About the time the small city of Abilene in mid-west Texas was undergoing a downtown renovation, people began to ask the question, “What happens to the original art that goes into illustrating bestselling children’s books?” That sparked a movement to find those artworks and the artists who produced them. The result was the establishment of the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. Housed in a reclaimed building on the corner of Cedar Street and North First, the museum is now the point of origin for incredible fine art that travels to museums all over the nation.
“We are the only museum in the nation that does what we do,” Debbie Lillick, executive director, said, “Everything starts here.” When she asked the artists themselves where their original artwork for children’s books were, she said, “They told me things like, ‘some of them are stacked up on shelves or under the bed.’”
The artists were asked to send their original art to NCCIL to be exhibited there before being loaned out to other museums. The artists were enthusiastic about the project. Writer and authority on children’s literature assured Lillick that the NCCIL is well known in art circles in New York. “That’s amazing,” she commented, “many people right here in Abilene don’t even know we’re here.”
Lillick’s favorite place in the museum is one which is not open to the public. She can often be found in the workroom in back where she frames the art and gets it ready for the gallery. It is also the place where she prepares the art in crates for shipping off to other museums. The center has its own truck and driver who spends a great deal of time on the road.
NCCIL, affectionately called “the Nickel,” was originally taken on as a project by the Junior League of Abilene. After moving around to various venues in the city and ending up in the Red Carpet area of the Abilene Civic Center, it finally came to its permanent location with its spacious gallery and areas set apart for children’s art activities. When children visit the museum they are given a guide book that both tells something about the artist and has activities to help the children learn more about the process of illustrating the books they love.
Currently the exhibit features the unique work of Raúl Colόn whose artwork has been printed in such books as Tόmas and the Library Lady, Angela and the Baby Jesus, and Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops by Jill Biden. Colόn was guest of honor at the opening and stayed around a while longer to give art lessons to the children who visited the exhibit. The children were especially delighted to learn how to draw Spiderman. His multi art media illustrations are incredibly full of both motion and emotion. They are interesting to children as illustrations as well as being brilliant works of fine art appealing to adults.
Aside from the nationally recognized artists who have come to the Nickel, other famous personalities have attended exhibits and functions at the museum. At the Lorax fund raising dinner, Lynda Johnson Robb was guest of honor. The daughter of the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson was instrumental in bringing the Lorax exhibition from the LBJ Library collection.
Much of the great artwork for children’s books has been lost over the years. The work NCCIL does now will preserve more of this outstanding art. The shows hang in the gallery for about three months before they are sent on tour. The recent Lorax exhibition brought into Abilene bronze statuary from The Cat and the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Reception was so enthusiastic in the community that replicas of the collection will soon be on permanent display in the city.
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