NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — As a child in Stuttgart, Germany, Eric Carle roamed the fields and woods outside the city with his father, who taught him a lesson that has informed his artistic career.
"He was always looking at the small creatures there, and showing me," recalls the creator of the picture book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." "That's where my love for small things came."
Carle's loving and vibrant attention to small things has made him among the best-known picture-book artists in the world. That fame led the author-artist in 2002 to help found the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Mass, across the Connecticut River from his Northampton studio and home. (Carle has begun spending part of the year in the Florida Keys as well.)
"People in America don't know about this art," says Carle, who contributed more than $6 million to establish the institution.
In addition to exhibitions of internationally known children's illustrators, the museum has a gallery devoted to Carle's own work.
His 70-plus books, many of which have spread beyond America to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, celebrate creatures great and small - elephants, bears, and giant sloths as well as spiders, crickets, and click beetles. Carle's "Very Hungry Caterpillar," published in 1969, is a simple counting story in which the title character eats its way through one apple, two pears, three plums and so on, chewing holes through each of the pages on its way to becoming a butterfly. The book has made Carle a household name in 33 languages, from Polish to Panjabi, Frisian to Urdu.
All of Carle's books are buoyantly complex works of art, bursting with color from a technique of collage-drawing he devised using layers of hand-colored tissue paper cut and shaped to create his illustrations. Much of Carle's creative time is spent making his tissue-paper "palette" from scratch, creating sheets that are as patterned, textured, and intricately variegated as abstract paintings.
Carle was born in Syracuse, N.Y., where one of his most vivid memories is sunlight streaming through the classroom windows. At age 6, Carle moved with his German immigrant parents to Germany shortly before World War II began. He has bitter recollections of the life he encountered there. "Things got grayer and grayer, even the houses," he recalls, noting that even the buildings were painted a uniform gun-metal color to conceal them from air raids.
After the war, Carle studied commercial art and immersed himself in the freedom of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and other artists banned by the Nazis as "degenerate." "I hadn't seen this," he says. "For me, everything just tumbled!"
Color remains an obsession for Carle, who is now in his 70s. "I'm always trying to create brighter, more colorful colors," he told an interviewer in 2002. "I've been reading scientific journals on the evolution of color vision, and I'm frustrated by the fact that butterflies have access to colors I can't see."
Carle's art can be viewed as both a reflection and repudiation of his childhood years in Germany.
"All my books have camouflaged education. They are how I would have liked to have been taught. Gently. With care."
His father's lessons in the woods has led Carle to his own. "From a small, insignificant caterpillar, the butterfly flies into the world,'' he says of his most famous work. "I hope people get from this book that you, an insignificant thing, can open your wings and fly into the world with your talent."