didn’t make the animals to be animated, (maybe somewhere in the back of my mind…) but after I brought the basket of elephants and lions and tigers into class, my professor Judy Sue decided to send me on a different route than the rest of the class, realizing how excited I was about what I was doing, and that I needed to take it further. It took me about two weeks to make all of the animals and dolls, and I made the animation in one sitting the next weekend. I did it completely on my own, locked in our spare room surrounded by desk lamps and animals with my camera taped to a box on a stool instead of a tripod…
A lot of my work is rooted in nostalgia. I feel like all the things I am drawing or painting or sewing, I am making for my childhood self. I think ‘CIRCUS’ is less about an actual circus, and more about a toy circus coming to life. That all the characters were touched and loved and imperfect is important to me. I find myself constantly illustrating places or people I want to be. I think ‘CIRCUS’ is an example of my constant quest to return to the magical places I inhabited as a child, where I didn’t even need a camera and a computer to make my toys and drawings come alive.
This Wintersession a friend in the animation department and I are doing an independent study, working on another animation. I’m excited to learn the real techniques of stop-motion animation and puppet making, since ‘CIRCUS’ was a bit of an experiment. Hopefully the first of many adventures in animation!”
Phoebe’s circus characters remind me of Alexander Calder’s famous miniature circus (shown below).

Phoebe sent a thank you note in this envelope. Be sure to look at her website to see her work. Thanks, Phoebe. I’m looking forward to seeing what you create next.

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last Saturday’s RISD Sale

We had a good day on Saturday at the RISD Holiday Sale. It’s been five years since I had a booth there, so it felt good to once again be among the 200 odd alumni who set up their wares. Since I don’t make kits or dolls to sell anymore, I brought books to sell. My husband, Rob was relieved that my setup was simpler than in the past. I used to make him haul twisty trees on heavy stands, but not this year. I hung up a large blowup of the cover of Pocketful of Posies, which my editor and the sales staff at Houghton Mifflin passed on to me. We were busy, which meant that I couldn’t take off and peruse the other isles. There’s always an eclectic selection of stuff at the RISD sales. Alumni from almost every department are represented; jewelry, furniture design, ceramics, printmaking, illustration, glass, textiles, industrial design, etc. Several people who follow this blog came by, including RISD illustration alumnus Ingrid Lavoie, who had her own booth with cut paper items. We talked about how a large percentage of illustration majors never work in publishing, but end up using a variety of art forms, and that their work usually has a storytelling element.

In my booth, I displayed some original illustrations from Pocketful of Posies, including There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

Kate Menard came by to have her book signed. She told me that she’s bringing her parents to see my exhibit at UConn later this week. The show will be up through Dec. 16th.

RISD Holiday Art Sale

I will be selling and signing books at booth #110 at the RISD Holiday Art Sale , this Saturday, December 3, from 10am – 5pm, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence, RI 


Posters for the first 25 customers who buy a copy of Pocketful of Posies. Free notecard with every book purchase. Out-of-print books for sale: In the Heart, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Wee Willie Winkie. Original fabric relief illustrations on display. I hope to see you there!

visit to RISD illustration class

Recently, my friend Holly Berry and I have been doing projects with an illustration class at the Rhode island School of Design taught by our former teacher, Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges. Holly is a successful illustrator and printmaker who has a wonderful style (see her website here). She brought in a load of supplies for the students to mess around with. The whole point of our visits was to help bring back a sense of play to the student’s art making experience.  I’ll show what I did with the class later in this post.

Illustrator Holly Berry

Holly introduced a way of decorating paper with a paste and paint mixture. The tables were set up with work stations like a Kindergarten class.

Holly provided all kinds of tools for making patterns, including rubber combs and textured rollers.

This is a fun way to loosen up and focus on color and textures without thinking too much about the finished product. The class will later use their decorated paper in a collage assignment.

This students really seemed to love the experience of getting messy with such basic materials.

On another day, I brought in baskets of materials for the class to construct a character. There were pipe cleaners, wooden beads, wool fleece, wool felt scraps, embroidery floss and acorn caps to work with.

I gave a short demonstration on forming a basic armature for a figure, like in my how-to book, Felt Wee Folk. I told them that I didn’t want them to follow instructions on making a doll just like mine, but to play around and come up with their own designs.

