At 93, children’s book illustrator Dahlov Ipcar gives young readers her vision of the ABCs

Posted Dec. 13, 2010, at 5:48 p.m.

FARMYARD ALPHABET by Dahlov Ipcar, board book, $10.95, Islandport Press, Yarmouth.

Dahlov Ipcar. 93, of Georgetown has painted vibrantly colored animals for more than 70 years. Her paintings take you to jungles, ancient forests, mythological lands, underwater worlds and, in her most recent publication, to Maine farms. “Farmyard Alphabet” will be the first book she has published in more than 20 years.

Ipcar has illustrated and written more than 30 books for children and young adults. She recently has been working with Yarmouth-based Islandport Press to rerelease some those books, which have been out of print for a number of years.

“My publisher has been reprinting my books and snuck up on me with this idea [to create an alphabet book],” Ipcar said in a phone interview Thursday. “He ran it by me and I said, ‘This looks easy.’”

Then she realized she would need to write the text if her name was going to grace the book cover, so she stayed awake for three nights writing alphabet verses.

“It’s not easy to write,” she said. “I think this one came out quite nice in the end, and I like the whole layout.”

Originally from New York, Ipcar had been visiting Maine with her family since she was 5 years old. She married Adolph Ipcar in 1936 in New York City when she was 18 years old, and they moved to Georgetown the next year.

“We had a farm for a good many years — at least 30 years or more — and had dairy cows,” she said. “I always wanted to be a farmer. My poor husband was an accountant and didn’t like accounting, so I made him a farmer.

“We had this romantic idea of going back to 19th century living. It was kind of that way coming to Maine, which still had people with horses and buggies, and no one had indoor plumbing or electric lights.”

The illustrations in the alphabet book were pulled from 11 previous books she has illustrated — books that were influenced by her experiences working the land for decades.

“One person I was talking to said they couldn’t imagine deliberately choosing a life of such hardship, and I didn’t feel that way — that it was hardship. It was a life I wanted to live,” she said.

This year, Downeast Books published the first retrospective publication of her life and art. “The Art of Dahlov Ipcar” includes 120 color images of artwork she has created since childhood. In September, she was named the winner of the prestigious 2010 President’s Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Asso-ciation.

“I’ve just lived long enough to have suddenly all the materials and have it come to a head,” she said. “When you reach 90 and you’re successful, they can’t attack you anymore. I expected to die at 80, but here I am, still going, just passed my 93rd birthday. I don’t know, I seem to be in pretty good condition.”

She paints almost every morning for an hour or two, producing about 18 paintings a year.

“I found that for most people who go to art school, they’re better at painting human beings and not that good at animals,” she said. “I’m just the opposite.”

Her paintings of zebras, birds, turtles and leopards are often described as having cubist influences with bold texture and color combinations.

In “The Calico Jungle,” originally released in 1968 and rereleased by Islandport Press in 2009, she stepped away from realism to pattern her animals with designs seen on quilts and fabrics.

Although her style oscillates from realistic to more decorative and geometric, the subject mater is amazingly consistent. At age 12, she painted the same kind of jungle animals she paints now.

Through animals, she creates a world that can’t be found in your backyard, even when she’s painting Maine creatures. She wants to offer viewers a chance to step into a new land. Though she gains ideas from animal books and National Geographic magazines, the fluid, active landscape ultimately comes from her own imagina-tion.

“They just sort of naturally fall into a certain style,” she said. “It’s interesting. I don’t know how I got my style for certain books; it just came to me. It was modern at the time, but now it’s old-fashioned.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, children’s book illustrations were more artistic, but then cartoons began replacing the art, she said.

“I think they’re coming back now to books with art quality,” she said.

Ipcar plans to put out two more alphabet books: one on jungle animals and the other on Maine wildlife.

“The thing that throws you in all of these books is the ‘X, Y, Z,’ she said. “Trying to do a Maine alphabet book ‘X, Y, Z’ is still flooring me.”

For information on Dahlov Ipcar’s rereleased books and “Farmyard Alphabet,” visit www.islandportpress.com. Ipcar is one of nine Maine artists profiled in the Maine Masters public television series. To order the DVD, visit mainemasters.com.

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