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Tomie dePaola: Then and Now

When Tomie dePaola was four years old, his Italian relatives asked him and his older brother, Joseph, what they wanted to be when they grew up. Joseph said he wanted to be Dick Tracey, Joe Palooka and Buck Rogers, but Tomie responded with certainty, “I'm going to be an artist. I'm going to write stories and draw pictures for books, and I'm going to sing and tap dance on the stage.”

Seventy-five years later, Tomie dePaola is one of the world's most prolific and popular children's authors and illustrators. He has published nearly 250 books and sold some 15 million copies, as well as won many of the genre's prestigious awards. As dePaola relaxes in his orderly studio in an old converted barn in New London, N.H., surrounded by his artwork, children's books and eclectic folk art collections, he revels in his good fortune.

“I'm going to be 80 next year, and I've done all those things and been paid for them!” dePaola says, breaking into raucous laughter. “I never changed my mind about the whole art thing.”

Colby-Sawyer College will celebrate his life's work in two exhibitions at the Sawyer Fine and Performing Arts Center, “Tomie dePaola: Then and Now.” The “Then” exhibition this fall will feature his early drawings, paintings and books, along with images of his costume and set designs, from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s. In fall 2014, the “Now” show will coincide with his 80th birthday and highlight his career from 1975 to the present with fine art and book illustrations.

“I'd like to show people, especially students, how I started out in high school and what I'm doing now. A lot of people don't know I can draw realistically from the figure,” dePaola says. “Now that I'm reaching the end of my journey, I'd like to show off all of my work and let people make up their own minds.”

dePaola's connection to the college began in 1959 when his friend, Eugene Youngken, the new Sawyer Center's first theater director, invited him to create the sets and perform in the center's first production, Thornton Wilder's “The Matchmaker.” He returned as a faculty member from 1972 to 1975, a time he recalls as the college's golden age of theater when dozens of theater and dance majors lit up the stage.

dePaola taught classes in theater production, costume and set design, and art and film history, as well as ran the children's theater company in the summers. During his busy, productive years at Colby Junior College, he also illustrated children's books, and it was here that he created his most beloved and enduring character.

“I was sitting in the back at a faculty meeting, doodling on a notepad instead of taking notes, and I happened to draw Pulcinella, the commedia dell'arte character with the big nose and big chin,” dePaola explains. “All of a sudden a little kerchief appeared on him, and this fat little old Italian lady showed up.”

This irresistible character burst into life as Strega Nona, a grandma witch who cooks magical potions in her pasta pot to cure headaches, remove warts and conjure romance in her tiny Italian village. dePaola wrote and illustrated the tale of Strega Nona, which captured the Caldecott Honor in 1976 and became his first best-selling children's book. Strega Nona and her helper, Big Anthony, have since appeared in 10 more books, and this fall they will return in Strega Nona Does It Again!

Even if dePaola was born to be an artist, he believes that encouragement and support from his strong family, teachers and mentors, along with an excellent education, were essential for him to thrive and pursue his lifelong passion for the arts. He hopes his upcoming exhibitions at Colby-Sawyer will inspire students and encourage support for a new fine and performing arts center at the college.

“I think it's important for small liberal arts colleges like Colby-Sawyer to have a good art department, and the college has a very strong faculty,” he says. “But the classes are scattered across campus now, and that doesn't work for art. Students need to be under the same roof; they learn by seeing what other students are doing.”

As he approaches his 80th birthday, dePaola is working on book projects and has also branched out into explorations of color in a series of exquisite, tiny abstract paintings.

“I'm thinking 85 might be a good time to retire, but who knows?” he asks, throwing up his hands and laughing yet again.

The exhibition “Tomie dePaola: Then” will open Nov. 7 with a reception from 5 to 7 pm in the Marian Graves Mugar Art Gallery in the Sawyer Fine and Performing Arts Center. All are welcome and encouraged to attend. The exhibition will run through Dec. 20, 2013.

— by Kimberly Swick Slover