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
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
You can preview some of their art on
Amazon.com, 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
aren't writers ourselves," Diane said. "We don't feel qualified to
comment on manuscripts."
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?"
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."
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.
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."
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.
still quill and brush," Leo said.