From drawing board to bookshelf

MCAD shows work by 13 Minnesota women who make picture books

The title page from Wanda Gag's "Millions of Cats," in print continuously since 1928.

WHITTIER — Looking to occupy an hour or two of your child’s summer vacation? Consider a fieldtrip to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“In Words and Pictures,” an exhibition of picture book art on display in the college’s second-floor galleries, features the work of 13 Minnesota author-illustrators — all women and several of them MCAD alumna. If the little ones ever tire of looking at art on walls, they can make themselves comfortable in a reading corner stocked with tubs of picture books and giant pillows.

“In Words and Pictures” goes from sketchbook to printed page, displaying archival material from the 13 artists that includes notebook drawings and the rough thumbnail sketches used to map out the flow of a book from one spread to the next. In one example, the look of the title puppy from Nancy Carlson’s 1982 classic, “Harriet’s Recital,” evolves over multiple sketches on one of those long, yellow sheets torn from a legal pad. An asterisk of red ink hovers next to the Harriet who most resembles the one we know from the finished book: cute black nose, floppy diamond-shaped ears and a hint of a smile, despite her dance-recital jitters.

During the creation of her 2013 art-historical picture book, “When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky,” Lauren Stringer filled bulging drawing pads with plot notes, rough sketches and scores of reference images. Is that an old floppy disk pocket taped to one page, stuffed with photos and drawings of Parisian landmarks?

Debra Frasier’s “A Fabulous Fair Alphabet,” required a totally different approach for its cut-paper collage illustrations. Frasier, the 2010 artist-in-residence at the Minnesota State Fair, took photos of the signage marking Midway rides and fair food booths, illustrating her unusual alphabet book with their exuberant, neon-lined and light bulb-studded letterforms.

In her notes, Frasier brainstorms likely sources for her material. The list under “T” includes “turkey,” “talent show,” “tickets,” “Tilt-A-Whirl,” “tractors,” “trinkets” and “taffy.”

Kerry Morgan, MCAD’s gallery director, co-curated “In Words and Pictures” with cartoonist Chris Monroe, whose work also appears in the show. Probably best known for her weekly comic strip, “Violet Days,” which appears in the Duluth New Tribune and the Star Tribune, Monroe has written and drawn seven picture books herself and contributed illustrations to several others, including a multi-book collaboration with Minnesota author and storyteller Kevin Kling.

Back cover image from Chris Monroe's 2007 book "Monkey With a Tool Belt."
Back cover image from Chris Monroe’s 2007 book “Monkey With a Tool Belt.”

Like the best humor cartoonists, Monroe just draws funny; there’s something about her loose, thin pen line and those thickets of hatch marks that tickle the eye. Her characters tend to be drawn with childlike proportions: stocky bodies, noodle limbs and large, expressive eyes dotted with tiny pupils.

Although it’s unfortunate to see Monroe’s distinctive hand lettering replaced in at least one instance with a computer font, her picture books have all the same wit and visual appeal of her more grown-up comic strip. The climactic party scene of her 2014 book, “Bug on a Bike” — featuring a fantasy buffet of kid-friendly foods like nachos, hot dogs, cupcakes and a multi-tap root beer barrel — is the kind of colorful, detail-packed image that young eyes will want to explore for hours.

Multiple online sources credit New Ulm-native Wanda Gág with the oldest American picture book still in print. Whether that’s true or just a bit of true-sounding lore, Gág’s “Millions of Cats,” first published in 1928, is undeniably a classic of the picture-book genre.

The essential strangeness of the Caldecott Medal-winning book may be dulled a bit by familiarity, but it’s the fable-like tail of an old man who goes out to find a cat for his wife, discovers a hillside with an almost uncountable number of cats and leads the “millions and billions and trillions of cats” back home. The thirsty animals lap up an entire lake on the way and then get into a brawl that leaves just one kitten alive. The kitten, of course, is the perfect pet for the couple.

“In Words and Pictures” includes several of Gag’s whimsical illustrations from the book, including the title page and endpapers. Her drawings from “Millions of Cats” are like engravings; thatches of inky lines define the sky above and the hills below, framing the action.

“Millions of Cats” turns 100 in just 12 years, and it seems a safe bet it will celebrate a century still in print.


In Words and Pictures

When: Through July 17. An artists panel discussion is July 12.

Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave.

Info:, 874-3700