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  • The Art of Nancy Ekholm Burkert
  • Marilyn Cochran Smith

"In my illustrations I try to project real rather than idealized or cliche faces (using my children and friends' children as models), a 'sense of place' (as one would design a set for a play) and particularized forms in nature."1 Nancy Ekholm Burkert's illustrations for fantasy works, which account for five of the eight children's books she has illustrated since 1961,2 testify to the achievement of the aims which she outlines above. Burkert's illustrations are peopled with decidedly [End Page 1] authentic characters. The countenances and proportions of the dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (FSG, 1972), for example, were based on Burkert's intensive medical research on the physical characteristics of the dwarf, while the prototype for Snow White herself was fourteen year old Claire Burkert, Nancy Burkert's daughter.3 Similarly, the two children who appear in the periphery of every full color picture in Lear's The Scroobious Pip (H & R, 1968) strongly resemble Burkert's portraits of Claire and her brother, Rand.

The most striking example of Burkert's achievement of a "'sense of place'" is her interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale (H & R, 1965). Here Burkert's exquisitely detailed illustrations, strongly influenced by her particular fascination with the Sung period of Chinese painting,4 invite the reader to immerse himself in the rhythm and flow of Oriental life in a way which complements Andersen's own succinct introduction to the Chinese tale: "In China, you know, the Emperor is Chinese, and all his subjects are Chinese too."5 Reminiscent of Potter's naturalistic drawings, Burkert's "'particularized forms in nature'" create what is perhaps the most distinctive quality of her style. Like her drawings of the discontented little evergreen for Andersen's The Fir Tree (H & R, 1970) in which every needle on every branch is painstakingly represented, Burkert's illustrations of other natural things—animals, insects, plants—are equally particularized. As Danoff relates in his introduction to The Art of Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Burkert prefers particularization of the tree to the tree which is rendered by the artist as, for example, a pole topped with a green ball:6

Now if we give the trunk the specific texture and the foliage the specific color and form of, e.g. a red maple, do we sacrifice 'treeness'? I believe we have added another dimension—that of reference to actuality. We have extended the tree's identity beyond the most fundamental—without losing that fundamental. We have increased the degree of communication through further identification with and reference to life.7

Thus unlike some artists who attempt to reduce the things of nature to their "essential" states, Burkert believes that particularization is the key to portraying the universal.

Nancy Ekholm Burkert does not labor over the decision to illustrate a book. "If a story and I are meant for one another—I can 'see' the whole book-the format, etc."8 Indeed Burkert directs or collaborates on the format and overall design of nearly all the books she illustrates. Her sensitivity to the total book-making process—evidenced in for example the design of Snow White which is totally medieval from endpapers and borders to historiated initial and Snow White's Dürer-inspired headpiece—lends artistic integrity to each of her works. Burkert believes that she can immediately visualize a book only when its author and she have similar visions of what they want to convey; when this happens she is able to reach her self-stated goal—to "illuminate and expand the story as the author intended."9

The stories which Burkert illustrates represent diverse fantasy forms—folk tale, nonsense poem, modern fantasy, morality tale—and yet Burkert suggests that they have in common "literary substance and a writer's skill I respect."10 Although her style changes little from one book to another, Burkert attempts to "suit the technique to the quality...(felt) in the text."11 Hence in her illustrations for The Fir Tree she uses both soft charcoal pencil sketches and brush and colored ink drawings, while for Snow White she combines...


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