Mole & Ratty on the River – The Wind in the Willows
Back in the ’90s a generous patron of New York’s Westport Library commissioned me to paint two images for the library’s Children’s Room. Good to find painting work at any time, I say. But in this particular case the commission encompassed details that have never let me forget that event or those paintings.
In addition to the story behind the paintings, included are two old photos that unfortunately don’t do the original paintings justice. But then that’s exactly what every artist says about their own work, isn’t it? And at the end of the post you will find a photo of the paintings hanging in the library’s Children’s Room.
The Library and an Australian
As a newly arrived immigrant in the United States, the Westport Library provided my first employment opportunity. I started the job wretchedly homesick, a good chunk of my mind and emotions still residing in Australia. At the time there was no way I could know that I wasn’t going home anytime soon. I certainly had no clue what a major role the library would play in my new American life.
As it turned out, across the span of two and half decades I worked at the library during three separate periods.
My first term was as a library assistant, but an ill-considered and short lived move to Vermont cut that short. Several years later, and following a three month visit to Australia, I returned to Westport and resumed work as the library’s Director (big sounding name for a tiny rural library). It was during that period I received the commission for the two paintings.
Returning Yet Again
Again my library employment ended when I moved to Portland, Oregon. This was in support of my wife’s return to school to study Acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Although I returned to Westport three years later, it wasn’t till many more years had elapsed before I began my third stint at the library, again as Director.
So not only did I luck out with that first job, I was also able to return twice to one of the most charming small town libraries in the North Country. An extra bonus was that each work day would begin in the company of those Children’s Room “vintage” paintings.
And to further add to the spice surrounding the commission, the patron whose generosity made the paintings possible stipulated that the gift was to remain anonymous. I’ve honored that request since day one and, let me tell you, there’s nothing like a well-kept secret to make you feel all warm and tingly inside. It also does an extremely good job of keeping the subject of the secret front and center in your awareness.
The Paintings are Born
The paintings depict two scenes from a favorite book of mine, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my childhood was at best a culturally barren affair. Because of that upbringing, I remained clueless about many classics till much later in life. A case in point: I didn’t discover The Wind in the Willows till I was in my mid-thirties. Since then, however, I’ve made it a point to revisit the book every few years to relive the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Toad, and Badger, and especially the meeting with Pan.
As you might imagine the commission was a joy to fulfill. Part of the deal was that I was free to choose whichever two scenes from the book took my fancy. Without any hesitation I immediately chose Mole and Ratty in the boat on the river.
My second choice took more time, but I finally settled on the scene at Badger’s house where Mole and Ratty sought refuge during a storm. I depicted Badger’s house as a cutaway to show the extent of its burrowed-out rambling interior under the hill.
Badger’s House – The Wind in the Willows
Experiments and Techniques
When I started these paintings, I was in the midst of experimenting with techniques that I hoped would serve me in a possible career as a book illustrator. I’d hung up my realistic painting style for a time and was messing about with anthropomorphized animals as central characters. The Wind in the Willows was a perfect match for what I was doing at the time.
I created the paintings by laying down layer after layer of thin acrylic paint on gessoed watercolor paper. Both opaque paint and transparent glazes were applied in a multitude of tiny brush strokes that ended up taking months to complete.
Nevertheless, to this day I still paint using similar techniques, at least when it comes to tiny brushstrokes. The big difference between now and back then was that during that period I flooded most of my paintings with an almost universal ambient light. Semi unrealistic, for sure, but still an effective technique in illustrating where I would slowly build up forms almost as if I was physically sculpting soft clay.
A Library Visit Perhaps?
So if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in the Adirondacks and would like a special treat, I encourage you to visit the Westport Library. The village itself is delightfully quaint and nestles cozily on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The library building, dating back to 1888, is a gem of classic Adirondack architecture. In fact you’ll find the library, the village, and the entire surrounding area brimming with richly textured history.
If I’ve stirred your interest and you would like to learn more you can check out the library right now by following this link: Westport Library
And if you do get your body all the way to Westport and its wonderful library, take a stroll into the Children’s Room. All told there are three of my paintings hanging on the walls, the two commissioned pieces and another funded by a grant from the Arts Council for the Northern Adirondacks.
Westport Library’s Children’s Room – Photo by Nancy Sherman