The Other Art of Eric Carle

"Beyond Books" highlights lesser-known side of Eric Carle

“Eric often says there aren’t enough colors in the universe,” says Stephanie Stebich, Director of the Tacoma Art Museum, speaking, of course, of Eric Carle, author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse” and countless other recognizable works. After a quick tour of the new “Beyond Books” exhibit at TAM, it is clear why Carle would be thirsty for a fresh palate.

Given the range in Carle’s work—in terms of the mediums with which Carle has worked, the artistic genres he has breached and, most notably, the sheer variety of color he uses in each and every piece he creates—it’s hard to think that there are still colors in the spectrum that Carle hasn’t used. But “Beyond Books,” while certainly a colorful exhibit, isn’t about color at all. It’s about getting to know Carle in a way that you can’t get to know most artists, who make a point to distance themselves from their work.
Art-Art, as Carle likes to call his personal works, “is kind of funny,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be all that important. I just did it for myself. I did it for entertainment.”

According to Carle, his Art-Art came around relatively late in his career, and unintentionally. When working on cutouts and paintings for his books, Carle would save the scraps of tissue paper he had worked with but hadn’t used. When he had collected enough scraps, he realized they could be used to create pieces like “Horizon,” which is on display at TAM now.

“I like the accident in things,” he says.

“This is his private side, his other side, works not made for the public,” says Stebich. The work, she believes, is about freedom and being able to work on projects for himself, outside of the confines of picture books. In a story told by Stebich, a child once saw some of Carle’s personal works and his first reaction was, “This is what Eric does when he plays.”

“He’s interested in playing with different kinds of material,” says Stebich. This affinity of Carle’s is clear throughout the exhibit. The beautifully done “Woven Boxes,” created with aluminum, plastic, tissue paper and acrylic are an especially good example of his use of different materials, as are the two unique tapestries that Carle created on Tyvek with acrylic specifically for the exhibit.
Perhaps the least “Eric Carle” of any of the pieces on display, though, are three of his metal sculptures: “Crow,” “Cat” and “Owl.” The pieces, made of painted steel, are—effectively—one dimensional and primarily black. However, with the vibrant accent color lines and uniquely angled nature of these animals-in-portrait, the animals come to life, popping out of the second dimension, into the third.

Also featured in the exhibit are personal gifts created by Carle, either as thank you notes or in the form of what Carle calls his “Name Art.”

Most interesting about Carle’s pieces is their texture. No, the museum won’t let you touch the art, so don’t get any ideas, but that’s exactly my point—you don’t need to touch to be able to feel the texture of his creations. Carle isn’t “somebody who colors within the lines or cuts out within the lines” says Stebich, and it’s that characteristic that brings his pieces to life.
“I really believe artists change the way we see the world,” Stebich said as we concluded our tour. If Carle’s varied library of work is any indication, we’ve only just scratched the surface of the ways in which we can view the world.
“It’s magic, isn’t it?” asks Carle.

“Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle” exhibit runs through July 7. Carle will be at the museum during opening weekend, and at 1pm on Sunday, April 7 he will present for a book signing and discussion with guests of the museum. Tickets cost $20, $15 for members and $10 for students.

-Jack Todd

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