Garth Williams " Aspen’s most famous resident artist |

Garth Williams " Aspen’s most famous resident artist

Aspen Historical SocietyGarth Williams' promotional poster for Aspen Highlands used rabbits similar to many of his book illustrations.

One of my favorite grade-school memories is the day children’s illustrator Garth Williams visited our classroom. Aspen Elementary occasionally held school-wide assemblies, many were President Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act science programs, but classroom visitors were rare. There was no “bring your father to school” day. Lucky for us, Williams’ daughter Estyn was a classmate. Perhaps he volunteered or our teacher corralled him for an hour with us.

I knew nothing about book illustrators and might not have been particularly impressed had not my favorite book, E.B. White’s “Stuart Little,” included Williams’ drawings. As a reading-challenged youth I spent more time scanning the illustrations than stumbling through the text. I had carefully “read” every pen and ink drawing in “Stuart Little.”

Girls in my class were likely to have held the same penchant for Williams’ authentic renderings in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House On The Prairie” series. We were all enamored of “Charlotte’s Web,” another work of Garth’s, filled with memories of our teachers and parents reading it to us. I, for one, would not have been as excited had the authors visited our class.

As a son of a Punch magazine illustrator, Williams followed his father’s footsteps. After art school and service during World War II, he did a stint as an illustrator for The New Yorker. While there he made contacts to land his first successful children’s illustration contract, the Little House series. He also illustrated a few Little Golden Books. Garth Williams’ career skyrocketed in the 1950s.

Williams, an outdoorsman and skier, first became interested in Aspen while living in New York. For several years he spent most of his time in Aspen. Garth took up residence in the abandoned Hope Mine buildings below the Castle Creek Road at the merger with the Little Annie Road. Summer afforded views up and down the valley and of the roaring river below. Winter cold overcame his love of Aspen and he moved to Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1960, the year when his collaboration with George Selden, “The Cricket in Times Square,” was published.

I do not remember what Garth Williams discussed with us. I do remember his effortlessly drawing large rabbits on the blackboard. With just a few quick chalk strokes, he rendered the rabbits I knew from his books. A review of the sequence of his books during his Aspen years reveals that was his “rabbits” period. He authored two of his own books: “The Adventures of Benjamin Pink,” (a lesser known but wonderful third grade level rabbit adventure, still in print) and “The Rabbit’s Wedding.”

One would not think a children’s book about rabbits could create controversy, but “The Rabbit’s Wedding” rattled some adult readers in the segregated South. Williams had created a white rabbit and a black rabbit so readers could distinguish the two main characters. Alabama’s arbiters of racist codes interpreted his motive as a challenge to forbidden miscegenation, and so banned the book. At Aspen Elementary School, we simply saw a lively rabbit tale with cute drawings of bunny tails.

Today’s walls of Aspen’s galleries include the creations of contemporary resident artists who boast international reputations; however, Garth Williams earned the title of Aspen’s most universally known artist. As we continue to be amused by his familiar illustrations, let’s remember that he once lived in Aspen and is buried here.

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