By Sharon Santillo
Ed Emberley might never have returned to the city of his birth if Malden Arts had not received a tip that he was born here in Malden in 1931. When members learned there was to be a retrospective of his work at the Worcester Art Museum in the fall of 2016, they planned a field trip. All were impressed with the breadth of his 60+ year career illustrating children’s books, his magnificent woodcuts that won him a Caldecott Medal in 1967, and the charm of his how-to-draw books that have influenced generations of children.
I am a board member of Malden Arts and I reached out to Emberley after the museum visit with a request to allow Malden Arts to paint a mural to honor him. “We know you left Malden when you were a baby, but we still claim you as our own,” I told him.
“How could I feel anything but a soft spot in my heart for Malden,” said Emberley, who will be 87 on October 19. He agreed to allow graphic designer Naomi Kahn to use his designs for a mural. The MRA approved a site at the David R. FitzGerald Park on Exchange Street. The Malden Cultural Council funded the supplies, and the mayor and city council threw in their support.
Art teachers Mary Ann Seager, Martin Boyle, and Brian O’Donnell from Malden’s three high schools have been leading groups of student artists in painting a panoply of creatures from Emberley’s books. It seemed only appropriate to have young people paint the Emberley mural because he has devoted so much of professional career to teaching children to draw. Clay Larsen from Groundwork Somerville is the project manager coordinating materials and volunteers.
The painters are following lines projected from Ed Emberley’s images. The mural is being painted off-site on Max-metal panels with exterior grade paint. It will be coated with a graffiti-proof clear coat and installed with sleeper studs onto a tiled wall.
All is set to be unveiled at the official ribbon-cutting on Wednesday, May 23, at 6 p.m. at the park on Exchange Street. Emberley and his family will be honored guests. Family art activity tables will be set up. A big party at Exchange Street Bistro, 67 Exchange St., Malden, will follow at 7 p.m. with an auction of local art and an opportunity to bid on books by Ed Emberley with hand-draw bookplates. All are invited for light refreshments and cash bar.
The effort to honor Emberley has had another significant consequence for Malden.
Through the planning phase of the Emberley mural, members of Malden Arts came to believe there should be more public art in Malden.
While a contingent of the group led by president, Naomi Brave and Councilor Ryan O’Malley was walking the city looking for walls for murals, the idea of the ARTLine was born.
Drawing inspiration from the High Line, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and the mural festivals in Lynn and Worcester, Malden Arts decided to partner with Groundwork Somerville and the City of Malden to transform Malden and its section of the Northern Strand Community Trail (NSCT) into a kind of public gallery.
Malden Arts applied for and recently received a $27,000 matching funds grant from Mass Development for “a vision for a premier public art gallery through Malden Center and along the Northern Strand Community Trail with professional murals, sculptures and community hubs featuring bursts of art, pocket parks, pedestrian and bicycle accommodations and gathering spaces.
Every dollar donated will be, in effect, be doubled if Malden can raise $27,000 by June 28. This is the biggest initiative that Malden Arts has ever launched, and the invitation is extended to the whole community to become part of the creation of the ARTLine.
Ed Emberley was chosen as the subject for the first mural, and three more murals are planned to honor other Malden-born artists, musicians and writers: Keith Knight, Frank Stella and his mother Constance, and Norman Greenbaum.
Emberley had some wisdom to share about public art. “We are being more and more informed by these little devices, phones, and don’t get me wrong, I love them. You can look up anything as a photograph. Most of our art is coming from a nice little device. But what you will have here in Malden will give you the chance to look in real time, to see the size, to actually see the brushstrokes…There is something in human beings that makes them want to interact with images made by other human beings…There is something about art that transports you. You don’t have to understand why. You don’t have to know a lot or receive a lecture about it. Just react to it. It increases your pleasure in life.”
Emberley, the oldest of three brothers, was the only one born in Malden. His father, Wallace Akin Emberley, worked in Malden for most of his working life as a carpenter, painter, and paper hanger. Ed grew up in Cambridge, and attended what is now Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Rhode Island School of Design. He married his wife Barbara in 1955, had two children, Rebecca and Michael, and moved to Ipswich shortly after publishing his first children’s book, The Wing On A Flea, in 1961.
He has illustrated, and often has written as well, over a hundred books for children. He is remarkable for employing a wide variety of styles and techniques to illustrate them. He won the Caldecott Medal in 1967 for his woodcut book Drummer Hoff. In 1970, began his wildly popular Drawing Book series with Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals. His 1992 book Go Away, Big Green Monster! brought him yet another generation of fans. Ed Emberley, a 2014 retrospective book, was complied by Todd Oldham and Caleb Neelon, who have curated several museum shows of Emberley’s work. Some of Emberley’s extended family still live in Malden and the surrounding area.
When Emberley came to Malden on April 23 to be interviewed about how his mural was chosen to be the first of the ARTLine, he was greeted by Mayor Gary Christenson, Councilors Debbie DeMaria, Neal Anderson, and Ryan O’Malley, and members of Malden Arts.
He was quite impressed with Malden. Even though he had not been here since he was a baby, he said, “I have met some very pleasant people here and what a nice city it is! I understand I was born on Washington Street and from this noble beginning, I made my living as an artist.”
After the interview, Emberley and his wife and collaborator, Barbara, walked down Washington Street to see the house “where I spent my first days.”
He was so pleased. “This is a storybook house,” Emberley said. “I might have to draw it.”