Imagine That!

Can the search-and-find genre of children’s books, so dear to five-year-olds, rise to the level of art—art worthy of attention from scholars and museums? If you think not, then best avoid the Walter Wick retrospective Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic, now on view at the Bruce Museum. It will only confuse and upset you.

Let’s admit, however, that Wick gained his lofty art-altitude against weighty odds.

First, his illustrations—for both the popular I Spy and Can You See What I See? series of picture books—are neither drawings nor paintings. They are photographs—stunningly detailed and bursting with color, to be sure, but photographs nonetheless. And in some important quarters photographs are still believed to restrain, rather than excite, children’s imaginations, tethered as they are to certain rules of logic, gravity and so forth.

Second, Wick’s books have no traditional characters in them. One encounters “found” objects purchased at dime stores and junk shops: plastic figurines, rubber ducks, tin or cardboard robots, stuffed bears, and antique dolls and clowns, plus objects fashioned in Wick’s Santa-like workshop. None of these toys has a name (except fot Seymour, a little beaded figure who crops up here and there) or speaks a line of dialogue. Wick’s books are assemblages of things. Often these things are arrayed in exotic locales—seaside towns, space-age cities made of painted boxes—that Wick and his model-making team have spent weeks or even months constructing. That is, Wick’s illustrations must be imagined, sketched and built before they can be photographed.

Third, the texts of Wick’s books do not tell stories, but rather list objects in simple rhyme—“I spy four pumpkins, a ruler, a bat, eight pinecones, a ladder, three acorns, a cat”—objects that young eyes must then hunt down in the accompanying photographs. Some of Wick’s books do contain narratives of a sort, but these narratives are not old-fashioned yarns with crises and resolutions. They are visual progressions through space or time or dreams.

For all these apparent obstacles, Wick has achieved success of literally rock star proportions. His book sales total roughly thirty million, on par with the certified album sales of Johnny Cash and Jay-Z, though a touch shy of those of the Police. What explains the Walter Wick phenomenon? “To begin with, Walter’s pictures are extraordinarily accomplished,” says Leonard S. Marcus, perhaps America’s foremost expert on children’s literature. “They demonstrate that very interesting things can be done with everyday objects, a message often lost in our hyper-commercialized world.” Beyond that, Marcus says, “They’re an ideal of play. They invite you into the world of these pictures that Walter creates, and encourage you to generate your own stories. Everything about them implies a depth to be explored.”

“Walter’s work is very, very layered,” adds Robin Garr, the Bruce’s director of education. “Even for adults it’s visually stimulating. That’s why his are the sorts of books people will go back to forever.”

Making The Magic Happen

To understand Wick’s art from the inside out, one must travel to Hartford—to a 1920s red-brick firehouse surrounded by vacant, windy lots. Once past the old firehouse’s new alarms and protections, one ascends to a magnificent studio that must be a reasonable facsimile of the Wick brain: half Walter’s and half Linda’s, his wife. Her domain is all art and plants and soft lighting, an oasis of culture. His is bright and functional, sectioned off into a workshop, a computer room, a cavernous set-design room, and a storage pantry chockfull of beads, marbles, feathers, coins, cars, windup animals, white and colored dice, seashells, blocks, clothespins, spools of thread, ad infinitum—organized alphabetically in plastic bins. These are his playthings, the material bedrock of his art.

Wick himself is an amiable, soft-spoken man of fifty-nine. He has a mop of reddish-brown hair, a full mustache flecked with gray, and watchful, slightly amused blue eyes. Asked about his massive popularity, a grin appears briefly beneath the mustache. “It’s awesome,” he allows. “I never dreamed I’d have this level of …” he seems to consider and discard the word “fame,” though that’s what it is, even if his name is less recognizable than his books. “I like being part of pop culture,” he says. “When I meet people in their twenties, I can just assume they grew up on my books.”

The first I Spy book, published by Scholastic in 1992, did not seem to herald such celebrity. The rhymes, written by Jean Marzollo (as she has done for all the I Spy books), are meant simply to be functional. But visually the book is unique: dense collections of childhood bric-a-brac, strikingly lit.

Wick chanced upon this signature look in the 1980s while laying out the contents of a junk drawer on his lightboard. Colors popped out, shadows lengthened. As he experimented with arrangements of common objects, he found he could make artistically pleasing compositions not unlike the collage boxes of American artist Joseph Cornell. Many compositions, such as “Alphabet Maze” (exhibited at the Bruce), a set of toy blocks arranged in a wooden frame, take on a shimmer of childlike enchantment while simultaneously appealing to more rigorous adult sensibilities.

“One thing you notice about photography,” Wick says, “is that there’s more complexity in the images themselves. Take the baby blocks. If you illustrate those in a book, you sense they’re put there to signify that the book is for very young kids. But when I use them photographically, it’s different. These antique letter blocks have a patina to them, they have a richness of detail—scratches, coloration.” Wick’s fascination with vivid surface detail, with the play of light and shadow, seems inborn; but his growing obsession with the Old Masters—Linda’s influence—filters naturally into his work. “In a way, the fifteenth century Netherlandish painters were like I Spy,” he observes. “Artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes painted densely detailed, sharp, crisp images. There’s this innate desire to see the world clearly, to see the details, see the edges and reflections and shadows.”

In I Spy: Spooky Night (1996), the seventh book in the series, Wick introduced a new, more complex scheme. “There are only so many ways to reshuffle the toys and keep the game interesting, not just for readers, but also for me.” The new scheme was to add a particular sort of narrative. “You might say the story is actually hidden.” This “hiddenness” is the key to their special charm.

