Dancing With Bears
By Heather Stephenson
Reprinted from the Sunday Rutland Herald and the
Sunday Times Argus
Step into Phoebe Stone's world, and you enter a fairy tale.
Inside the artist's peach colored Middlebury home, fresh-cut zinnias, dahlias and marigolds overflow from handmade vases, sweetening the air. Dancers and elephants cavort across tables and cabinets painted in brilliant reds and blues. Old-fashioned teddy bears and statues of cherubim cluster around antique lamps, and a life-size Madonna and child beam down from a stairwell.
"I like to create my own world." Stone says with a shy smile. "My editor says it's like walking into one of my books."
Even the artist herself, a 40-something woman with striking red hair and a taste for vintage clothes, seems like a character from story land as she sips pink lemonade while sitting beneath an Oriental umbrella on her back porch.
Stone and her whimsical, colorful art are finding an audience with "When the Wind Bears Go Dancing," the first children's book she has both written and illustrated. The book was published this month by Little, Brown and Co.
In between reading and promoting "Wind Bears" and an art opening last weekend at the prestigious DeCordova Museum near Boston, Stone is finishing work on her second children's book, a Christmas story to come out next fall.
The busy schedule is a dream come true. Stone has been working for about seven years to get to this place in her career.
She got her start in children's books when she illustrated "In God's Name," a multicultural tale published by Jewish Lights Publishing in 1994.
Editor Sandra Korinchak discovered Stone's paintings at a gallery in Woodstock, where Jewish Lights is based, and asked her to illustrate the text.
"We thought the vividness of her colors would be really great for kid's books," Korinchak recalled. "We don't look for children's book illustrators. We look for artists, fine artists.
"In God's Name," a story about the underlying faith that unifies different religions, has sold almost 40,000 copies, making it one of Jewish Lights' most popular books, Korinchak said. Much of the credit goes to Stone's joyful pastels of people from around the globe, surrounded by gigantic poppies, lilies and monarch butterflies.
While Jewish Lights gave Stone her first job as an illustrator, she was already working on children's books on her own, trying to master the craft.
Writing and illustrating books for young readers isn't child's play, she says. Within a mere 32 pages, a children's book "has to do what a symphony does, what a novel does, what a poem does," telling a complete dramatic narrative in a compact form.
Although Stone comes from a fine art background, having studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and exhibited her work in a few galleries in New York City, she says she doesn't see book illustration as a lesser enterprise. For her it's more constrained, but still exciting.
"You can be totally free and creative within the structure," she says. "You're still flying like a bird, but you're flying through a chute. You can't fly everywhere, but as long as you're flying, it's art. I want my work to be fine art and illustration at once."
In "When The Wind Bears Go Dancing," Stone has penned a rhyming tale of five fuzzy, gray bears who create stormy weather when they whoosh through the sky. The story follows a little girl who spends a night traveling with "lions and leopards and lynx (who) play the strings . . . howling and yowling the way the wind sings."
The artwork is bold and colorful. The frisky bears romp across the blue and purple pages, dancing the heroine over the rooftops of her neighborhood as goldfish leap through the air and chipmunks read bedtime books down below.
Stone says she returns to her own childhood when she writes for young people. That childhood, for a time was charmed.
She grew up on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the daughter of acclaimed poets Walter and Ruth Stone. The setting was magical - - "the buildings are all castles there" -- and Stone spent much of her time going to poetry readings. The family summered in Goshen.
Their world was shaken when Stone's father committed suicide while in England on sabbatical. Stone who was 11, her two sisters and their mother returned to a difficult life in the United States. The girls faced new hardships, living in the isolated house in Goshen, and traveling from one college campus to another, wherever their mother could find work as a teacher.
"We were lonely . . . but because we didn't have a lot of outer resources, we developed inner resources," Stone recalls. The girls staged plays in their backyard, went for long walks to enjoy picnics in the woods and relied on their creativity to get them through.
All still living in Vermont, the women remain a creative bunch. Abigail Stone is a novelist, best known for "Recipes from the Dump," while Marcia Stone Croll works for humanitarian causes around the world. Their mother continues to publish poetry.
"It's like brothers who play football," Stone says with a laugh, when asked why her family includes so many artists. Then she adds, "Its kind of like a plant making a flower. It's what I do."
Stone does her work in a sunny third floor studio at the top of the house she shares with her husband, photographer and designer David Carlson (their son, Ethan, left for college this fall). She still paints in oils, and teaches painting one day a week at Castleton State College.
Stone considers her art a full-time job, and goes to the studio daily just as other workers go to the office. Alone with her radio -- which may be tuned to classical, jazz or even books on tape -- she lets music and words occupy her conscious thought, while her unconscious mind flowers on the page.
The writing is a gift that comes in more unpredictable bursts, while on long walks, or doing the dishes, or buying groceries.
"You can be anywhere," she says. "When I really want to write, I sit at the kitchen table. It's my best spot in the house."
But most of Stone's time now is spent illustrating the children's books. She maps out all 32 pages of a project first, then spends a week or two on each of the pastel illustrations. Sitting at a drafting table beside a towering red hibiscus, she starts each page by sketching in white on black paper ("Something's already there, so it's not so intimidating"). Then she spends days drawing the rabbits, tigers, and red-winged blackbirds that inhabit her universe.
The skirt of an angel's dress on one page looks like vintage fabric she has draped over a chair in her living room. The wind bears shoot a photo with an antique camera much like one on her shelf.
Stone can't quite decide whether her art imitates her life, or her life imitates the art; it's all a delicious jumble. She just loves to create new worlds, full of huge butterflies, bright pansies, and bears playing the bassoon.
"If you have a passion," she says, "it makes life a great joy."