This past November, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, unveiled a new exhibit, Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi.
As you may know, I’m a huge fan of DiTerlizzi’s artwork and have interviewed him a few times both for my (on-indefinite-hiatus) podcast, Bounded Enthusiasm, and even before I launched the podcast. The exhibit will run until May 28, 2018, and you can find more information about visiting at the museum’s website. I had a chance to chat with DiTerlizzi about the exhibit, his inspirations, and (of course) Star Wars.
The exhibit includes artwork that spans DiTerlizzi’s career, from his illustrations for Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering to his picture book illustrations. It also includes some of his artwork from grade school and middle school.
DiTerlizzi said: “It includes some of the drawings I made of Dungeons & Dragons when I was just learning to draw. I really wanted kids visiting the exhibit to see where I started, because I hope maybe it can help them see themselves in that story. As an artist, it’s easy to see the finished artwork in a museum and think ‘I could never do that’ but when you see the process and the journey, it helps demystify the art. And it also shows some of my artistic DNA: I was drawing monsters from D&D when I was a kid, and then I got my professional start drawing monsters for D&D, then a bunch of creatures for The Spiderwick Chronicles—so you can see a common theme throughout my career.”
There is a gallery with artwork from The Spiderwick Chronicles (which also includes artwork from some of his other middle-grade books, like the WondLa trilogy and Kenny and the Dragon), a gallery with his picture book art, and a gallery dedicated to his gaming artwork.
This is certainly a first for the Normal Rockwell museum and perhaps the first time Dungeons & Dragons artwork has ever hung in a fine art museum. (There have been gallery exhibits of artists who have also contributed to Dungeons & Dragons, but this may be the first Dungeons & Dragons art exhibited in a museum.) The museum has even been hosting D&D sessions at the museum once a month—another first—and DiTerlizzi said they may have to start turning people away because they’ve been so well-attended. This month, they’ll also host a Magic: The Gathering tournament, so if you’re in the area, that may be worth checking out.
Never Abandon Imagination is part of an ongoing effort to reinvigorate the museum and bring in guests that may not have often made the trip to see Norman Rockwell’s art in a museum. DiTerlizzi shared that the curator, Jesse Kowalski, also worked at the Andy Warhol Museum before, and had helped put together an exhibit on Alex Ross, another artist who uses more traditional art techniques in service of pop culture—in this case, comic books.
The DiTerlizzi exhibit has broken attendance records for the Norman Rockwell Museum, resulting in extending the exhibit for three months. (It was originally scheduled to close at the end of March.) Although DiTerlizzi attributed some of the high attendance to good weather—there wasn’t much snow this winter, making it easier to get to Stockbridge—he also thought that he was fortunate to hit a key moment: “Dungeons & Dragons is on the rise again in popularity, so you get middle-aged parents who grew up playing D&D who are now introducing it to their kids, along with young adults who are playing it now for the first time. And then you’ve also got 30-year-olds who grew up reading Spiderwick …”
Wait, 30-year-olds who grew up reading Spiderwick? Wow, I feel old…
DiTerlizzi: “You think you feel old? I think I just lost a few hairs saying that. Spiderwick was first published 15 years ago, so if you were ten when the first book came out, you’d be 25 now. And there are some people who were a little older and started reading it then.” The fact that DiTerlizzi’s artwork crosses boundaries between picture books and chapter books and gaming, spread across twenty-five years, means that he has a very wide audience now, and the record attendance is a testament to that.
His poster for the exhibit (as he explains in the video above) includes a lot of details from his career. He remarked to me that he doesn’t have a single iconic character that really represents him, the way the Pigeon or Elephant & Piggie might make everyone think of Mo Willems, and so he ended up surrounding himself with a bunch of characters he’s drawn over the years: the troll and the kobolds are from D&D, there are Magic: The Gathering cards scattered all over the place, and he’s surrounded by several other personalities from his kids’ books.
Some of the characters are also carrying games or books—including one of my personal favorites, the Meno series (seen at the lower right corner). I also noticed that DiTerlizzi was wearing a Yamagoo pin (a character from the Meno books) during our Skype call, so I asked if the exhibit included any appearances by Meno and his friends.
