“The bedroom I shared with my sister looked into the forest. On the windowsill we lined up bird’s nests and feathers and the skull and bones of small animals that we found in the forest.
“Every spring a pair of robins built their nest on the ledge right outside and, if we leaned out far enough, we could see the babies when they hatched.
“My house was in the small town of Middlebury, Vermont. Middlebury is beautiful town with a bandstand on the village green. On the hill at the top of Main Street is a church with a tall white steeple and across town, on another hill is Middlebury College where my Dad taught economics.
“Otter Creek winds through the middle of town and slides right under Main Street. Whenever we crossed the old stone bridge, my Mom would lift me up to watch the water crash down the falls and feel the cold spray on my face. Now I am tall and when I visit Middlebury I am able to lift my own boys up to see.
“Every time anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I answered ‘An artist.’ I loved my art teachers, Mrs. Wissler and Mr. Field. In high school I spent all my spare time in the art room. It was my home at school and where I felt most comfortable.
“I decided to go to college at The Rhode Island School of Design which is an art school. Part of the application to get into RISD was to make three drawings. I was required to draw a pair of shoes and a bicycle but the third drawing was up to me. I did a black and white self portrait in charcoal and put a wreath of colorful flowers in my hair.
“I tried lots of different art forms while I was a student but was most attracted in the end to illustration and printmaking, especially wood block and linoleum block printing. My favorite course was called ‘Picture and Word’ and was taught by Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges, an Illustration professor and Phil Bailey, an English professor. We learned to write stories that left room for illustration and how to use illustration to enhance and enlarge a story. The lessons I learned in that class are still influencing me when I work on books today.
“I received my BFA from RISD in 1979. After graduation I returned to Middlebury for the summer and got a job at a small weekly newspaper called the Valley Voice.
“My title was Art Director but my job was to paste up the ads and sometimes illustrate a column. I went out on a date with Sabin Russell, the reporter for the Valley Voice, fell in love with him and married him in 1980.
“One week after our wedding we packed everything that would fit into the back of a red Toyota pickup and moved to San Francisco. Sitting between us on the front seat as we crossed the USA was my dog, a Border Collie named Pumpkin.
“I got Pumpkin in 1977 while I was still in art school. She was born on a dairy farm and her mother, Patsy, herded cows. Pumpkin went to class with me when I was in school and she went to work with me at the Valley Voice. When we got to California, I went to work at another small weekly newspaper in Marin County called the Pacific Sun and so did Pumpkin.
“In 1983 I left the newspaper to become a free-lance artist and muralist. My first murals had been on barns in Vermont. They were of cows, horses, sheep and children. That summer in California I painted more horses, wagons, dogs, geese and landscapes. I loved working outside in the sun with Pumpkin by my side, listening to the radio and talking to people passing by.
“Winter came and I began work on my illustration portfolio. I knew I needed to go to New York to meet editors and show my work. I made a lot of early morning phone calls and set up appointments with publishers.
“In March of 1983 I spent two weeks in New York, hauling my big leather portfolio around to different appointments. It rained every day and I came home to my friend’s apartment every night, tired and wet.
“Near the end of my trip I met with an editor named Donna Brooks at a small publisher called Dodd Mead. She looked through my work and stopped at a linoleum block print of a girl in a red coat, kneeling in the snow, feeding the birds. ‘I like this little girl. Why don’t you write a story about her?’ Donna asked.
“With her encouragement I went back to California and wrote and illustrated my first picture book, A Year of Birds. It was published in 1984 and I used that picture of the little girl for the cover.
“In 1986 Sabin and I left Pumpkin with my Dad and went on a trip around the world. We traveled East to West, beginning in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia and ending six months later in Turkey, Italy and England. We came home to San Francisco and our son Brennan was born soon after.
“Now I have two sons, Brennan and Rowan, and lots of books. I have a house, a garden and a very busy life.
“I feel very lucky because I grew up to be what I wanted to be as a little girl: an artist.”
Like Miss Bindergarten on the First Day of Kindergarten, children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Wolff is always trying to coax order out of chaos.
The whimsically efficient border collie that prepares her classroom in Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten (1996) is at once an arranger, a sorter, and a teacher-not unlike Ashley herself. “I want children to look at the world and notice the colors, notice the details, notice the delicacy and intricacy of their world,” she said.
With a blend of techniques that evolve with every new work, Wolff has consistently created beautiful books, filled with a sensitivity towards nature and love between family members.
“I like to illustrate because I like to solve problems,” she said. “I like books because they have a definite beginning, middle, and ending. They have an arc.” From her first book to her most recent works, Ashley has been drawn to cycles and circles in life: The months and the seasonal changes in A Year of Birds (1984); the secret adventures of a farm cat in Only the Cat Saw (1985); a Tortoise and Hare-like race around a city park lake in Stella and Roy (1993); the decorated, ordered circles of a necklace in A String of Beads (1997).
Ashley’s paintings are invariably described as rich and vibrant. Her colors glow, and both warmth and complexity lie within her bold and orderly lines. The strong color themes found in all her books are the world as she sees it, rendered in what she calls “realism, with a stylized technique.” Her hand-tinted linoleum block prints derive from her early work in woodcuts as a student at Rhode Island School of Design. More recent books such as A String of Beads are painted in gouache atop a background of black gesso-creating more fluid and painterly effects that retain hints of the dark outline of block prints.
“Each story I have worked on has asked for a particular illustration style and I’ve tried to oblige,” said Ashley. “This has allowed me to explore many avenues as an artist and has resulted in an eclectic body of work. While the tools I use may change from book to book, my emphasis on strong composition and vivid color remain constant.”
Even the lighter, pen and ink techniques used in Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten and A Garden Alphabet (1991) bear the luminous colors and strong sense of light and darkness found in her books. “I’m trying for naturalistic colors,” Ashley explains. “I’m not trying to pump it up or tone it down. The world is full of color.”
Her vision of a natural world that is both lush and structured is r
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