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Major Minor

Wendell Minor long legacy and connection to Norman Rockwell



It is clear the moment you step into illustrator Wendell Minor’s studio in Washington that he is a perfectionist. In the foyer, a half-dozen of his beloved cowboy boots are meticulously arranged, the first tip off to his Midwestern roots and his proclivity of nature.

A tall, lean figure with a mustache and beard, Minor looks like he could have stepped out of a book himself, as Abe Lincoln or one of the many historical figures he has illustrated over his 25 years working in children’s picture books. Upstairs, where he spends long hours at an easel, there’s nary a stray pencil shaving to be seen, not a paper or a book that is not neatly stacked in its place. “It’s not always like that,” remarks Florence, Minor’s wife and business partner. “Some days, it’s like a cyclone went through the place.”

But things are rarely astray despite that fact that Minor, who turned 70 this March, works in the calm of his studio amid a whirlwind of projects. He and Florence moved to Washington as weekenders then permanently in 1991, drawn to the idyllic white-clapboard community because it seemed to them like a place time had forgotten. “It was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life,” says Minor.

So it is fitting that his four-decade retrospective, “Wendell Minor’s America,” highlighting his 25th anniversary as an illustrator of children’s book, is on exhibit through May at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Coincidentally, this summer, he will begin work illustrating, Hi, I’m Norman, a children’s book on the life of Rockwell.

As artists, Rockwell and Minor styles differ. Minor’s paintings are strikingly vivid in color and executed with the craftsman-like precision, while Rockwell’s work is comparatively softer in tone and color, but they share a similar Walt Whitman-esque, “I Hear America Singing” sensibility. And Minor’s work, like Rockwell’s, “focuses on life’s small but significant moments, which are the center of most people’s lives,” says museum director Stephanie Plunkett.

Both are prolific. Rockwell churned out 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, the largest circulation magazine in the early 1900s. Over his 45-year career, Minor has focused largely on children’s books, having illustrated more than 50 picture books and thousands of book covers. “The man is a machine,” says Barry Blitt, an illustrator and neighbor of Minor, whose cartoons appear regularly in The New Yorker.

“I learned long ago in publishing, you can’t wait for the phone to ring,” says Minor, who logs 12-plus-hour days in his studio. Rockwell, a prodigious worker himself, kick-started his day with a Coca-Cola for breakfast and ruminated over his painting while puffing on a tobacco pipe. Minor is a vegetarian who practices yoga between stints at the easel and sips herbal tea. 

Like Rockwell, Minor struggled as a child with dyslexia. Rockwell, a tall, rail-thin, pigeon-toed figure with glasses, was miserable at sports; Minor had a congenial heart condition that prevented him participating.

Minor, who was born in Aurora, Illinois, drew inspiration from great American illustrators, including N.C. Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper—and, to an extent, Rockwell. “I’m probably one of the last generation of illustrators to have direct exposure to Rockwell as a kid,” he says. 

“I would go around to Schaefer’s Drug Store, and always looked for Saturday Evening Post,” notes Minor. “The one I remember most is “Breaking Home Ties,” which came out in September of 1954. I was ten years old at the time, and I looked at that cover and saw this farmer sitting on the running board of a Model A truck; his son is all spit and polish, ready to go off to college, and the dog has his muzzle on the boy’s leg, being very sad. This kid is all ready for tomorrow, and I thought, yeah, I’m going to do that some day.”

Minor drew his way through childhood, making art his varsity sport. After graduating from high school, he worked at a slaughterhouse for a year, saved up, and enrolled for the then-unaccredited Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida. He got a job at Hallmark, soon after moved to New York City, and two years later opened a design studio.

Among his most significant covers is an is a painting of President Harry Truman, which became a book cover for Pulitzer Prize–winning author David McCullough’s biography of Truman, and the cover for paperback edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

“I always knew I wanted to illustrate children’s books; they’re like miniature mobile art galleries that can inspire young minds,” he says. “An illustration or photo doesn’t disappear in a book—it’s accessible, tangible, and human beings are very tactile people.”

His most recent book, Galapagos George, about the oldest surviving Pinta Island giant tortoise, authored by the late Jean Craighead George, was released in April; Sequoia, by Tony Johnston, is due out in the fall.

And more book adventures lie ahead. The Minors have traveled to places as the Galapagos and the Arctic for book projects. Next, Wendell would like to follow in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps exploring the Amazon. Florence, also a children’s book author, wants to swim with the dolphins. Retirement? It’s not an option.

 

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