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Vol. LXIV, No. 25
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
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Birds, Beasts and Bugs: Zimmerli Exhibit Is an “Incredible Finale” for Gail Aaron

Ellen Gilbert

Animal crackers — the real “Barnum’s Animals” kind with cloth-handled boxes; no new-fangled imitations — were prominently displayed on the buffet table set out to celebrate the Zimmerli Museum’s new exhibit, “Animal Fair,” and to mark the retirement of curator Gail Aaron last week.

Ms. Aaron, who began work in the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings in 1994, happily noted the presence of her grandchildren at the event. The youngest was born on Valentine’s Day this year. “I’m going to have luxurious time to spend with them,” she said.

Images in the year-long exhibit also, for the most part, conveyed happiness. The caption for the 1952 illustration from A is For Ark by Roger Duvoisin noted that the animals’ “cheerful expressions” (a smiling elephant is peering through a telescope) “suggest that the deluge is ending and that they will be able to resume life on dry land.”

Other illustrations include a cozy scene of a bear sharing honey with a human child, as well as a more formidable image of The Biggest Bear, by Caldecott-winner Lynd Ward. The “text and images effectively describe bear behavior and the ambivalent relationship between humans and these engaging but dangerous animals,” we are advised.

More benevolent pictures also include Thumbelina, aided by various insects, flying on the back of a swallow, and Petra Mathers’s Sophie, a shy mouse who “secretly craves adventures.” Ms. Mathers’s “characters behave like humans,” observed Ms. Aarons in her glossing, “but retain subtle and amusing aspects of their animal identities.” A little elephant’s “snack of heroic proportions” is featured in Alexander’s Midnight Snack by Catherine Stock.

Before Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library existed, there was the Rutgers Collection of Original Illustrations for Children’s Literature in 1979, with the support of the Rutgers Advisory Council for Children’s Books and an initial grant from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts. The holdings span more than 70 years of American children’s book illustration and have grown to include over four thousand works by more than one hundred artists. Works in the collection date from the late 1920s to the present. Representation of individual artists varies greatly, from as little as one illustration to hundreds. Many artists are represented by at least one book with preparatory materials, or by representative samplings from several works.

The mission of the Rutgers Collection is “to collect, preserve, study, and make accessible examples of an art form that is often a child’s first introduction to the fine arts.” Research, exhibitions, and activities related to the collection reflect the belief “that examining the artist’s process enhances understanding and deepens appreciation of a finished book, and of illustrated materials in general.” In order to fulfill its mission, the Rutgers Collection acquires materials that reveal the process of creating an illustrated book for children, from notes, sketches and manuscripts, to full-color illustrations and finished books.

As curator for “diverse aspects” of the collection, Ms. Aaron’s responsibilities included research, collection development, and exhibition planning. Apparently she planned very well; a salute from a staff member at the reception included a recollection of being told not to worry about something in an exhibit, since “Gail already figured it out and has the template.”

“Animal Fair” was described as “an incredible finale” for Ms. Aaron, whose preparation for her job included academic training in fine art and art history, English literature, education, as well as employment and volunteer work in a variety of educational settings. “I reached a certain ripeness with the collection,” observed Ms. Aaron, speaking of her retirement. Her successor has not been named.

Art Camp

Summer “art camp” at the Zimmerli includes classes on sculpture, printmaking, Asian art techniques, comic book creations, jewelry-making, and paper engineering, among many others. For more information see, or call the Education Office at (732) 932-7237, ext. 615.

The Zimmerli Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street, on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University. The exhibit runs through June 5, 2011.

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