One student bent a pipe cleaner into an animal shape and started wrapping it with wool fleece.

She then devised a way to attach an acorn cap carrier to its back.

Holly and Judy Sue’s hair looked like the fleece we were working with.

After about an hour of quiet concentration, the class made some really creative and fun characters, including this bunny rabbit. For the students, I think these hands-on projects were a welcome diversion from critiques and a reminder of why they make art.

Closeups (music)

AWAY with funeral music – set
The pipe to powerful lips –
The cup of life’s for him that drinks
And not for him that sips.

by Robert Louis Stevenson

The first image in this Closeups series about music is from an embroidered scene I made for an illustration class assignment in 1974. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to fill in with a chain stitch! The lute player’s hairdo appeared years before Princess Leia’s coiled braids in the 1977 Star Wars movie.


The harpist is a detail from a lithograph I made in art school at RISD in 1977. (see other lithographs here) I transferred a xerox copy of a harp image onto the limestone surface.

detail from lithograph 1977

This fiddler is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, who appears along with his family on a CD cover I made for “A Little Music on the Prairie” in 1994. And yes, I did cut out the wooden violin, with the help of a jig saw. The tuning pegs are seed beads. See another closeup from this illustration here.

from “A Little Music on the Prairie” CD cover, 1994

Here’s Little Tommy Tucker, who sang for his supper, from my book of nursery rhymes, Pocketful of Posies. Autographed copies are available from my Etsy Shop.


detail from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

This is one of Old King Cole’s fiddlers three , whose felt fiddle is about an inch long.


detail from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

And the cat and the fiddle play on.


detail from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

alphabet book

I made this alphabet book for a typography class at RISD in about 1976.  The class was held in the basement of the graphic design building, where the old letterpresses were set up. As I recall, the assignment was to make something that used the large collection of metal type that came with the presses. I doubt the presses are still there, making space for all of the new computer graphics equipment. During this time at school, I jumped at any opportunity to bring sewing and fabric into my work.

The old linen book cover is looking yellowed and stained.

The 4 inch square pages are made from cloth-covered card board.

I rolled ink or paint on the metal type and stamped each letter of the alphabet, making patterns on fabric.

visit to Studio Goodwin Sturges

I recently visited Studio Goodwin Sturges in their new location in Providence, RI. Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges and I have known each other since I took her illustration classes at RISD in the mid 70’s. We’ve worked together on books since she started her studio in the 90’s. In addition to teaching, she represents a wonderful group of artists, some of whom are former students, and matches them up with publishers. Here she is in her studio office.

The studio moved from Boston to this window lit space in the back of her house. It’s located a few streets from where my mother grew up in Providence.

I saw a felt banner I made years ago displayed with some of the studio’s books. I didn’t know that they were involved with Puff the Magic Dragon and Judy Collins’ Over the Rainbow books. There’s a nice note from Peter Yarrow.

The Studio is a wonderful, supportive agency that has developed hundreds of children’s books.

One box filled room was full of books that Judy Sue moved from Boston. We combed through dozens of boxes until we found my books. She’s trying to down size, so she gave me most of what she had.

One of my early dolls was propped up on the center table at the studio. Her shoes and vest are made of leather.

It’s the same doll that I’m making in the photo below, which was taken by my roommate at RISD in 1976.

salley at RISD 1976

I also saw the framed pin display I made for Judy Sue sometime in the 80’s. This way she could see her collection. The custom-made cow may show my first use of  bead udders.   

pin display, 1980’s

Visiting the new studio, with so many visible memories, makes me appreciate how much support I’ve received from Judy Sue to do what I love to do!  I’ve written about how she encouraged me during my student years at RISD in earlier posts here.   I love this picture of her with some of her former students, including Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry. Thanks Judy-Sue!

Judy-Sue (back), Salley, Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry, 1980's

Close-ups (mittens)

Mitten (n.) A covering for the hand, worn to defend it from cold or injury. It differs from a glove in not having a separate sheath for each finger. 

