I felt chills – actual tingles on my spine – while gazing into this plexiglass case at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As I child I loved the books of Virginia Lee Burton, including The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Katy and the Big Snow. Perhaps you have read her books as well – it’s estimated that over 4.5 million copies have been sold. The Cape Ann Museum features many examples of Burton’s work, making it the perfect destination for my second Artist Date.
Virginia Lee Burton, also known as Jinnee, was a talented, vibrant artist in many creative fields. After a promising start as a ballerina, Burton came to Boston in 1928 to care for her ailing father. She met her future husband, noted sculptor George Demetrios, while taking a class at the Boston Museum School. Burton decided to try writing and illustrating children’s books as a way to earn income during the Depression.
Her first attempt, a story about a dust bunny, was a failure. It was rejected by publishers, and even her own young son fell asleep before the story ended. Burton persevered, imagining stories that would appeal to her two young boys. Her next book, Choo Choo, published in 1937, was a success. She continued to write more bright, warm-hearted books, all featuring strong female anthropomorphized characters. Burton’s The Little House was honored with the Caldecott Medal in 1943.
Resourceful and energetic, Burton offered to teach drawing to a neighbor in exchange for violin lessons for her sons. The art classes quickly morphed into a sophisticated textile design collaborative, the Folly Cove Designers, composed of approximately 30 women taught by Burton. They carved highly intricate patterns on linoleum covered woodblocks and printed all manner of textiles, wallpaper, table linens, etc. Their whimsical and natural motif works attracted media attention, met with retail success, and were featured in major museum exhibitions.
Learning more about Burton and examining her works left me energized and rejuvenated. Her story reminded me of so many good things about the writing journey; to be collaborative with others, resourceful with time, energy and materials, to embrace ideas and inspiration across a wide range of disciplines, and above all to be joyful in one’s work.
Additional resources for more information on Virginia Lee Burton: