CEDAR RAPIDS — The pieces in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s upcoming three-gallery exhibition are hanging a little lower than usual.
That puts them a little closer to pint-size viewers. A little step ladder also will help them examine the intricacies of the animals depicted in “If We Ran the Zoo: Animals in Children’s Book Illustration.”
Don’t worry adults, you won’t have to bend down to see the menagerie and wax nostalgic. The shift is subtle, said associate curator Kate Kunau, who chose more than 60 works for the major installation. It opens Saturday (10/6) and continues through Jan. 13.
All are from the Zerzanek Collection of Original Art from Children’s Literature, on loan to the museum from the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The museum has been storing the collection since the floods of 2008 forced the library to build a new site away from the river.
The museum has the room and climate-controlled facilities to store the 1,400 illustrations and mementos from the likes of Dr. Seuss, H.A. Rey of “Curious George” fame, Maurice Sendak, who showed us “Where the Wild Things Are” and Eastern Iowa’s Arthur Geisert.
The pieces were collected by Evelyn Zerzanek, the longtime Cedar Rapids children’s librarian who in 1960 began asking artists to donate their book illustrations to the library, to encourage children to come to the library and read. The collection continued to grow after her retirement in 1972 and her death in 1995 at age 91.
Dr. Seuss didn’t make the cut for the “Zoo” exhibition, because his piece shows one of his made-up animals. “I thought about stretching to include him, but I can’t set my own boundaries and not pay attention to them,” Kunau said. “I’m sure the Seuss will come up again.”
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What visitors will see are illustrations and animals in all shapes and sizes, in color and black-and-white, sketches and polished pieces. They are arranged according to their uses, including lifelike illustrations for ABC and natural-history children’s books; illustrations showing children interacting with dogs and zoo animals; and anthropomorphic animals who speak and/or wear clothes, like Paddington Bear.
“It was really fun to go through” the collection, Kunau said. As she started pulling aesthetically interesting drawings, she ended up with a couple hundred possibilities, then narrowed down the choices according to category.
“At first I had planned to do the exhibition like a zoo, and put the animals together the way zoos do,” she said, grouping them according to habitat or region. But what really caught her eye was the way animals had been used in children’s literature through the years.
“Just to give a little bit of a background — until the early 18th century, childhood wasn’t really recognized as a separate state of development. And so children were just treated as miniature adults and they were dressed like that, and they were expected to act like that,” Kunau said. “During the Enlightenment, people started doing research on the stages of development, and this idea of childhood really comes about then, so that’s when we see literature first developed for children. ...
“And from the beginning animals have always been involved in children’s literature. One of the first ones that I cite in the exhibition — we don’t have this — is a late 17th century book teaching the alphabet (using) animals and animal sounds. So it’s like ‘the duck quacketh’ and ‘the bear grumbleth,’ to teach children the alphabet. So there’s this really long history of animals in children’s literature.”
The Zerzanek Collection was a delightful surprise for Kunau when she joined the museum staff in 2015.
“It really gives me the ability to work with children’s book illustration, which you don’t anticipate that you’ll have in an American art museum. When (Zerzanek) was collecting, it was before book illustration was seen as a fine art ... and so people were very generous with her, which is very cool. And it is absolutely art — they’re wonderfully talented individuals.”
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WHAT: “If We Ran the Zoo: Animals in Children’s Book Illustration”
WHERE: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
WHEN: Saturday (10/6) to Jan. 13
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Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
ADMISSION: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over and college students; $3 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under and Museum members
RELATED EVENT: Draw Me a Zoo: Free Family Fun Day at the Museum, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 20; make-and-take animal-themed art projects, free gallery admission, scavenger hunts, balloon animals with Papa Balloon Mark Garvey, art tools “petting zoo” and a special appearance by Clifford the Big Red Dog