DiTerlizzi: “No, there isn’t any Meno art at the exhibit. We considered it. When Jesse visited the studio to choose artwork, he said, ‘Where’s the Meno art?’ But ultimately we didn’t have room to hang Meno drawings in the exhibit.”
I suggested that I still think Meno was just ahead of his time—that there are a lot of cartoons that I see now that I think have similar sensibilities to the Meno books, where they’re for kids and have some silly, inane humor, but there are also jokes in there for adults.
DiTerlizzi: “Well, I don’t claim that it was ‘ahead of its time,’ but that was the type of humor Angela and I were going for. [DiTerlizzi penned the books with his wife.] I think when you get a kid and a parent sharing an experience, like laughing together, that’s a great feeling, especially when you can make that happen with a book. I do watch cartoons with my daughter, Sophia, like Gumball or Phineas & Ferb where I see gags and I think, ‘Oh, that was definitely for the adults because there’s no way the kids would have understood that.’
“We actually had another Meno book mapped out, about a visit to the zoo, and Meno was describing all the animals to Yamagoo but it’s clear he had no idea what any of the animals actually were, so a fox might be called a ‘Red Chicken Bandit’ or something like that. Several years later I see #TheInternetNamesAnimals meme, where an alligator is an ‘American Murder Log’ and I think, yeah, that’s basically what this book would have been. So maybe the timing was off on the Meno books.”
For those of you who can’t make it to the museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum put together an exhibition companion catalog that includes a lot of the artwork from the exhibit, along with comments by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, a foreword by Mo Willems, and various essays. It’s available from the museum website for $20, along with some other items such as DiTerlizzi’s books puzzles, and the exhibition poster. The exhibition may also travel to other museums after it leaves the Norman Rockwell Museum, so stay tuned!
The exhibit primarily drew from DiTerlizzi’s archives, but they did create some new installation pieces. George Lucas gave a large donation to the museum to develop interactive exhibits, and DiTerlizzi said his exhibition was able to benefit from that generosity. There are interactive pieces throughout the exhibition that showcase DiTerlizzi’s many influences, as well as a step-by-step feature on how he created the sci-fi art for his WondLa trilogy. Additionally, DiTerlizzi created a physical piece in the form of a fairy mobile that included many of the various fairies from his different works, suspended from a ring of willow branches. There are also other interactive pieces throughout the exhibition.
I asked what he has been working on, aside from the preparation for the exhibition.
DiTerlizzi: “My next book is coming out for the holidays in 2018, and it’s called The Broken Ornament. It’s about a Christmas fairy who appears out of a broken ornament. It’s based on an experience we had a few years ago, when we were decorating the Christmas tree, and Sophia dropped one of the glass balls. The accident immediately took me back to when I was a kid who dropped an ornament. I remember my dad saying something like, ‘Hey, watch it—those cost money!’ But instead of scolding Sophia I wanted to preserve the happy moment of being together as a family, enjoying holiday traditions, like decorating the tree, so I told her, ‘Sophia, did you know, that whenever an ornament breaks, a Christmas fairy is born?’
“Angela said, ‘That’s gotta be your next book!’ But I’ve got a lot of story ideas in the works, and replied, ‘No. I just said that in the moment.’ Later, I posted a photo of Sophia’s broken ornament on social media, and I received comments asking, ‘Is that your next book?’ Angela said, ‘See? You have to do it.’ So I’ve been working on it for a couple years now, and it’ll be coming out this Christmas of 2018.”
Of course, as a parent with a young child, I had to ask: “Is this going to result in a lot of broken ornaments next Christmas?”
DiTerlizzi: “Well, it’s made very clear that part of the magic is that the ornament has to be accidentally broken. Hopefully, there shouldn’t be kids knocking over an entire tree to smash all the ornaments and summon a swarm of fairies because that’s not how it works.” Well, I hope the kids are paying attention to the rules!
We chatted a bit about his current inspirations: books he’s read, games he’s played, and Star Wars.
He said that since the beginning of the year, he’s been playing 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons with his friends and his daughter, Sophia. “I found a website where you can automatically generate characters, and I printed up about 40 of them. When my friends arrived, I said, ‘Okay, here you go: pick a character.’ They could tweak the characters and modify them, but we were able to get going and start playing right away, rather than spend hours rolling up characters before the adventure begins.” DiTerlizzi proudly confessed that he and his daughter have really enjoyed playing D&D together.
