Delightful details

Mary Jane Begin’s wonderland realism at Providence Art Club
By GREG COOK  |  May 12, 2010

VIVID Begin’s As They Rounded the River Bend.

In 1908, Kenneth Grahame, a banker who had been penning stories on the side, published a book titled The Wind In the Willows. It was about a gang of forest critters acting like well-mannered Edwardian gentlemen bachelors puttering about the English countryside, and occasionally seized by a passion to drive one of those new-fangled motor cars at breakneck speed.

So, of course, it became one of the classics of children’s literature. Various artists have illustrated it over the years — but perhaps Ernest Shepard’s black-and-white line drawings for a 1931 edition are best remembered. Shepard, who also made the definitive illustrations for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, brought a rich naturalism (he may be one of the last great Western drawers of trees) combined with a sharp eye for gestures that bring out characters’ personalities — from Pooh’s stiff shuffle to the way the boy Christopher Robin slouches over the railing of a bridge to gaze below.

Enter Mary Jane Begin of Barrington. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1985 and became an art editor and director for a New York textbook firm before returning to teach illustration at RISD in 1991. She has illustrated a number of children’s books featuring anthropomorphized animals, like The Porcupine Mouse (1988) by Bonnie Pryor; Little Mouse’s Painting (1992) by Diane Wolkstein; and Bethany Roberts’s A Mouse Told His Mother (1997). Then along came a commission to illustrate a new edition of The Wind In the Willows that was published in 2002.

Begin’s exhibit “Back to the Future: From The Wind In the Willows to Willow Buds” at the Providence Art Club’s Dodge House Gallery (11 Thomas Street, Providence, through May 21) showcases her child’s fantasy wonderland realism. It includes a few watercolor, acrylic gloss, pastel and colored pencil illustrations from her rendition of Willows plus nearly all her illustrations and some preparatory sketches for the 2008 prequel she wrote and illustrated, Willow Buds: When Toady Met Ratty.

The Willows pages include Begin’s version of Mr. Toad’s wild ride: a pudgy, wide-eyed Toad (inspired, Begin has said, by former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci) in a blue pin-striped suit driving a red roadster and kicking up dust.

WILD RIDE Toad, Badger, and Ratty in “Are you O.K.?”

Begin’s Willow Buds books (“friendship stories inspired by The Wind In the Willows”) imagine childhood backstories for Grahame’s characters. She sweetens things (sometimes overly so), favoring bright reds, blues, and greens, and giving the critters cute extra-large heads atop small bodies.

In When Toady Met Ratty, the two critters meet as children when they go fishing with Badger. Ratty catches 17 fish, while Begin depicts Toady’s face as a mix of determination and consternation as he reels in an old boot. “That’s okay,” Badger chuckles. “Maybe I’ll catch another one and we’ll have a fine pair of boots.” Later when they go to the carnival, Toady loves the thrills, but Ratty is rattled by the Ferris wheel and spook house, “too embarrassed to admit he didn’t like being frightened.” Begin uses dramatic foreshortening to suggest the height of the Ferris wheel, with Toady and Badger smiling in delight and Ratty squeezed into the end of the seat with his eyes shut in terror.

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