 Even though Spring is around the corner, we still have cold snowy weather. Here are some mittens that have appeared in some of my pictures, starting with a detail from the tempera painting “Laplander”, which you can see here. Then there’s a boy with red mittens holding a kitten from You and Me:Poems of Friendship. The cozy father and daughter scene is from In the Heart, where red mittens as well as hearts show up throughout the book. The balsam pillow and felt purse projects are from my how-to book, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects. Last is a boy dressed for winter from Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, which will be published in September. 

detail from “Laplander” 1977

detail from “You and Me: Poems of Friendship” 1997

detail from “In the Heart” 2001

detail from the balsam pillow in “Felt Wee Folk” 2003

felt purse from “Felt Wee Folk” 2003

detail from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

Note: See other posts in the Close-ups series archive here.

Lithographs 1977

In art school, I took printmaking classes and especially liked lithography. I can’t remember all the details of how the process works, but this printing technique involves drawing with a greasy crayon or painting an oily black liquid on lime stone. Then the stone surface is treated somehow so that when ink is rolled on, it just sticks to the drawing. Then wet paper is placed on the stone, which is put through a press.    

"One More Year" hand colored lithograph 1977

During this period, in 1977, I was experimenting with my drawing style and intentionally trying to move away from realism, toward a more spontaneous and playful way of working. I wanted to make images that were as fresh and uninhibited as a child’s drawing. This print of a birthday party was  drawn with my left hand so that I wouldn’t easily slip into “trained artist” mode. The lithograph was printed in black and then I hand painted each one. Unable to stop the urge to collage, I added dot stickers to the table-cloth.    

detail of "One More Year"

I made a series of play themed prints in black and white, enjoying the ability to make shades of gray on the lime stone. I didn’t continue with more advanced classes, where I would have learned about color printing and registration.   

"Playing" lithograph 1977

detail from "Playing" lithograph 1977

'Life Drawing" lithograph 1977

detail from "Life Drawing" lithograph 1977

I tried a new image transfer technique using xerox copies and incorporated some pictures of musical instruments. Looking at these prints, I can remember the feel of the cool, smooth lime stone and the satisfaction of peeling back the damp rag paper, revealing a mirror image of my work.  

detail from "Music Play" lithograph 1977

detail from "Music Play" lithograph 1977


This might look like something a child would do, but I painted “The Laplander” while a 21-year-old art student at RISD. My illustration teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges, gave me a roll of brown paper and told me to work big. She could see that I was struggling to find my way artistically and this was her way of getting me to see other possibilities.    

The Laplander, tempera and pastel, 1977

 The assignment was to illustrate a story about a Laplander. So, I bought some tempera paint, wide brushes and some children’s pastels and taped the 6 ft. long sheet of paper to my apartment wall. I can remember how exhilarating it was to move the wide brush across the paper. It felt as loose and playful as a finger trail on a foggy car window. As part of the excercise, I tried not to think too hard or overwork the painting.    

detail of "The Laplander", 1977

 When I brought the rolled up painting to class and hung it up with the other student’s work, it was by far the largest piece and was highly visible from across the room. During the critique, another teacher walked past the open doorway and poked his head in. He pointed to my picture and called out, “What is that?” I don’t remember if anyone responded to him, but he soon walked away. Now I must tell you that every art school student has bad critique experiences, but this was very unusual behavior for a teacher who has no connection to the class. This man, whom I shall not name, no longer teaches and has gone on to become a very famous illustrator. I can remember being shocked at his rudeness, but also felt excitement because he noticed my work. You see, I had previously decided not to register for his class because my friends had complained that his class was torturous unless you were willing to draw in his style. I’ve never spoken to him about the incident and for years held a grudge against him. It wasn’t until I saw him 20 years later at an art show that I experienced his human frailty, that I could see him for what he was, just an insecure man who is vulnerable like everyone else.    

I’ve kept The Laplander painting for 30 years and recently unrolled it, ironed out as many wrinkles as possible and photographed it outside. Seeing it today reminds me of a time when I was unsure about how to make my mark and how, with the help of an insightful teacher, pressed forward into unknown territory. There have been other moments of uncertainty, but I continue to strive for qualities like sincerity, strength and vulnerability in my art and in my life.    

"The Laplander" with Salley today

My teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges still teaches at RISD and encourages students to develop their own individual styles and find new ways to extend themselves artistically. Thanks, Judy-Sue, for helping me find new possibilities, then and now! Here she is in the early 90’s with some of her former students who are children’s book illustrators, Salley, Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry.  

Judy-Sue (back), Salley, Ashley and Holly 1992