Caldecott-winning illustrator David McLimans passed away last year at 66. Such an untimely death from a heart attack is sad, but he left an enviable body of work that will be remembered. I am pleased to say that McLimans did work for me at The New York Times Book Review, drawing on his map-based collages.
He graduated with a Masters Degree from Boston University, majoring in graphic design and typography. McLimans studied with Alston Purvis, whose interest and research in Dutch graphic design informed his early art. When he moved to Madison, Wisc., he began his venture into illustration. His early work was largely composed of Constructivist-inspired typographic explorations and compositions. His illustrations were black ink penned and brushed solid on white board, on/off figure ground work, mostly geometric in style and somewhat inspired by Rodchenko, Stepanova. The collage artist Jiri Kolar was a huge influence early on. His later work was a compelling hybrid.
Patrick JB Flynn, who collaborated with and art-directed McLimans, recently helped mount an exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison; “GONE WILD“ is a celebration of the life and legacy of McLimans, including his children’s books and editorial illustrations and his found sculptures and masks. I asked Flynn to talk about McLimans’ contribution to the field and his hometown of Madison. More about the artist can be found here.
Describe his unique qualities as an illustrator and artist.
Like most successful illustrators, David had the ability to extract meaning from the written word, sometimes dense, sometimes abstract, often complex, texts. His was skilled in rendering concepts through a personal and a universal understanding of the world. His particular visual vocabulary was broad as he was well-traveled and experienced in life. What made him special was his want for making fun. He enjoyed the good joke—especially if delivered through a serious illustration—as a means to charm the viewer to another way of thinking. Beyond communicating the meaning of a manuscript, he enjoyed turning assumptions on their head, although this aspect of illustration sometimes confounds editors, especially those bent on literal interpretation. His art often played with type forms, currency manipulation, and mask-making. He was highly proficient with spurt marks, spattered or cut.
When you assigned him illustrations, what did you want to get back from him?
As an art director, my assignments to David most often came from political essays, reviews, cultural analysis and criticism. David fully understood national and global histories and culture. He constantly introduced me to historical and foreign artists, thinkers and writers, poets and musicians, working in sympathetic ways and means. He was a long-time advocate for the environment, our planet and our place on it, as it is, that topic close and dear to his heart making for some amazing art in celebration of it. He recycled and made art of it.
By the time of his untimely passing, where was he in terms of his work?
Like many in the illustration business, David was receiving fewer assignments and increasingly dedicated himself to various book projects, personal and commercial. He had much success with Gone Wild, his first published children’s book, receiving notice in The New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Books and a Caldecott Honor children’s book award. Two more children’s books, Gone Fishing and Big Turtle, followed, but book publishing had by then fallen on hard times, [and] neither of these books received their due in the way of promotion. So David’s art became more personal, associative of his concerns for the environment. He expressed this through map collages and found-trash sculpture. He carved wood until an unfortunate accident, severing a tendon, ended that ability. Over the past few years of his life, he produced large collages celebrating various endangered life forms. These works departed from his conceptual consideration of form, serving simply as portraits of some of the world’s creatures—insects, crustaceans, birds and mammals—collaged from beautiful and old colorful maps, each one a navigation through world habitat. Seemingly simple, they are beautifully layered and complex collages illuminated by a vast array of map parts composed in honor of a few of the earth’s most exquisite life forms
What are the parameters of this posthumous exhibition?
A collective of artists including myself, Michael Duffy, Lewis Koch, and James Watrous Gallery curator Jody Clowes, organized and edited David’s art for over a year. We wanted to include something of most every part of his creative output. There is a large representation of what might be considered his fine art map collages, wood and found trash sculptures, art sketchbooks as well as fine press editions that he had worked on with Walter Hamady’s Perishable Press and Christopher Wilde’s Artichoke Yink Press. Also represented are copies of his children’s books with a large wall presenting research and process sketches revealing the guts behind the creation of Gone Wild. Over 100 illustrations are displayed, collage and ink drawings hung salon stile, in the buff. Illustrator and designer Michael Duffy created a workstation for some of David’s found and assembled junk faces, “The Return of the Nonreturnables,” represented on his website. A play station constructed in the gallery presents a large sample of found materials, encouraging the viewer to participate in the creation of junk faces, photograph the assemblage, and post the image to the Watrous Gallery Instagram. Duffy reproduced several of McLimans’ iconic drawings, enlarging and applying them to surfaces throughout the exhibit. So this is “GONE WILD,” a major retrospective of art culled from a much larger trove of McLimans’ collection.
PRINT’s Summer 2015 Issue: Out Now!
The New Visual Artists are here! In this issue, meet our 2015 class of 15 brilliant creatives under 30. These carefully selected designers are on the scene making the most cutting-edge work today—and as many of our previous NVAs, they may go on to become tomorrow’s design leaders. Why not get to know them now? Check the full issue out here.