THE ART OF ALICE & MARTIN PROVENSEN
By Alice and Martin Provensen
With essays by Leonard Marcus, Robert Gottlieb and Karen Provensen Mitchell
THE PROVENSEN BOOK OF FAIRY TALES
Compiled and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
Twelve days ago, my house burned down. I had heard what I thought was a small hand crumpling a piece of paper and tried to go back to sleep, but the sound grew louder. I followed the sound to the bathroom and looked up. Small, orange flames crackled inside the exhaust fan like brittle thorns. I woke my husband up and he tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher. We didn’t know this yet but flames were already spreading across the attic. When the smoke dawned on us, my sons, husband and I fled with our dog and two cats. We left everything so we could take ourselves.
After the fire, I wandered through the house my family and I have lived in for 14 years and plucked (as if off a dead tree) what remained: a spatula, a mezuzah, a singed bag of gemstones I had bought my son Eli for Hanukkah.
For the last 12 days, I have been searching for what’s salvageable. Two survivors include “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen” and “The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales,” because I had just started writing about them and for some reason left them in the part of our kitchen that didn’t burn, though I meant to take them to my office, where they surely would have turned to ash.
The last 70 pages of “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen” have thickened due to water damage, but wear on a monograph as stunning as this one strangely makes sense, because even undamaged it feels rescued from a fairy tale sea or an enchanted castle flooded by a spell. Its contents include never-before-seen paintings that look as if they too had dodged if not ruin then being forgotten — as well as family photos, sketchbooks, memorabilia, speeches and personal appreciations that document the life and work of a couple whom you might think you don’t know. But you do.
Together, from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, they created more than 40 children’s books, in a style that flutters from primitive Americana to Impressionism to Expressionism without ever quite landing on any one of them. They won the Caldecott Medal in 1984 (for “The Glorious Flight,” a picture book about the aviator Louis Blériot, who flew across the English Channel 18 years before Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic) and The Times’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award seven times between 1952 and 1978.
Even if you didn’t read their books as a child, you may recognize their anthropomorphic fox in his handsome blue vest and neckerchief, their smiling lions, their bears in overalls — who likely once caught your eye and held it for a split second, instantaneously transporting you back to childhood. Even if this childhood isn’t yours, it’s a childhood worth spending a day inside.
The muted illustrations sometimes look like watercolors on bone — they feel that bone deep. I’ve been rubbing the pages, hoping the paint might come off on my fingers. It appears at once to still be wet and to have dried at least a thousand years ago.
Alice and Martin Provensen lived inside a picture book as much as picture books lived inside them. The photograph of their house and barn studio at Maple Hill Farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., in the first pages of the monograph, later morphs so seamlessly into an illustration in “The Animal Fair” (1952) that I had to turn back the pages to check if the photograph had really been a photograph all along. The wood is stacked, the sheep are grazing, the dogs are running and the cherry blossoms mean it’s early spring. The lines the artists drew are indistinguishable from the lines of the world they inhabited. Indeed the lines between their life and their art seem so beautifully blurred I wouldn’t be surprised if, after I’d stared at the illustration of Maple Hill Farm for a minute or two, a door opened and out walked Alice and Martin.
“The Animal Fair” (a Giant Golden Book) — filled with animal stories, poems and riddles — was the first of many books the couple wrote as well as illustrated. “You see,” Alice once said, “we were a true collaboration. Martin and I really were one artist.” The miracle of finding a partner whose hand is an extension of your heart and whose heart is an extension of your hand is the hidden plot inside this lifetime of work.
Of the 12 stories in “The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales” — first published in 1971 and now finally back in print — “The Lost Half-Hour,” by Henry Beston, is the one to which I keep returning. In it a simpleton named Bobo, to amuse a princess, is sent to find impossible things: a white crow’s feather, a glass of dry water, a square wheel. The illustrations have the quality of peeling paint, as if what’s behind the picture is about to show through. As if what’s impossible to find has been here all along.
One day the princess oversleeps and Bobo is sent on a journey to find her lost half-hour. He finds it, of course, because this is a fairy tale. It lies inside a “small, square casket made of ebony.” Bobo is not to open the box until the right time has come; otherwise it will fly away and disappear forever.
Entering the world of Alice and Martin Provensen is like finding not just one lost half-hour but hundreds — the half-hours we didn’t spend listening to the moon, the chickens, the trees, the horses, the farmers, the cities, the goats. Their illustrations create an opening in time, like a tear in soft fabric, that’s neither past nor present nor future. They have the markings of the eternal. Leave behind what’s frantically real and climb inside. It’s wonderful here. With their pencils and paintbrushes, the Provensens have stretched the clock to give us another chance to notice how much beauty there is in this ruined world.