Colorful stories from a dark childhood

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May 23rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – An artist born under some of the worst conditions in human history reflects on the hopefulness of life. Her work is currently on display in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Mind’s Eye Gallery.

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Anita Lobel, an acclaimed illustrator of children’s books, was born in Poland, shortly before World War Two broke out. She spent much of her childhood in hiding and struggling to survive in Nazi concentration camps, including the notorious Auschwitz. She was later rescued by the Swedish Red Cross and reunited with her family. But browsing the colorful collection of her work on display at the Joslyn Art Museum, little of that childhood trauma is visible.

“You see only joy,” said Nancy Round, Director of Education and Outreach at the Joslyn. “You don’t see the pain and probably despair that she lived through as a young person and a teen.”

By Anita Lobel from "Not Everyday an Aurora Borealis for Your Birthday: A Love Poem by Carl Sandburg." (Photo courtesy Joslyn Art Museum)

Round also curated the exhibit of Lobel’s work, All the World’s a Stage, housed in the Mind’s Eye Gallery. It includes over 70 pieces from 31 children’s books that Lobel illustrated and often authored. Much of the work, vivid and richly colored, reflects her interests in the theater, with elaborate costumes and scenes framed by drapery.

“All of her books she sort of approaches that way,” Round explained, “as being the director of a play, and giving the story the proper setting, and developing the characters, and giving them the proper costumes to wear and the lines to say.”

By Anita Lobel from "On Market Street." (Photo courtesy Joslyn Art Museum)

The exhibit follows Lobel’s life’s work from her earliest pieces in the 1960s, which include textiles of intricate florals. It also includes work from her first book, Sven’s Bridge, which is meant to illustrate her gratitude to the Swedes who rescued her during the war, but the connection is subtle. Her later work continues the rich detail of her foundation in textiles and the hopeful feel that permeates her work.

Round pointed out a display from one of her most acclaimed pieces: an alphabet book titled On Market Street. Two examples from the book on display at the Joslyn’s exhibit are “O” for oranges and “P” for playing cards. “So you see the person is just elaborately dressed in a costume made of oranges,” Round said. “From top to bottom made of oranges… and you can see that fancy king with his crown and his fancy garment all the way down to his boots are made of playing cards.”

On Market Street was awarded the highest honor in children’s literature: the Caldecott Honor Medal. Lobel also authored a memoir of her childhood, No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War. The entire collection will be on display at the Joslyn Art Museum through July 1st, and Lobel’s books are available for sale in the Joslyn’s gift shop.

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