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The Craft of Cartoon: The Collection of William Steig at Penn

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The Craft of Cartoon: The Collection of William Steig at Penn

By Lauren Shapiro

In the quietest corner of Van Pelt’s sixth floor facing the atoll the library makes with the arts, history, and language buildings, is a lifetime collection from the King of Cartoons waiting to be explored. This “crown,” for those unfamiliar with the title, belongs to William Steig, an unimaginably prolific cartoonist turned children’s book author and illustrator. If you haven’t heard of Steig, you certainly know his work; without him, over a hundred New Yorkers wouldn’t have covers, and of course, there would be no Shrek.

This collection, donated by Steig’s widow Jeanne, consists of “over 2,500 original drawings, notebooks and scrapbooks, correspondence, books, posters, and other materials.”

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    • William Steig - New Yorker covers
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This is too many cartoons to display on the entire sixth floor of the library, let alone the Goldstein Family Gallery, so the exhibition opens with an interactive database of hundreds that could not fit. Before even entering the gallery, this electronic archive hints to the viewer that Steig’s work cannot be contained to a single medium, or even a single adjective, except for maybe “boundless.”

Considering he drew over 2,600 cartoons for the New Yorker alone, the database and tangible exhibit together comprise only a fraction of Steig’s oeuvre. But even reviewing this computerized cross-section of sketches, one notices the incredible diversity of the artist. Steig created characters in color, black and white, watercolor washes, and even simplistic stick figures. He studied personality and emotion through color and texture, and at times also focused on minimalist drawings that leave these subjectivities up to the viewer’s imagination.

So as to not spoil your personal journey through Steig’s collection, I will not tell you about individual pieces or about the specifics of Steig’s life as they relate to his art. I can say that the exhibition, through its dual organization by chronology and stylistic phases, expresses Steig’s versatility and ability to thrive within a changing landscape for professional artists, all while still maintaining his core artistic principles.

Steig did not settle into one aesthetic for very long; his life was a constant drive to find new sources of inspiration and harness them. It was this devotion to adaptation and experimentation that allowed him, even as an artist only for the sake of art, to be his family’s primary financial support for much of his life.

He anchored each medium he mastered and new influence he explored to his core artistic goals — speaking to children and exploring human personality and psychology. Whether in his stick-figure phase, his Picasso-esque phase, or his unique monster aesthetic phase, his pieces always connected to these lifelong areas of interest.

Walking through the exhibition, I noticed one case of artwork that stood apart from the others. This case held a few of Steig’s cartoons created specifically for advertisements for various products such as Jell-O and Delco Batteries. During the Great Depression, Steig had tried commercial cartooning as a financial lifejacket. This endeavor failed and Steig went the creative cartooning route, but he turned back to advertisements for a while in the late forties. Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at Penn's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, quickly explained that Steig was always “uneasy” about using art for advertisements. Though (literal) commercial art-making provided Steig with financial security, he did not enjoy it.

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Children’s books were the answer to this problem for Steig. Jeanne is quoted saying that the reason he hadn’t explored this path before was because “he was never asked [to],” which seemed to me quite un-Steigly. Arguably, Steig’s most important works — Shrek and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, emerged from this era of his career.  I wonder, if Steig had pursued illustration and authorship of children’s books sooner, if we might have even more Caldecott-Medal-worthy works from this profoundly creative mind.

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Though a happy coincidence, this collection came to the university at a particularly meaningful time. In September 2014, scholars, artists, and musicians convened for the HAIKU conference, which explored the relationship of the arts and humanities to other realms of academia. Naturally, this conference also facilitated discussion about the future of these fields as areas with vocational possibility.

William Steig’s life offers a vision of what being a “career artist” today can mean. Though he may be a one-in-a-million case, Steig shows that professional art is trial and error (despite later success, his first attempt at commercial cartooning failed) and that making art for the sake of art can be viable if the artist embraces many media and styles. In other words, the “career artist” can make it if they experiment with myriad ways of expressing their talent.

His mastery of multimedia also offers an analogy for how arts and humanities can be integrated into other academic fields. The exhibition description insists that book-wormy Steig created art “ultimately informed by language, that is, by ideas that can be thought and written, and then translated into images.” Steig took his methodology from one field and applied it to another, thus opening up new ways of thinking about both art and writing. Following Steig’s example, translating creative writing, fine arts, and filmmaking pedagogy to the STEM majors could lead to groundbreaking innovations in engineering, theoretical sciences, and the like.

Reemerging from the gallery’s labyrinth of cartoon-filled cases, a panorama of Fisher Fine Arts Library, Williams, Claudia Cohen, and College Halls again fills my view. Surrounding the ever-bustling College Green, this ring of buildings keeps the arts and humanities relevant in Penn’s thickening pre-professional atmosphere. The King of Cartoons’ collection might be the crown jewel to reassure Penn’s artists that “creativity” and “career” don’t have to fuse, but don't have to be mutually exclusive either.

On view through December 19, 2014
Goldstein Family Gallery, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Van Pelt Dietrich Library Center, sixth floor

View additional images from the exhibition on Flickr>

Lauren Shapiro is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Political Science and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Aside from writing for Penn Art & Culture, Lauren co-directs Penn’s poetry workshop and performance collective, The Body ElectricShe also coordinates Penn's chapter of Mentor for Philly, an intercollegiate college success mentoring program. In her free time, Lauren enjoys writing, playing piano, traveling, and eating sugary foods.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke