I woke up this morning to the sad news that Maurice Sendak had passed away. I knew this day was nigh – he’d been sick for some time – but it still hit me like a ton of bricks that one of my idols had died. I rarely feel true sadness when a celebrity dies, but I’ll admit, I started bawling at the news…just like I did when Fred Rogers passed away. For millions of us, Sendak was peripherally part of our home.
Maurice Sendak’s work has been woven into the fabric of our childhoods for at least three generations. His sweet-faced children and animals, his psychedelic dream worlds, his incredible mastery of pen and ink – he’s permeated our memories somehow. For most people, his book “Where The Wild Things Are” is his pièce de résistance, but for me, it’s his glorious, existential eulogy for his dear little dog, Jennie: “Higgelty Piggelty Pop.” That book, a deceptively simple fairy tale about a dog searching for more out of life, is one of the deepest and most moving children’s books ever written. As a child, I loved the fun drawings, the play between hyperrealism and fantasy; as an adult who had just lost her beloved grandfather, the book became a cornerstone in dealing with grief, which was the book’s purpose in the first place.
Some of my happiest memories are snuggling on the sofa with my parents, reading Sendak with them. I never knew much about the author until recently, when I discovered in delight what a crusty old man Sendak actually was. I loved finding that out about him. For me, it made his work all the more poignant.
One of my weirdest tales about Sendak happened in my college figure drawing class. We were given the classic assignment of “drawing from a master.” I was mad about pen and ink and only wanted to draw with it because it could bring out the heavy detail I wanted so badly; I couldn’t get those same effects from charcoal or pencil. I did study after study of Sendak’s work, trying to learn how he did his shading, etc. He was my hero-type in this field; he and James Montgomery Flagg. I immersed myself in Sendak’s drawings, getting lost in their labyrinth of pen strokes. I was proud to have chosen him, because he was such a personal choice. For my “master” recreation, I chose Max dancing around in the forest in “Where The Wild Things Are.” It was incredibly challenging and ambitious to recreate Max as best as I could. I spent hours on the drawing, and got it almost right. It was one of the proudest moments I ever had in art school.
My teacher ridiculed me for it. She said she expected me to pick something better than a cartoon.
The incident had me so devastated I quit fine arts that very day, and switched to the integrative arts program with a director who knew why Sendak was important and why he was worthy of admiration. It was the best academic choice I ever made.
I never met Maurice Sendak, nor ever felt the need to. But he was the catalyst that steered me in the direction I wanted to be in, and I will forever be grateful. I hope he’s found Castle Yonder.
Here is one of the studies I made for that class.