DiTerlizzi has also been tinkering with games with Sophia: “I’ve been thinking about creating some card games, just playing around with ideas and figuring out how they work. We play Rumble in the Dungeon, which requires at least three players. A couple of years back, we were playing games with fellow author and friend Tom Angleberger and his kids. Tom pulled out a deck of blank cards and started writing and drawing on them to modify the game. Now we have this deck of cards that allows us to play Rumble in the Dungeon with just two players, and it sort of works, which is really cool.”
I always love to know what books other authors like to read. DiTerlizzi said that he and Sophia had read all of the Harry Potter books together, followed by viewing the movies, which they enjoyed. While discussing what series to read next, he decided to try the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, which includes The Black Cauldron that was made into the Disney film.
“Here’s what I love about the Prydain books, especially coming out of the Harry Potter series: in Harry Potter, there’s all this ‘chosen one’ stuff, where Harry is born famous and is destined to do heroic things. In The Book of Three, the first book in the Prydain series, you have the protagonist, Taran, who is a lowly pig-keeper whose pig, Hen Wen, is an oracle (it sounds weird, but trust me, it’s cool). Taran wants to be the hero, and he’s naive and brash, and he’s a bit of an ass, so you’re waiting for his glorious moment to arrive but as the story continues, you realize that Taran isn’t the hero in the typical sense. He’s going to help the hero, but he’s not the one who is going to slay the evil Horned King and save the day.
“The books were written in the 1960s, and yet you have Eilonwy, who is a strong female character who’s Taran’s friend, and then there’s Fflewddur Fflam, who is an old bard character—so it’s this ragtag band of heroic characters, and it’s a great read. The final book in the series, The High King, won the Newbury medal in 1969.
“After we read the first book, Sophia wanted to watch the Disney adaptation of The Black Cauldron. I cautioned her that the film is pretty different from the books. After we watched it, she was a little disappointed in it, but said, ‘Well, I guess it’s kind of neat to see Disney do Dungeons & Dragons.’ I thought, ‘Yes! That’s exactly what it is!'”
Finally, since the last time I spoke to DiTerlizzi was prior to The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, I had to get his brief take on each of the films.
DiTerlizzi: “The Force Awakens: despite the echoes of the older films, I enjoyed it. I took my daughter and a bunch of her friends: we took up an entire row in the theater. All that, and our family dressed up—something we had never done before—and went on opening night. Sophia was 8 years old at the time, which is the same age I was when I first saw Star Wars, and after the movie was over the kids were excitedly talking and playing as Rey and Finn. Sophia said: ‘Dad, now I understand why you love Star Wars so much.’ And my heart melted.
“Rogue One: That was one that Sophia didn’t see, which I think was a little disappointing. My wife and I looked up information ahead of time on Common Sense Media, and we thought maybe she was still a bit young for it, so she didn’t get to see that one. Unlike many people my age, I really liked The Force Awakens and I thought Rogue One was okay, instead of the other way around, because I am thinking of it through a child’s experience.
[Note: Spoilers ahead for The Last Jedi in case you haven’t seen it!]
“The Last Jedi: I always have some issues with the story in Star Wars films, because I write stories for a living and so, I’m obsessed with plot. There were some scenes I didn’t care for, like the casino scene—which visually looked too human, too Earth-like, and I wanted it to be more alien, but that aside, I loved Luke’s story. As soon as you see him take his old lightsaber and throw it away, you know that this movie is not going to go the way you expected. I love that the movie explores what it means to be a hero: that maybe you can change the world for a brief time, but not in perpetuity. Luke thought that the rebels won the war, that the battle was over, but life is cyclical and evil returned.”
I was thinking about this after our conversation, and the way that DiTerlizzi himself is a hero to so many kids and adults, and this exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum is a tribute to that: but he also understands that, as with Luke, the story doesn’t end with him. The exhibition isn’t just a celebration of the work that DiTerlizzi has done, but it also serves as an inspiration for the next generation of artists, one that DiTerlizzi will be the first to welcome and encourage. Though I hope he doesn’t pass that baton just yet—I’m excited to see what else he’ll create in the next twenty-five years!
For more about Never Abandon Imagination, visit the Norman Rockwell Museum website!