Barbara describes her mother as an amateur impressionist painter and describes the guidance she received at her hand: “She gave me all the materials I could wish for and then left me alone, didn’t smother me with instruction. Not that I ever took instruction very easily. My favorite days were when I had a cold and could stay home from school and draw all day long.
"She was an enthusiastic painter of oils and watercolors. She was also very generous. I could mess with her paints and brushes all I wanted. On one condition: that I kept my brushes clean. The only art lesson my mother gave me was how to wash my brushes. Otherwise, she left me alone.”
Cooney attended a boarding school as a child. Never considering an art school and wanting a liberal arts education, she later attended Smith College where she studied art history and received her degree in 1938, a decision she was later to regret.
“I have felt way behind technically; and what I’ve learned I have had to teach myself. To this day, I don’t consider myself a very skillful artist.” Realizing that she needed to make a living at something, she decided that illustrating books was a career as good as any. She attended classes on etching and lithography at the Art Students League in New York City, not so much to learn these techniques but to improve on her black and white drawing skills.
She quickly received assignments after getting a portfolio together and schlepping it around to publishers, but, unfortunately, World War II postponed her new career for a bit. Recalling an earlier trip to Germany prior to the war and the horrors that she had seen there, she was compelled to join the Women’s Army Corps during the summer of 1942.
She enrolled in officer training and achieved the rank of second lieutenant, but was honorably discharged the following spring because of marriage and the pregnancy of her first child, Gretel. She married Guy Murchie, Jr., a war correspondent, in December of 1944. In 1945, the young couple bought a farm in Pepperell, Massachusetts where they ran a children’s camp during the summer months. One can only imagine that, perhaps, family life didn’t suit Mr. Murchie and the couple divorced in March of 1947, but not before having one more child, Barnaby.
With a young family to support, Cooney resumed her career in book illustration. She married Charles Talbot Porter, a physician, on July 16, 1949, and the couple had two more children, Charles Talbot Jr. and Phoebe Ann. They also settled in Pepperell where Porter was a general practitioner.
By this time, Cooney was illustrating several books a year and even wrote one herself now and then. In fact, it was for her adaptation of Chaucer’s The Nun Priest’s Tale that she won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1959. Even today, Chanticleer and the Fox is a perfect example of what can be done with scratchboard and pre-separated art.
Cooney was a stickler for details and traveled extensively to support her research. A visit to Mexico was required to study at the art and anthropological museums there. A visit to Finland was in order to meet with artist, writers and folklorists there. She would also study the land and light, feeling that it would help her to find the right tone and palette for her illustrations.
“'When’ is very important to an illustrator because the sets (the landscape and architecture) must be accurate; so must the costumes, the props, the hairdos, everything.
“It was not until I was in my forties, in the fifth decade of my life, that the sense of place, the spirit of place, became of paramount importance to me. It was then that I began my travels, that I discovered, through photography, the quality of light, and that I gradually became able to paint the mood of place.”
Other research trips have included locales like France, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, England, St. Lucia, and Haiti. She has also been known to live the life of her characters, changing her own hairstyle to that of her character’s or inviting a family of mice or chickens into her home for an extended stay.
Twenty-one years later, Cooney again won the Caldecott Medal for Ox-Cart Man written by Donald Hall. Although the story took place in her beloved New England countryside, she did not skimp on the research. It was at this time that Cooney’s son built a dream house for her in Damariscotta., Maine, where she was to spend the rest of her life.
Towards the end of her life, she listed three books as being close to her heart—Miss Rumphius, Island Boy, and Hattie and the Wild Waves — all written by Cooney and described by her as being as close as she ever will come to an autobiography. Miss Rumphius won the National Book Award in 1983.
“Miss Rumphius has been, perhaps, the closest to my heart. There are, of course, many dissimilarities between me and Alice Rumphius, but, as I worked, she gradually seemed to become my alter ego. Perhaps she had been that right from the start.”
Hattie and the Wild Waves, the story of a young girl who follows her dream to become an artist, is based on her mother’s life; however, Cooney does admit that perhaps she may be the model for Hattie.
Cooney had strong feelings about what constitutes good writing and illustration: “How well an illustrator transfers an author’s ideas to his own medium is the measure of his success as an illustrator.”
From her acceptance speech for the 1959 Caldecott Medal: “I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting. It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand. 'A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.' So should a child’s. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down to—children.”
Cooney died on 14 March, 2000 at the age of 83. Her last book was Basket Moon published in September of 1999. A good portion of original artwork by Cooney is being held at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine in their archives. Cooney also enjoyed gardening, cooking and photography.
Cooney’s style, regardless of the medium or technique used, has been described as primitive or folk art, which lends itself so well to the type of stories she has chosen to illustrate, mainly period pieces.
“I had always thought: once you succeed, change. So after that I tried pen and ink, pen and ink with wash, casein, collage, watercolor, acrylics—trying to fit the medium and techniques to the spirit of the book.
“I have done many, many books in black and white, it is true; but my heart and soul are in color. You just can’t beat color for emotional power, range, and subtlety. I’ve been working a lot with acrylics—I love their warmth and the ease with which they can be used. I’m also trying to incorporate colored pencils, so that I can do color line work. And lately, I’ve been experimenting with pastel, which is the purest color in the world. Pastels are pure, unadulterated pigment. Nothing refracts light more finely than pastel. The difficulty is t