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The Art of the Post: The One Thing Alice Provensen Couldn’t Share With Her Husband

Published: May 23, 2018

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The great illustrator Alice Provensen died last month at the age of 99. She was famous for the many popular books for children that she wrote and drew with her husband, Martin.

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Alice and Martin Provensen were a close couple. (Photo Credit: Hilary Masters / Penguin Random House) (Click to Enlarge)

Alice and Martin met during World War II. They fell in love and formed an award-winning team that collaborated closely for the next 40 years. Generations of children have now grown up on their books.

They started by illustrating books written by other authors, such as The Color Kittens and The Fuzzy Duckling, classics from the Little Golden Book series.

Soon the Provensens were writing and illustrating their own books. Some were based on classic stories such as Aesop’s Fables, Mother Goose, Bible tales, and the plays of Shakespeare. They won the Caldecott Medal in 1983 for their book, The Glorious Flight, about the first flight over the English Channel. Their beautifully designed books, The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends stand out as classics of children’s book illustration.

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The Provensens’ illustration for the story of Beowulf from The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends. (Click to Enlarge)

 

As children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus told The Washington Post when Alice passed away, “Some of their books sold millions of copies. There was a kind of lightness and open space in their work. You could project your own imagination into their world.” They found a secret for success that few children’s book illustrators and authors could equal.

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Illustration by the Provensens for the story of Tristram and Iseult, from The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (Click to Enlarge)

It’s hard to imagine how a creative team could have been any closer than the Provensens. The two came from almost identical backgrounds. They were both born in Chicago and both moved to California when they were twelve. They both attended the University of California, and both received scholarships to train at the Art Institute of Chicago. They both went to work for Hollywood studios (Martin at Disney and Alice at Walter Lantz). They were married in 1944, then moved to Washington where they both worked supporting the war effort.

In 1950 the Provensens purchased an abandoned farm in upstate New York, far from city life. They moved two drawing tables into the barn and started working together, back to back. Their excellent book, A Year at Maple Hill Farm, describes their sweet life on the farm.

Their styles blended together so perfectly that for nearly 40 years no one could distinguish who did the words and who did the pictures. Ms. Provensen recalled for the Orange County Register in 2009, “Sometimes we’d work on the same page. I’d see something, or tell him how to fix something.” In response to questions from Publishers Weekly about the secret of their working methods, Alice simply said, “we were a true collaboration. Martin and I really were one artist.” No one ever saw their works in process.

Living and working together in one room there was very little space for privacy or egos. The two seemed to share everything, completing each other’s thoughts and brush strokes.

Yet, there was one small part of their work that the Provensens chose to keep private from each other. When they were just beginning to come up with an idea, they would sometimes tie a string across the room and hang a sheet or blanket between their two tables. As Alice recalled in her interview with Publishers Weekly, “Once in a while one of us may have had an idea we were just developing that we didn’t want the other person to see just yet…. We would string a curtain up between our desks.”

Even though this barrier was purely symbolic — a flimsy drape that could easily be breached at any time — it still had psychological importance.

In those first sparks of the creative process, when an artist tries to coax an idea into existence, the idea can be so fragile that other words or voices — or even a second set of eyes — might scare it off. Explaining it prematurely to your partner using an existing vocabulary could rob the idea of its creative potential.

Married people can share all kinds of things and never blush once. But the nakedness of a new idea — that can be a little too personal, and sometimes needs to be kept concealed.

Martin passed away in 1987. Now Alice and Martin are back together on the same side of the curtain.

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Illustration by the Provensens for The Iliad and the Odyssey (1956) (Click to Enlarge)

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  • Very talented couple in their collaborative efforts over several decades. They certainly had extensive knowledge of Greek, African and Roman art.

    The Little Golden Books were favorites of mine as a child when my Mom would read me a story. Later, around 6, I liked reading them on my own. I never had any of the ‘big’ books though, just the regular ones pictured at the top.