By Steven Krolak
A pair of children, round-faced and seemingly brittle as porcelain. A horned monster with chameleon’s eyes and broken teeth, raging beside a girl who remains unfazed. An enormous lazy cat.
These are just a few of the figures that populate the children’s book illustrations created jointly by Norman Taber, associate professor of art at SUNY Plattsburgh, and his wife Tory, an adjunct instructor in the same department.
|Photo: Norman and Tory Taber work on a painting together.|
Although they have carved out a joint career as illustrators, until recently the two — the authors of “Rufus at Work” (2005) and illustrators of other children’s books — might have considered themselves well-kept secrets.
The business of children’s book illustration, Tory said, takes place anonymously these days, via email. Artists seldom meet the writers or publishers who hire them.
The spring 2012 exhibition of their work at Plattsburgh’s North Country Cultural Center for the Arts, however, revealed to many — including the Tabers themselves — how widely known, respected and beloved their work has become.
“So many people came,” Tory said. “I was so touched!”
About the ‘We’
The Tabers are cherished by those who know them as much for their collaborative process as for their art. While each has personal visions that unfold in media as diverse as oil, collage and constructions, their illustrations are executed jointly, like a piano piece for four hands.
Norm credits Tory with the stylization of the human figures, many of which are modeled after the couple’s daughters. Tory relies on Norman’s sense of environment to provide an atmospheric context for the figures to inhabit.
What began organically, with one partner helping the other here and there, has become a blended system with its own persona. As Norman described it: “Nothing is mine; nothing is hers. It’s ours.”
Besides streamlining the process of illustration, the arrangement allows them to expand their business, to conceive of projects and take on assignments that might not have been possible for one or the other individually.
Such a fusion of talents is not unknown in illustration, Tory said, citing Caldecott Medal-winning colleagues Leo and Diane Dillon as examples. “But it isn’t common.”
In addition to serving as models, the Tabers’ two young daughters are critics, offering insights into the way children think and helping the Tabers connect with their audience.
The Story Behind the Story
“Illustration is generally considered the ugly stepsister of fine art,” Norman said, “because it’s commercial and hence somehow not legitimate in some people’s eyes.”
Finding a “congenial and mutually supportive” art department at SUNY has helped both Tabers relax in the simple pursuit of doing the art they love to do.
Today the Tabers balance teaching with publishing and a variety of freelance projects that, in the words of Tory, “you’ll never hear about — like a basketball manual for middle schools.”
With roots in the region — Norman grew up near Glens Falls — and a family enjoying what the North Country has to offer, the Tabers are still exploring what Norman prizes most about upstate New York: its legacy of stories.
“As an illustrator, I love the layers, the depth of history that is present here,” he said. “I love the story behind the story.”
Read next story: Meeting Rita Dove.
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