Do you remember the old Disney animations? The big band music rollicking while snails and piglets dressed in frocks and tuxes danced? Where animals were more human than humans, and were funnier than we could ever be?
I thought that kind of smart, heartfelt whimsy was gone. Even the best CGI animations can't compare to the innocence and magic of those old drawings. Certainly Alvin and the Chipmunks don't have it, no matter how chipwrecked they get.
I just wasn't looking in the right direction. I wasn't looking in West Brattleboro, and I hadn't seen the books and illustrations of John Steven Gurney.
"I like drawing talking animals," he says on a sunny Monday morning on his back porch, the
A look through John's portfolio bears this out. The animals he's drawn for book covers, posters, magazines, puzzles, and more are bright and bold and lively. They pop with personality, like the sheriff penguin with herrings in his holsters, or the lion king who looks mightily pleased with himself, or the long-eared rabbit in raincoat and wellies splashing in a huge puddle with his happy eyes closed.
With the many, many creatures and people he's created since he began drawing professionally in the early 1980s, John has populated an entirely new world, and a magical, heartfelt one at that.
"I was always drawing as a kid. ‘The Jungle Book'
He drew all through his childhood in Bucks County, Penn., and all through school. His high school biology teacher even came to say that no student could draw and take notes at the same time -- unless he was John Gurney.
In a way, drawing was how John's mind ordered the world. Becoming an artist and illustrator was the right and clear thing to do. When it came time to go to college, his first choice was to study illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
"New York was where you went if you wanted to get into publishing in the 1970s," he remembers. "And Pratt wasn't too artsy. It had a kind of working class feel to it, you know, where the kids played video games and read MAD."
This mix of earthbound sense and starry whimsy carries through in John's illustrations. The colors, particularly in his oil work, are rich, almost unreal, and the light is warm and enveloping. But in characters' eyes, especially, there is a look of galumphing, knowing good humor. His black-and-white drawing of Abraham Lincoln, eyes sunken but mischievously jovial, and a fine rendering of a satisfied-looking pig, both capture these interlocking qualities.
His college job also combined the practical and the fanciful. During the summers, he would go down to the Atlantic City boardwalk to draw caricatures.
"That was fun," he says. "It was out of this portrait studio, a guy who'd been a fixture there since the 1950s. The casinos had just come in, so the gambling thing hadn't really started. You'd develop this banter, this sort of carnival barker pitch, to get the crowd to pay attention. Some artists would just sit and wait for customers to come to them, but I thought it was more fun to engage with people."
At the end of his time at Pratt, John won a poster competition for Molson's Golden Ale.
"It wasn't a great book," John remembers, "but I was just out of college and it got a certain amount of attention because, you know, William F. Buckley! Not that I particularly knew who he was at the time, but it did lead to other things."
Little by little, John found steady work as a freelance illustrator, notably as the cover illustrator of the A to Z mystery series and the Bailey School Kids series. In the first years, he continued doing caricatures, too.
"As the other work increased I let the caricatures go for a time," he says. "Though lately, as print media has declined, I've gone back to it. As a freelancer, you never stop worrying about where the next work will come from. Caricature drawing is a good skill to have"
In 1997, John and his wife, Kathie, knew that they were ready to leave the city. They had a 3-year-old son and an infant daughter; Brooklyn wasn't the place they wanted to raise their kids.
The couple had visited Lake Willoughby in the Northeast Kingdom several times, stopping in Brattleboro along the way. When the time came to move, Brattleboro felt like the right place.
Fifteen years later, Brattleboro is definitely home. Their network of friends is strong. Their house is lovely and lived-in. Their now-teenage kids have had their childhoods here.
"Sometimes I'll look at folks who have done really well financially, taking their kids on really big vacations and things like that, and I do get a pang, maybe I should have done this or that for my kids."
He looks over the leafy backyard. "But sometimes those kids seem like they are jaded already. My kids grew up with a stream in their backyard -- they got to have that. And I think in the end it's really about the time you spend with them."
Part of that time, for John, has been both drawing his kids and drawing about them. He's used both children as models for illustrations (along with at least 40 other people in Brattleboro), and he wrote and illustrated a book about his son's toddler-era obsession with dinosaurs and trains.
"It's called ‘Dinosaur Train,'" he laughs. "That was the first book where I was the author and illustrator. That's always been the long-term goal, to write and illustrate my own books. So far I've just had the one published, but I've written several others."
In addition to illustrating, writing, doing caricature work, singing with friends, running, and raising kids, John has made school visits a regular gig. He offers PowerPoint presentations, drawing demonstrations, and audience participation, with the goal of getting kids excited about reading and art.
So far he's visited schools as close as Brattleboro and as far as Indiana and Arkansas. He's been to wealthy schools and struggling schools, rural and urban. He's presented to children who saw him as a celebrity and kids who expected him to earn their attention, and he's learned how to adapt his energy and presentation to the needs of the kids before him. This past spring, he was even invited to a school in the Philippines.
Through it all, John keeps drawing, toads and giants, roosters and kangaroos, schoolmarm cats and rafting pandas.
"Yeah, animals being funny." He grins. "That's definitely what I like."
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.