Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 11, 2007

Picture this

Tall tales are told in Palo Alto artist's dynamic kids' illustrations

by Rebecca Wallace

A silvery-gray beanstalk crawls up the page, drawn in pencil. Where there's a beanstalk, there must be an ambitious boy looking up.

Only this time Jack is named Jose. His garden has a food stand with a "Frijoles" sign, and the only thing scary about the giant is his tropical-print shirt.

Fairy tales get new zest on Kristin Abbott's sketch pad. The children's illustrator adds diversity to familiarity, moving "Jack and the Beanstalk" to Mexico or giving "Beauty and the Beast" an Asian feel, with dragons, pagodas and hanging lanterns that glow with watercolor softness.

Here, in her small studio, an angular space off her Palo Alto living room, Jose is taking shape, ready to hit the clouds.

"When Jose gets back, he'll open his little stand and sell giant bean burritos," Abbott says, smiling. "There's no golden goose, only giant beans."

As Abbott works, National Public Radio constantly plays, its tales from around the world sweeping over her drawing table. It puts her in the proper narrative frame of mind to envision fables or fiction of her own creation.

Although her sketches ultimately become watercolor paintings, and she also does portraits in oil, Abbott says: "I'm not a gallery painter; I'm an illustrator, telling a story." She wants viewers to step up close to her work, to peer into the corners and details and creatures' faces and speculate about what's happening.

Her favorite accolades come from kids, when they stare into her illustrations and say, "I want to go there."

Besides selling prints of her work, Abbott also teams up with children's authors to illustrate book covers or pages. She has big plans for her Mexican "Jack and the Beanstalk" -- it'll become a special book to promote herself to art directors of publishing companies.

These days, Abbott is also reaching a new audience: the bunny-suited workers in the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility, along with the other researchers and scholars in the Center for Integrated Systems at Stanford University.

Through July 5, she's exhibiting with mixed-media artist Salma Arastu and contemporary Cubist painter Carol Manasse through Stanford Art Spaces. This program displays artwork on walls throughout the Center for Integrated Systems and other selected campus buildings.

Curator Marilyn Grossman says Abbott's illustrations are ideal for the informal setting; people can gaze closely at them, or snare a quick glimpse on a workday rush through the halls.

"They're light and whimsical and happy," she said. "A lot of people like happy art."

Grossman, who has been with Stanford Art Spaces for 10 years, enjoys getting to know artists and bringing unexpected touches of art to corridors and corners. Her daughter-in-law, a designer, saw Abbott's work on the Internet and urged Grossman to give the illustrator a call.

Abbott has enjoyed the reactions at Stanford. "They love my work over in the psychology department," she said. "They're probably thinking, 'What does she mean?'"

One could certainly analyze such illustrations as "The Wrong Side of the Bed," in which a boy prepares to rise and shine. Everything on one side of his room is happy-go-lucky, from the chipper goldfish to the horseshoe on the wall. However, the boy is getting out of bed on the side with the black cat and the storm clouds, his foot poised over a banana peel.

There's plenty of charming quirkiness in Abbott's work, including polar bears with sun umbrellas, a boy and his alligator chum, and a man flying a plane made out of a tractor whose flight path has apparently veered through a clothesline: The flying machine is dragging a chain of undergarments. Perhaps one can blame the co-pilot, a dog in goggles.

"It's so absurd," Abbott said fondly. "Tractors are made to be heavy. And who doesn't love polka-dot underwear?"

This illustration grew out of a school assignment at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where Abbott earned an illustration degree in 2005 and is working toward a master's.

Abbott, a married mother of three, came to her illustration work by taking "a U-turn in the middle of my life." She had been a writer for a PR firm and was enamored with the children's books she read to her kids. Inspired, she began taking art classes. Now she's looking for an agent and aspires to illustrate and write her own children's book.

It's apropos, then, that several of her illustrations are set to go on display at Palo Alto's children's library when its renovation is finished. They include a leprechaun reading in a cauldron and a mermaid in a boat, captivated by her book.

"She was caught with books as bait," Abbott said.

What: An exhibit of illustrations by Kristin Abbott, mixed-media works by Salma Arastu and paintings by Carol Manasse, at Stanford Art Spaces

Where: Center for Integrated Systems at 420 Via Palou and other selected buildings at Stanford University

When: Through July 5. Exhibit hours are weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-725-3622 or go to cis.stanford.edu/~marigros.

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