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Bernice Myers Christmas Special

December 21, 2020

Hello everyone and welcome to my final post of 2020, what a crazy year hey ! I sincerely hope this finds you well and looking forward to a happy festive break.

I have a wonderful treat for you today and a post that I have been saving up for this very moment. Any regular readers to my blog will know that I am not just a big fan of 50’s and 60’s illustration, but also of the opportunity to introduce, promote and showcase artists who have been mid-century greats and may nowadays be unknown to a more contemporary audience. Today it is the turn of the wonderful, Bernice Myers !! (hearing a fanfare in my head), whom I’ve mentioned previously here and here.

Initially I wasn’t certain that Bernice would care to take part, as I had messaged her four years ago to see if she would answer some questions, but at that point she had politely declined.

Bernice is not only a wonderful mid-century illustrator, but believe it or not, she has just written her latest book at the age of 95 ! and has a back catalogue of over 100 volumes to date. Her editor Grace contacted me to tell me of her latest book ‘Dog Meets Dog’ and then fortunately her son Marc got in touch, and it was with his help, I was able to ask his mum some carefully chosen questions and this post was possible.

Marc told me that basically “She’ll respond if the questions are good” and as we say the rest is history!  Phew lol !

Hi Bernice, many, many thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. I initially created my blog in order to show a contemporary audience the work of artists who’s work perhaps isn’t still in print and very little is known about them, their life, their struggles to find work or just how living in different time periods had it’s own share of problems or benefits that a modern audience may be unaware of. I want to tell people each illustrators story so that we may better appreciate the people behind the work that we have grown up with (and in your case) are probably still reading to our grand children today.

Could you please tell me your background story, i.e. where you grew up, what memories you have of becoming an artist. How you started as an illustrator, what life was like working as a female illustrator when you started, how hard was it to find work, how did you first get ‘discovered’ as an artist. Memories/ funny tales of working for the different publishers etc.

I was born in the Inwood section of Manhattan in 1925. My father, Leo, traveled often to Europe as a costume-jewelry designer and salesman. But those trips ended in the early ‘30s as Europe grew increasingly dangerous with the rise of Nazi Germany. My family managed to survive the Depression. I had a sister who was many years my senior, and my parents were older and weary, so growing up was relatively lonely. I began to draw at an early age, a talent that grew once I began to work in New York’s garment district as a fashion sketcher and model during World War II. Back then, families without means couldn’t afford to send their kids to college, and loans for education weren’t widely available. Only returning veterans on the G.I. Bill were able to get a free college education. So for most of us, you went to work right after high school.

When the war ended, I landed a job at Columbia Pictures in New York in the photostat department. Which meant I was responsible for having photostats made of artwork created by the art department of movie stars for display at theaters in support of upcoming movies. In those days, the movie studios were in Los Angeles, but the business of promoting their films (and recording the scores) often were done in New York. At Columbia, I met my husband, Lou Myers, who was a portraitist in the art department. He had been a war artist in the Navy and portrait painter. After the war, he used that talent to draw and paint actors’ likenesses for theater posters. After we married in 1947, we began taking on children’s-book illustration work together. For a brief time, we received double-billing. My career as a children’s book illustrator began in 1949. One of the first children’s books with my name alone was for “It’s a Secret” (Wonder Book), by Benjamin Brewster. It was published in 1950. “Billy and His Steam Roller” (Wonder/1951), “Mr. Shortsleeves’ Great Big Store” (See Saw/1952), “Bunny Button” (Whitman/1953) and “Peter Picket Pin” (Whitman/1953) followed, among others.

Then Lou and I went off to Europe to hitchhike in the early 1950s and moved to Paris in early 1954. We both illustrated children’s books there for French publishers (among other things) before returning to New York in 1956, where my first son, Marc, was born. After my second son, Danny, was born in 1959, my career grew steadily in the ‘60s as children’s books became easier to print as paperbacks. Schools were provided with book lists and ordering forms for students, and the public education system began to view children’s books as an important part of their curriculum for grade school.

Did you ever look to anyone for inspiration or was your style purely your own?

No one specifically, but I always wanted to stand out. Lou taught me that. If your drawings had a special look, you’d be in demand, especially if you had an eye for design. I’ve always loved children and believed that what was most important in books was the feel of illustrations. I wanted mine to connect with children on an emotional level, not as realistic or photographic illustration. To achieve my feel, I embraced a graphic simplicity that gave children illustrations that were on their level. I left enough space for their imaginations to kick in and for them to identify with what they saw. In other words, by thinking like a child I was able to communicate like one.

https://fishinkblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/fishinkblog-4896-bernice-myers-15.jpg

Do you enjoy working in any one style, above others, or in a particular medium, paint, collage more textural for example ? Does it help to have more than one style to be more versatile in the publishing industry ? I notice, for example, that the style you used for the science based books, ( the “All Around’ series) of textures, strong outlines, few colours, is very different from the more animal based books you’ve drawn. (The Pear Shaped Hill, Olivier etc) which is also different from the more cartoony Bears series. Perhaps you created different looks for different subjects as you felt was appropriate to that area of interest, making science books more straight forward and simplistic and the animal stories more colourful and well rounded, to appeal to a younger audience.