In Spooky Night, a journey through a haunted house and grounds, we arrive first at a wrought iron gate figured with owls and cats and seahorses. Then we advance to the mansion, a tumbledown Victorian with a Charles Addams-like turret and mansard roof. Venturing inside, we take stock of cobwebbed candelabras, portraits of owls and skeletons, eerie carvings in the mantelpiece. Moving through the house we’re amazed by the welter of eccentric detail, from shuttlecock wall sconces to thighbone andirons. Then we witness a misty graveyard exhumation, a basement laboratory belching out a ghost, a creepy formal garden—but suddenly these increasingly spooky images are broken by an image of a child’s bedroom at dawn. We gaze out a perfectly unspooky suburban window bordered by ruffly white curtains. In the final image, we drop to floor level and see an immaculate blue Victorian dollhouse, scattered with toys that look innocent by daylight. What has happened? A child’s nighttime imagination has created the “spooky night.” And since Wick’s design is to have the reader travel through the haunted estate to safety, it is really he or she who is the hero of the story. “This idea of imaginative play is a theme you see in a lot of my books,” Wick says. “It’s a constant theme that I use over and over again.”

Expanding and Exploring

Wick inaugurated Can You See What I See? in 2002, in order to combine the search-and-find genre with visual puzzles and games, but today the series is best known for its narrative innovation. Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship (2010) uses an ingenious reverse-zoom structure: First we see a gold coin, close-up, with the motto “I Shall Rise Again.” As we zoom out picture by picture, we find the coin belongs to a treasure chest; the chest is submerged in a shipwreck; the shipwreck sits inside a bottle upon a shelf; the ship-in-a-bottle is but one curio in a cluttered gift shop called the Jolly Roger; the Jolly Roger is built of an old ship’s stern set upon a seaside boardwalk; the boardwalk and its shops are in fact a picture postcard; and the postcard lies on a beach towel at ocean’s edge. A final twist: The coin we saw at the outset we now see washing ashore, just beyond the towel and postcard. It has risen again indeed, with the teasing implication that a real shipwreck lies just offshore.

Wick doesn’t expect small children to grasp such subtle nuances. “Maybe they’ll never make the connection between the ‘I Shall Rise Again’ motto and the coin washing up on the beach. But that’s OK. They can read this on any level they want. Maybe as a teenager they’ll come back and start to see that connection—and that’s how I want it to work. I don’t want it to be in your face.”

For the eighth and latest book in the series, Can You See What I See? Toyland Express (2011), Wick sought to get away from the elaborate model making of Treasure Ship. Instead, he fashioned a story from the simplest toys he could think of. The result is the unexpectedly moving life journey of a wooden train set. Beginning with a toymaker’s concept for the train he’s about to build—the Toyland Express, of roughly 1940 vintage—we see the train and its village-scene accessories go from the paint shop to the toy store to the scene of a birthday party. We see seasons change, the train set mix with newer toys, then the sad ascent to the attic, and finally a yard sale, by which time the train and its accessories have been carelessly separated. But the ending uplifts: The new owner has sent the now-antique train to the shop for repairs. The story manages to embed a brief social history of twentieth-century America. We observe, for instance, a shiny new car parked outside a sixties-era dollhouse, seeming to displace the train, whose role in the book grows ever more tangential. “And now, appropriately, it’s in a museum,” quips Robin Garr of the Bruce.

Though Wick conceived Toyland Express as a return to basics, its visual effects required the usual over-the-top diligence. “The train is not really an old train,” he says. “We made it here in the shop—multiple copies—and weathered it to create the illusion that it’s been passed down over generations.”

Constructing an Artist's Life

Walter Wick grew up in East Granby, a scenic small town due north of Hartford, in a family of seven. The following two facts emerge quickly about his childhood: The Wick family possessed no TV, and Walter disliked books. “I assume I have a certain amount of dyslexia,” says Wick, the son of a grocer father and a postal clerk mother. “Anyway, I had a lot of time to kill, so I tinkered a lot. I made things. I’d find some old roller skates and make a skateboard. I made stilts. I made a unicycle out of my sister’s tricycle. I built tree forts. I built almost anything you can think of. It was good training in learning how to create.”

Wick met Linda Cheverton in the late 1970s, when she was waitressing at the Russian Lady Café in Hartford. “He was a peaceable soul—an incredibly kind, gentle person who was very serious about what he did,” she says. Today Linda acts as Walter’s business manager and literary agent, but she is also his all-purpose muse, one with a redoubtable artistic intelligence of her own. A formal student of art history, she chairs the Curatorial Committee of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Her husband’s formative artistic influences had all been pop, from Mad magazine to comics to rock album art. (Wick notes aptly that Peter Blake’s crowded but orderly sleeve design for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band resembles an I Spy shot.) “The art history thing had always been my thing,” Linda says. “But Walter began looking deeper into it, adapting things we saw on our travels and making them his own.”

Wick is an artist with an inventor’s mindset. His fascination with how things work led him to create his first non-I Spy book, A Drop of Water, in 1997. Subtitled “A Book of Science and Wonder,” Wick’s camera isolates water in forms invisible to the naked eye—a droplet breaking apart on the head of a pin, a snowflake magnified to sixty times its actual size. The following year he published Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks, a book of photographic puzzles reminiscent of the woodcut illusions of Dutch artist M. C. Escher. The most ingenious of them, “Crazy Columns,” on view at the Bruce, appears to change from a stone arch to three stone columns before our eyes. “Walter’s constantly puzzling,” Linda says, noting his early success at Games magazine, where he made elegant mirror mazes designed to dazzle the adult eye. It follows that Wick is a contraption builder in the mode of Rube Goldberg. In his short film, Balloon Popper, also at the Bruce, a pinball sets in motion a network of buckets, marbles, levers, pulleys, cars, dominoes—even a xylophone—all to the end of puncturing a balloon.

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