Alice and Martin Provensen: working together as book illustrators
Clinton Hollow, N.Y. — Not all of the roads to gold and silver medals will lead to Los Angeles and the Olympics this summer. One road leads to Dallas, where the 1983 Caldecott and Newbery medals for outstanding children's literature will be awarded at the annual convention of the American Library Association.
Alice and Martin Provensen will be there to accept the gold for their charming ''The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot.'' It won the Caldecott Award as the year's best illustrated children's book.
Seated in front of a cozy fire in their authentically restored Dutch colonial farmhouse, which has been their home and workplace for some 37 years, the Provensens talked about their partnership as book illustrators.
Martin started out as a story-sketch man for Walt Disney Studios. Alice worked as an animator for the Walter Lanz Studios. They met during World War II, and after a short time in Washington during the war they moved to New York. Shortly after that their first book, ''The Fireside Book of Folk Songs,'' was published. It was an immediate success and is still in print 35 years later.
The timing of their move to New York City was just right. For five years during the war no children's books had been published. Publishers were clamoring for writers and illustrators. The postwar baby boom was on, and demand for books began to boom, too. All told, the Provensens have produced over 30 books, many of them critically acclaimed.
Asked how they work as a team, Martin answers, ''We divide ourselves into an art director and an assistant on each book. We don't tell anyone which is which. On one book Alice takes the lead and on another book I do . . . . We give it back and forth and in that way it's a joint thing.''
At the beginning of a book, the Provensens may spend only a short time each day at their work tables. They move slowly through the demanding processes of blocking out a book and trying out ideas. But as the book progresses, momentum builds. They work longer hours; and finally, near the end, they work around the clock to complete the project.
What do they do when they can't agree on a plan for a project or on some phase of it? ''We put a sheet up between our workboards and say, 'This side is closed . . . until the problem is solved one way or another,' '' says Alice. Martin adds, ''It doesn't happen too often, but it does happen.''
Martin speaks of the fragility of the early stages of the creative process - an aspect of the artist's work that isn't understood by people who aren't artists themselves. ''There is a secrecy which is needed because a work of art, or a painting, or a piece of literature, is so tremulous and unfledged at this early stage that it has to be protected. You don't dare let it be seen too early , because it isn't ready to be seen.''
''If your publisher or an author sees it and sighs or gives a wrong feeling, '' says Alice, ''the artist is uncertain and says, 'It's no good. I know it's no good. They think it's no good.' And you can't continue. Yet it might have been very good (at that stage) in the process.''
Aviation has long been a favorite subject area for the Provensens. Between bites of cucumber sandwiches and sips of tea, Martin talked about his love of flying, recalling his early zest for model airplanes and his more recent experience learning to pilot a single-engine plane. One begins to see why the Provensens undertook the ''The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot.''
Martin had wanted to do a book on Bleriot for years. He had spent hours researching the Frenchman's pioneering experiments in aviation, which culminated in Bleriot's epoch-making July 25, 1909, flight across the channel. So Martin and Alice finally set to work on the project, eventually presenting the story and initial drawings to the Viking Press, which accepted the proposal.
The book's illustrations are delightful scenes of the Bleriot family at home, in their automobile (Bleriot made a fortune on his invention of an automobile searchlight), and in the French city of Cambrai. And, of course, there are pictures of Bleriot's successive attempts to fly.
Sketches made by the Provensens back in 1948 became the background for Cambrai. The Bleriot plane on display, and occasionally flown, at the nearby Rhinebeck, N.Y., Aerodrome was a handy model, lending authenticity to the planes in the book.
The text is sparse, but the illustrations help advance the story with intriguing visual details. The reader is ever aware of the interplay of words and pictures.
Clever use is made of the book's hard cover. It's a facsimile of a London newspaper front page bannering Bleriot's 1909 triumph. The headlines, photographs, and articles give authentic information about the historic flight.
The past 51/2 years have been a period of tremendous activity for the illustrators. Martin and Alice work closely together on each book. Their spacious studio is in a barn barely 50 feet from the kitchen door. The large north-facing wall has a picture window that overlooks a farm pond and a pasture enclosed by a split rail fence erected by the Provensens themselves.
On a worktable is a mock-up of their new book, which has just come from Viking. It's a spectacular pop-up book titled ''Leonardo da Vinci'' which is to be published this fall.
Now, with this and another book scheduled for this fall - ''Town and Country, '' from Jonathan Cape - Martin and Alice are looking forward to some time off.
One trip they'll be taking is the one to Dallas in late June to receive the Caldecott gold medal. Alice has already been delegated the job of giving the acceptance speech.
But obviously, illustrators don't work just to win annual book awards. Martin sums up what their work means to them: ''We would say without any hesitation that the rewards of spending your life doing what you love to do - would do for nothing, really - are tremendous, and it's a very, very satisfying and fortunate thing to be able to live and work in the area that you passionately love.''