I did not consciously set out to project one style or another, nor did I shift styles for different subject matter. The “All Around” series forced me to envision how I was going to fit everything necessary on a single page or spread. In other words, I had to develop a strong sense of art direction before drawing so that each cover and spread inside was animated with action and delivered a high fun factor. The subject matter—space, water, earth and so on—demanded an active, “cool” approach. Sympathetic to children’s short attention spans, I knew that they would have to be pulled and engaged by my drawings if we expected them to read and absorb the material. My other books instinctively felt like they needed texture or graphic drama, again, to command the attention of young minds. My adversary was distraction, so I consciously worked to make sure that what I drew was more interesting than TV, cereal boxes and comic books. What else could I do?

https://fishinkblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/fishinkblog-4888-bernice-myers-7.jpg

https://fishinkblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/fishinkblog-4892-bernice-myers-11.jpg

Can you remember what your brief on a book would have been like in the 50’s/ 60’s. Were you given a copy of the text and told to ‘sketch around it’ or did you have ideas of your own for the books , or perhaps worked closely with each different author and took some guidance from them?

Publishers knew I had a strong sense of art direction, so they’d simply send along a manuscript and then turn me loose, so to speak. I was urged to “do my thing” and come up with solutions that were bold and active, in a child’s vernacular. My work was known for leaving children mental blanks to fill in. I found that children don’t need or want lots of detail. They look for engagement and whimsy, something that makes them laugh. When that happens, they sense a friend and identify with the characters and the story. At least in my experience.

During your career were you working mostly as a freelance artist or were you employed by one publishing house at one time ?

I worked as a freelance writer and illustrator, but a number of publishing houses used me often because sales of my books were strong. These publishers included Scholastic, McGraw-Hill and Four Winds among others.

At any time during your career, did you feel that being a female artist either a hindrance or a benefit. I think of the “MadMen” era in particular and hear stories of how badly women were treated or what they were expected to put up with in order to get work.

I didn’t find bias during the 1950s and beyond. Then again, I worked mostly at home, and my editors were mostly women. At first, I worked with my husband on book illustrations. But in a very short period of time, I could handle the work myself, and many women worked in the children’s book market then. It was like the maternity ward of publishing. Where the challenges existed were on the home front. My husband was very successful as a cartoonist and pioneered his thick-line style in print advertising work before the wide use of photography in the 1970s. His style was so well known, he was among the first who was encouraged to include his oversized signature, which was a big deal in commercial advertising.

As a result, we both worked seven days a week to complete the large amount of work that came our way. Up until 1969, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. So in addition to writing and illustrating more than 100 books, I had to raise Marc and Danny—meaning I had to make sure they did their schoolwork, had breakfast lunch and dinner, took them to stores for clothes, etc. I also was expected to shop for food, cook dinner, help Lou get his work out, and deal with our house once we moved north of New York in 1969. I didn’t mind. I always had a lot of drive and energy. But looking back, I have no idea how I managed.

My children’s-book work was relentless, but for my husband and me, work wasn’t work. It was who we were. We both loved seeing our work in print. There was a great sense of accomplishment. As all authors know, the joy of opening a box of newly published books is rewarding, and you instantly forget the hard work that went into those books. Just watching my kids’ faces as they realized their mother had written and illustrated those books was worth it.

Below.. a magazine painting by Bernice for a Fashion spread.

Two books of yours that I really admire are Off into Space and My first book of Weather. The illustrations are simplistic but both endearing and engaging. Do you have a favourite book from your own extensive library of books you have illustrated, and what makes it special for you ?

Thank you for your kind words. I don’t look at my books the way you do. In other words, you delight in elements that came naturally and magically to me. I didn’t think about them that way at the time. They were problems that needed solving. So favoring one book over another, for me, is often a question of how much of a struggle went into creating it and whether I enjoyed the process. But to your point, I am proud of the science series because there were many hurdles to leap to make them come together neatly and excite children. The same with the Space book. The layout choices, the images and the color choices all come together well and they remain remarkable. They still deliver a visual bang, don’t you think?

Yes I do.

Do you have any idea how many books you have had published to date ? Now at the wonderful age of 95, what are your biggest challenges in creating new books ? Obviously you are still working because you enjoy the work which is fabulous. If you hadn’t been an artist was there ever a different career path that might have taken your fancy ?

More than 100 books. One day Marc will create a site for me (nudge, nudge) and we’ll know for sure. The biggest challenge with my most recent book after many years in retirement was relearning how to turn my story into graphic ideas and then into finished color prints for submission. I had to track down professional color markers and bleed-proof paper—all things that are relics, since everything is done on the computer today. Fortunately, the materials I once used were still stocked at Blick Art Supplies.

