Art Lessons – In Memory of Tomie DePaola


New London, New Hampshire

“We are lucky people in this community to be home to many great writers and artists, but I think there is a special pride the community feels about Tomie’s work.” This is Casie Biuso speaking about the late, great children’s book author and illustrator Tomie DePaola. As a resident of New London, New Hampshire, DePaola was a neighbor, mentor, fellow art supporter and friend. Biuso says, “I think many people here feel like Strega Nona, Big Anthony, Bill and Pete and all the other characters were a little like family. There is a magic in his illustrations that connects with the reader.”

Biuso recalls the influence of DePaola during her childhood, when she would read his stories and see him at read-alouds and special events. As an adult, she encountered DePaola throughout their community, showing his support for the arts and for artists of all ages. This is how Rosanna Long became acquainted with DePaola, as well. “I was lucky to know him from when I was Director of the Wilmot Public Library and we worked together on several children’s programs and readings. And later I was able to rope him into being a judge at an art show that the New London Historical Society puts on annually for school-age artists. I always loved seeing the joy he derived in supporting and encouraging other artists.”

The world-reknowned DePaola passed away in March of this year, and those who knew him best wanted to do something to honor him in the place he called home. Biuso and Long, both art advocates alongside DePaola, contemplated how to create a fitting tribute that could somehow bring community together, despite a widespread shutdown during a global pandemic.

Biuso had been intrigued by the social media movement encouraging art displayed in yards, so she was eager to share the idea with Long, whom she describes as someone who can make things happen. In short order, the pair was calling on local artists to designate the last weekend of May for Art in Your Yard in honor of Tomie DePaola. The planners fielded inquiries and entries and Biuso designed a map for those who wanted to drive from point to point to take in the creative and clever offerings. “What started as ‘What if…’ ended with 30+ participants from as far north as West Fairlee, Vermont, to as far south as Manchester, New Hampshire. We even had one in Santa Ynez, CA. The weather was beautiful and the drive was fun to map out. People we spoke to loved the idea and loved seeing the art.”

What stood out for Biuso and Long was how invested participants and spectators were. Long says. “I think it was incredibly successful! There was quite a bit of interaction on social media from both participants and people who just enjoyed walking or driving around to see the art. And I think ultimately that was the goal…giving our community a chance to communicate about something happy together.”

Both women also remark on the great variety of art displayed. Biuso says, “We had a family of 5 children of all ages who came out strong with a huge collection of things to see. Loren Howard is one of my favorite local artists who put out his sculpture made of organic shapes like sea creatures. Anne Tilley we have watched grow from our children’s art show to attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago hung a textile/ mixed media piece that looked like a children’s swing and managed to embody the absolute joy of a swing.”

The pair is unsure how many participants specifically tried to respond to the works or the style of DePaola, but they say they’re not sure that would have concerned him. “He would have wanted them to express themselves in their art. He wrote so much about being a child and loving art and finding his own path to becoming an artist that we hoped we would be celebrating him by just having art around us.”

The two did note some nods to DePaola characters, however, such as “Egg-thony”, an egg that took on the appearance of Big Anthony. Long adds, “One family worked together to build a life-size robot out of found materials. There were a few examples that were directly influenced by Strega Nona, of course. And I would say that many of the children in town are incredibly aware of Tomie, as he often did local book signings.”

Happiness, joy, community. These are all in the win column for the occasion and planners and participants learned that yes, they could foster community togetherness at a time of sadness and separation. They could do this because of the connecting power of art. Long and Biuso say they believe that Tomie DePaola would be pleased to know that even during a time of extreme uncertainty, they were able to elicit these positive results while paying homage to him. Long says that whatever 2021 has in store for the world, they hope to do this again….to celebrate both art and community “in a vibrant and joyful way”.