Arthur Geisert etches Midwest farm scenes in picture books for all ages

Arthur Geisert
Arthur Geisert

What better time to introduce a picture book titled "Thunderstorm" than at the start of Iowa's flash-crash-boom season?

Award-winning artist and author Arthur Geisert will launch his latest creation Saturday afternoon (5/11) at the bar across the street from his home studio in Bernard, a village off Highway 151, south of Dubuque. National Public Radio producer Rebecca Hersher will be there to report on the book party. Claudia Bedrick, Geisert's editor and publisher from Enchanted Lion Books, is traveling from Brooklyn, NY, to Coe's Bar, too, which Geisert says serves as the area's gathering spot.

Geisert, 71, has been attracting national attention throughout his 30-year career in children's literature. He's produced nearly a book a year, often using pigs to teach kids about everything from counting to letters. Three of his books have been named "best illustrated books" by The New York Times Book Review: "Pigs From A to Z" in 1986, "Roman Numerals I to MM" in 1996 and "Ice"  in 2011.

His books have been translated into French, German, Latin, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Even the one-word "Oink" has been translated into six languages.

"It’s fun to see the same book in three or four languages," Geisert says. "The Roman numerals book is especially interesting in the Oriental languages, because you combine the stately, imposing Roman numeral type with the Japanese typeface.  The typography gets a little weird looking and fun to look at."

His work has appeared in The New Yorker and has been reviewed in The New York Times, but he's most proud of one accolade in particular. Publishers Weekly proclaimed Geisert's 2001 "Nursery Crimes" -- about a family of pigs whose turkey-shaped topiary trees are stolen at Thanksgiving -- “the most ridiculous plot of the year.”

"When you realize how silly and goofy some of the plots are for children's books," he says, "thousands are published," so the tongue-in-cheek award is high praise, indeed.

The whole pig and farm premise seems goofy, too, when you consider that Geisert grew up in Los Angeles, has never lived on a farm, didn't see pigs until he moved here and didn't even see a gravel road until he was 21.

"I thought (the road) wasn't finished," he says with a laugh. "I didn't realize they left them that way."

He studied sculpting and printmaking at the Otis Art Institute in LA before making his way to the Midwest. He taught at Concordia University in Chicago's River Forest suburb, then moved to Galena, where he lived for 35 years.

Married at the time to his wife and collaborator, Bonnie, trips to her family homesteads in South Dakota helped inform his intricate images of farmlands and houses. After they divorced, Geisert wanted to stay near Dubuque, where his extended family had settled.

So he started scoping out nearby places where he could live and set up shop. The winding road to "something cheap and about 1,000 square feet" took him to tiny Bernard six years ago.

Not too many people can say they bought the bank, but the town's empty 700-square-foot building fit the bill. Geisert's currency is etching glorious scenes of the rural world around him.

Since his art studio and printmaking equipment take up most of the space, he sleeps in the vault. That room is small, but he rarely closes that door, so the lights shining through his big front windows from the bar across the street reminds him of living in a big city.

"It's a small town, but I can look out and see the lights of town," he says.

He's found a warm welcome there, with area farmers always at the ready to fact-check his drawings and correct his technical errors.

"Tractor wheel placement, windrows, cutting, raking, baling -- that stuff is more complicated than you think, and more sophisticated," he says.

His latest book wouldn't even fit in the bank if the pages were laid side by side to create the continuous picture it's designed to be. Etched on 34 copper plates, the continuous picture is 40 feet, one-quarter inch long. That's even bigger than the town's first billboard, beckoning folks to Saturday's book launch and signing.

As with all of his 25 picture books, the pages are works of fine art. His hand-colored etchings have hung in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Dubuque Museum of Art. Another Figge exhibition is planned for summer 2014, highlighting the "Thunderstorm" artwork.

"Thunderstorm" is a blow-by-blow account of a storm's development, path and destruction across farmland on a July afternoon, from 12:15 to 6:15 p.m. The pictures are so detailed, so engaging, even showing glimpses inside burrows and tree hollows where animals are nesting. Laundry blowing on the clothesline is gathered and hung inside to dry. Clouds roll over the fields, whipping into a tornado. One family leaves its pickup to take shelter under a bridge overpass. When the storm dissipates and the sky turns calm, families and friends begin patching and repairing the damages.

While not necessarily the stuff of bedtime stories, the book is beautiful and compelling.

"Other people have made that same point," Geisert says. "Some younger children might need a little reassurance."

Geisert spent about two years on the preliminary drawings. Once he got the go-ahead from his publisher, he devoted six months of intensive labor "all day every day" to do the etchings. The hand coloring took another three months. The result is a sophisticated artistry that will fascinate all ages.

His books "take repeated looking for adults and children," he says. "Children are usually a little sharper than the adults in looking at the pictures and picking out things."

He has fond memories of reading and rereading picture books cover to cover in his youth, especially Holling Clancy Holling's "Minn of the Mississippi," about a turtle's journey from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, and "Paddle to the Sea." Geisert was especially intrigued and influenced by those books, which had little notes and drawings in the margins.

"I used to read those books, never from cover to cover. I would just thumb through and just look at the margins and go back and forth through the books," he says. "I think my books can do the same thing."

  • What: Arthur Geisert's "Thunderstorm" book launch and signing
  • When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday (5/11)
  • Where: Coe's Bar, Bernard

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