Can you describe a typical day for you when you are working on a book? Does the process get easier the more that you create or is it still a challenge ?

It’s always a bigger challenge at 95. Should the dog look left or right? Should his tail wag or stay still? Hills in the background or not? A moon? Is my work any good? Will children get my humor or are they too sophisticated now? I went through a lot of paper trying to figure it all out. The process takes longer now, but my passion is still there as is my sense of humor and love of the adolescent spirit. But it’s definitely much more difficult, since emotions move faster than brainpower.

What advice would you give to a young artist who would love to follow in your footsteps today?

Observe how children play and note what makes them laugh. Don’t try to please them. Instead, speak their language with illustrations, include humor and leave room for their mental participation. That’s so important. Children are always smarter and more intuitive than we think. They’re naturally honest and kind and “get” things faster than adults. That’s because they are emotional first and think second. My kind of audience.

Many many thanks to Bernice for her incredibly lucid and inspirational answers. I applaud both your work and attitude, alogside the fact that you are still creating now. It shows that the need for talented artists never goes away and that many generations of readers, can appreciate and ‘adopt’ your work, as if it belonged only to themselves. What a lady !  Thank you also to Marc for making this post happen at all, what an inspirational role model you grew up with. I bet you can tell a good story too : )

So that was my last post and a bit of a SCOOP if I do say so myself. A Happy Christmas and festive break to all my readers. I will be taking a couple of weeks off to recharge myself, so let’s catch up in 2021 and hope that it’s a year of calm, better direction and a posititvity that seemed to escape us in 2020.

Please leave a comment below and you can follow me here and over on Instagram here at Fishinkblog, where I sell most of my ceramics.

Until I ‘see’ you next, all the very best and thanks as ever for reading, Craig x

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah Anderson permalink
    December 21, 2020 11:33 am

    Wow, a brilliant scoop and a fantastic read. I love My First Book of Weather too, and Bernice’s illustrations

    • December 21, 2020 2:07 pm

      Thanks Sarah, Yes I’ve been a fan for years. So exciting to be able to communicate with her.

  2. Ben permalink
    December 21, 2020 1:34 pm

    Brilliant and inspirational blog as ever Craig! I’m hoping to still be creative when I’m Bernice’s age! Wishing you a happy Christmas and good health for 2021.

    • December 21, 2020 2:08 pm

      Thanks Ben, yes me too lol Have a wonderful break too and here’s to a better 2021.

  3. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia permalink
    December 21, 2020 2:19 pm

    That was truly superb! Just goes to show that being creative keeps you young! I especially loved Bernice saying that she and her husband Lou, never thought of their art as work. They worked so hard, but it was never a drag for them. It was such a pleasure for them to create and contribute their talents to the world. This attitude reminds me of Noel Coward famously saying – “Interesting work is more fun than fun.”

    Thanks a million for brightening up our rather dismal 2020, Craig – I hope you have a blissfully cosy Yuletide!

    • December 21, 2020 4:17 pm

      Another great quote. Thank you Deirdre, have a lovely break and thank for all your comments this year too x

  4. Hazel Terry permalink
    December 21, 2020 2:51 pm

    Love to Bernice and love to you. That was a wonderful post to read on this darkest of days.

    • December 21, 2020 4:17 pm

      Cheers Hazel, you see now why I saved it up until now : ) All the very best to you too x

  5. pearlthesquirrel permalink
    December 21, 2020 3:11 pm

    I am not an illustrator, but I absolutely loved learning about Bernice and how her career developed, her techniques, and thoughts behind her illustration and design. Her work is iconic—as a voracious reader from a young age, I recognize it from my own childhood—and now I have a granddaughter and intend to get Dog Meets Dog to share with her. Thank you so much for persisting and getting this interview. And thank you Bernice for sharing your story.

  6. Selma Coopr permalink
    December 22, 2020 10:30 pm

    I found your article about Bernice Myers very rewarding and interesting,,,I knew Bernice and Lou in Washington His….and my son Glenn and Marc are still close friends…Thanks again…

  7. Bill Oliver permalink
    December 27, 2020 4:25 pm

    Extraordinary wisdom. Her work making mental images become art is an inspiration.

  8. Liz Hahn permalink
    December 28, 2020 10:35 pm

    Marvelous! That you so much!

  9. Dan Patterson permalink
    September 25, 2021 8:24 pm

    I’m thrilled to read your post. I was looking into Bernice Myers because the other day I was looking over my Holt, Rinehart and Winston readers from elementary school, 1973-74. “Wet Albert” was a Joanna and Michael Cole story about a boy who was a cure for droughts. Bernice Myers’s pictures grabbed me immediately. They were child-like and easy to draw, but sophisticated too. Next volume I was excited to see the same style of illustrations for “The Apple War”, which Myers wrote. And then in the next book, “How To Find the Alligator You’ve Always Wanted and What To Do With Him Then”. To my 55 year old eyes, the illustrations are still unique and wonderful. I hope you can see them somewhere!

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