Thursday, July 5, 2012

RIP, Leo Dillon (1933-2012)

     I only learned Tuesday (thank you, Locus magazine) that one of my favorite artists died more than a month ago at age 79. It might be truer to say that half of one of my favorite artists has died, for he spent most of his career in collaboration with his wife.
     You may not recognize the names of Leo and Diane Dillon, but chances are you've seen their work. They were never so-called fine artists, painting canvasses primarily meant to hang in museums, galleries and private homes, but commercial artists, painting the covers to numerous books -- also spoken word LPs -- and fully illustrating children's books.
     They won the Caldecott Award for a couple of their books (see below), but I preferred their illustrations for Virginia Hamilton's "The People Could Fly," Nancy Willard's "Pish, Posh, said Hieronymus Bosch," their covers for Isabelle Allende's "The House of the Spirits" and others, and the many science fiction book covers they did for Harlan Ellison (my first exposure to their work was in his 1967 SF anthology "Dangerous Visions," which featured almost abstract, pseudo-woodcut drawings). I occasionally bought books for the Dillon's cover art alone.
     They met in art school and, according to an essay in "The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon," were instantly jealous of each others' talent, then later attracted to each other, despite a fairly large obstacle for the time: she was white, and he was African American.
     Though the book is long out of print, I was fortunate to have it autographed by the pair at a rare Michigan appearance. I interviewed them in 1999 for an advance article about the visit in The Macomb Daily. The complete article (a shorter version ran in the paper) follows.
     You can preview some of their art on, including several dowloadable, printable PDFs from  their 2011 book "Never Forgotten," written by Patricia McKissack (Schwartz & Wade, 2011). I may add some more artwork later.

Leo and Diane Dillon

By Stephen Bitsoli

Macomb Daily Staff Writer

     If you've shopped for children's picture books in the past 25 years, you've probably seen Leo and Diane Dillon's work. The Brooklyn-based husband-wife artist team has collaborated on everything from advertising to science fiction book covers since meeting as students in New York's Parsons School of Design in 1954. And despite the strains of living and working together through initially hard times, and their interracial union in a far less tolerant time, their marriage and their art are still going strong 40 years later.
     Their greatest acclaim has come for their illustrations for such perennial favorites as "Ashanti to Zulu" and "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears," both of which won them the prestigious Caldecott Award.
     "Our first picture book was in 1970," said Diane Dillon. "An editor saw one of our young adult book jackets and sent us a manuscript she had in house that she thought we'd like." Since then they've illustrated more than 40 more.
     Their latest work illuminates Shirley Rousseau Murphy's "Wind Child," a fairy tale of a young weaver whose father was the east wind, and her quest for true love.
     Although it has the feel of a classic folk tale, Murphy's story is original, which is one reason The Dillons agreed to illustrate it. The couple receives more offers of work than they can fulfill (they have six books in progress now alone), so they can afford to be choosy. Murphy's book makes the cut.
While's there's no specific setting for the story, Leo and Diane recognize it is more or less a European fairy tale. But in keeping with their beliefs and backgrounds, there is a wide range of skin tones represented. And the art, both color woodcut-style drawings on the left hand pages, and full paintings on the right, have a vaguely Japanese feel to them.
     Making it a whole family affair, the art styles are separated by photographs of sculpted faces, created by the Dillons' son, Lee, a talented artist in his own right.
     Meet Leo and Diane Dillon this Saturday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Rochester Hills Public Library. Following a question-and-answer session and presentation, the artists will autograph copies of "Wind Child" and their other of their children's books, courtesy of the nearby Halfway Down the Stairs Children's Bookshop. Reservations are required.
     Shop owner Cammie Mannino postponed a vacation in Italy to be there for the signing. "After all, Italy's going to be there forever. How often are The Dillons going to be in my store?"
For Mannino, and the artists' many Michigan fans, the visit is a long awaited dream come true. The Dillons rarely tour for their books unless the publishers request it, and then usually only on the East and West Coast. They're glad this trip takes them to the Midwest, but they'll be gladder when they can get back to work.
     Saturday's reception won't just be a line-up-and-get-your-books-autographed session. First the artists will answer questions, and give an "informal talk" with "schematics that show how we start a book" all the way to the finished product.
     True collaborators, Leo and Diane merge their talents to create "a third artist" who's better than either of them individually. Their influences include medieval woodcuts, romantic Pre-Raphaelite paintings, African folk art and the warped imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch. It's a multicultural approach which reflects both their art and their lives.
     So how do they decide on a project? "Usually the publisher will send us a manuscript if they think it's something we'd like to do," Leo said. They don't have direct contact with the authors themselves,
     "We aren't writers ourselves," Diane said. "We don't feel qualified to comment on manuscripts."
     That's why the talented artists don't write their books, too. "Why illustrate something second rate" -- just because they wrote it themselves, Leo said -- "when there are writers like Shirley Rousseau Murphy out there?"
     Probably the only picture book they've ever assayed without a living writer is last year's "To Every Thing There is a Season," which paired multicultural scenes with an appropriate verse from "Ecclesiastes." The two had long wanted to do such a project, but it didn't gel until their editor at Scholastic Books suggested using "Ecclesiastes."
     For the full range of their work, you can haunt second-hand stores for a copy of the 1981 retrospective "The Art of Leo & Diane Dillon," but don't expect a reissue or a sequel anytime soon.
     "Occasionally some publisher says it would be nice to do a follow-up," Leo said, but he and Diane had misgivings about the original project 18 years ago.
     "We thought it might be an omen," Leo continued, since retrospectives are usually done at the end of a career. Any sequel, Diane said, "will have to wait until we have at least one leg in the grave."
     There are web sites with pages devoted to the Dillons, but none run by the artists. Leo and Diane aren't terribly computer literate. Diane even asked me how I found some of these sites.
     "We're still quill and brush," Leo said. 

 Illustrations and page design by Leo and Diane Dillon 
from “Never Forgotten” by Patricia McKissack 
(Schwartz & Wade, 2011) on


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