Wild children's world left behind

In life, David Wisniewski could not help but send bits of his work into the world.

His X-acto knife whizzing across colored paper, the children's book illustrator created fantastic scenes in his Monrovia studio: the secret neighborhoods inside a cookie jar, a giant collapsing into a pile of clay. It was inevitable that paper clouds would attach themselves to a child, that neighbors would find scraps that were in fact the castoffs of art, and ask: "What's David working on now?"


So it seemed natural when in 2002, his mind and body failing from a brain tumor that would kill him just six weeks after its discovery, Wisniewski urged his wife Donna to sell the original illustrations from 11 of his books. "He wanted his pieces in circulation," Donna Wisniewski said.

It took a year and a half for her to summon the strength to go through the images. But today in Frederick, 50 Wisniewski originals will go up for display and sale in the largest exhibit to date of the artist's work.


Visitors will see the Superman-like mouse who saves Tokyo in Sumo Mouse, a boy exulting in a bathtub of bubbles in Ducky, a coronation before worshipful tribesmen in Sundiata. There are three frames from the dark story of Golem, which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1997.

The illustrations will surface at an unlikely gallery - Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, the downtown Frederick store where Wisniewski signed and read from his books. He was friends with the store's owners, Tom and Marlene England.

For Tom England, Wisniewski's originals are as irreplaceable as the man.

"I want people to see what I already knew - how incredibly intricate and time-consuming it was to make one frame," he said.

Wisniewski, who was 49 when he died in 2002, began his career not as an artist, but a circus clown. Donna Harris hired him to work as a puppeteer and they became fast friends.

He proposed marriage - before they had ever had a date - as they were driving on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Harris mentioned she had decided not to marry her boyfriend. With a clown's exaggerated gasp and meaningful stare, Wisniewski reared back from the steering wheel. "I would marry you," he said, "in the twinkling of an eye."

Two weeks later, he did.

Wisniewski's illustrations evolved from his family life: After their second child, Alex, was born, it was too hard for Donna and David to travel as puppeteers. A fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, Wisniewski thought he'd try illustrating some scenes, cutting paper much as he designed shadow puppets.


The earliest illustrations, from The Warrior and the Wise Man (1989), are similar to those first images, with black figures flat against bright backgrounds. Over time the pictures became multidimensional, layered with foam tape and double-sided photo backing that made them appear to pop from the frame.

Wisniewski cut his illustrations from Color-Aid paper, which was specially treated with an even layer of paint. To keep his fingerprints from smudging the paper, Wisniewski had to trace and cut his pictures on the white side, in reverse.

After he became adept at the form, a book's worth of illustrations took two to three months - and nearly 1,000 knife blades.

He made up and retold stories from distant lands. Golem is an adaptation of a Hebrew legend about a rabbi who creates a giant to defeat persecutors of Jews in 16th-century Prague, then turns the giant back to clay. Rain Player (1991) tells of a Mayan boy seeking rain for his people. Sundiata (1992) is set in Mali; Elfwyn's Saga (1990) in Iceland.

As he indulged his love of absurdism in later years, the artist turned to the impossible colors of the circus to create his wild worlds. Skies are crayon yellow, or red as a clown's nose. Menacing green vegetables rule the earth (in The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups (1998), Wisniewski confides that children need to eat them to keep them under control).

Donna Wisniewski chose the pieces for the sale after consulting with her two grown children and her husband's family. About 100 pieces are off-limits, such as an illustration of the samurai sword from The Warrior and The Wise Man. It became a symbol of her husband's magical knife, one he reprinted on business cards and stationery.


The work on display generally will range from about $1,000 to $2,700; a few special pieces, such as the two for sale from Golem, likely will cost $6,000 or more.

A portion of the proceeds will go to Hope Alive, a nonprofit organization that plans to turn a home and barn in Frederick County into housing and a daycare center for homeless women and children. It's a favorite cause of Tom and Marlene England.

"That so appealed to me, and I knew it was something that David would really, really enjoy," Donna Wisniewski said.

Because her husband wanted his work sold, Donna Wisniewski says, she doesn't find the art so hard to part with. Her husband's thick wire-rimmed glasses - he was legally blind without them - are another matter; they still occupy their customary place at his bedside.

Wisniewski's work may continue in other ways. Negotiations are under way that may turn Tough Cookie into a film, and Sumo Mouse into a cartoon show.

And then there are those scraps from Wisniewski's work that, though the artist is gone, still occasionally surface in his house. They have their own special gallery space, on Donna Wisniewski's refrigerator.


Art sale

When: Today through June 26, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Where: Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, 12 N. Market St., Frederick.

Call: 301-631-9300 or visit