One of the best parts about running this blog is getting contacted by relatives of children's book authors, so when the nephew of illustrator Charles Clement reached out, I jumped at the chance to learn some of his background. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, his book Dr. Goat is one of the most mentioned titles on this blog. I get e-mails all the time from people citing Dr. Goat and his antics as their favorite childhood book memory. (Just get a look at the Loganberry Books' "most requested book" page for the title.) Though he was not hugely prolific in the world of children’s book illustration, he left an incredible legacy that keeps collectors scrambling for a piece of it more than 60 years later. That said…
Charles Clement was born in New York City in 1921. He studied art there in his 20s, first at the Franklin School of Professional Arts, then Brooklyn College and The New School before spending some time abroad studying ceramics in Aix-en Provence, France and eventually landing at the University of Arizona. It was in the late 40s that he first began illustrating books for children starting with the titles Little Red Hen and Chicken Little in 1946 for Maxton Publishers. He went on to publish Toy Hunt and Busy Bill before illustrating Dally the Firehouse Dog, The Night Before Christmas and Dr. Goat (written by the allusive Georgiana) for Whitman as well as some educational puzzles and maps.
Charles’ nephew, Peter Bondante, spent a great deal of time with his uncle, and as Charles and his wife had no children, they both had a large hand in helping to raise Peter and his sister along with his parents. Here, I ask Peter a few questions about his Uncle Charlie and his art.
How close were you to your uncle?
Charles moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1951 to build a house in the Tucson Mountains. My parents followed two years later. (I was Born in 1950 in New York, so Dr. Goat was always considered "my" book.) We lived with Charlie and my Aunt Louise (my mother’s sister) in their home out in the desert while our house was being built closer to town. Since Charlie and his wife Louise had no children, my sister and I were raised by my mom and dad as well as my uncle and aunt. It was a great childhood - out in the beautiful Sonoran desert, growing up with birds and lizards and bugs. I’m still, at 59, a big believer in conservation of the land, for all critters, big and small.
When did your uncle stop illustrating children’s books?
Charlie's last illustrations for children’s books are The Night Before Christmas, published in 1955. He was too busy doing ceramics and murals to focus entirely on illustrating from then on. The rest of his career consisted of doing public art, ceramics and murals. He did a mural for the Nebraska State Capitol Building in '66 along with several public art installations in Tucson and numerous private and public art installations around the United States. He taught an art course at Kansas State University for several summers and worked with a local artist, Ted DeGrazia on several other art objects around Tucson.
(Some of Charles' ceramic work at Peter's home.)
Tell me about your uncle and the life he lived with his wife?
I believe my uncle met my aunt in 1939 in New York City. They were both involved in the Hudson Craft Guild and met in class. They were married in 1944. Unlike my father, Charlie did not go into the army due to his asthma. My uncle, aunt, mom and dad were all very close before the war, during and after. Both my mom, my aunt and my father where born in Italy, and came through Ellis Island in the late 1920s, with my grandmother and father. It’s ironic that after my dad went into the Air Force, he ended up in a bomber, bombing near the town of Torino, where he was born.
Aunt Louise was an artist as well, working mainly in fabric. The photograph of the two of them together is actually in front of a fabric mural she created. After she passed away in 1976, Uncle Charlie lost a lot of momentum, and he began slowing down in the number of commissions he took on. We all missed her very much. Charlie passed away from complications due to his asthma in Turkey in 1981 while visiting some ruins. My mom and dad passed away in 2000.
Can you tell me how your uncle influenced your life and how you think he would like to be remembered?
Charlie taught me to pursue whatever made me happy. Money was not very important to him, happiness was. I remember once when I was about eight or nine, he spent most of the money he made on an art project on groceries. We loaded it all up in his car and drove into the Indian Reservation here (a rough trip), and distributed it to some of the needy Native American families scattered in the desert.
My uncle and aunt were literally second parents to my sister and me. They constantly kept my sister and me busy, helping with their art projects. The six of us were very close, traveling here and there in Arizona seeing art and nature anywhere they could afford to bring us. I don't know what our life would have been like without Charlie and Louise. They taught us to love life, nature and people. We were always around interesting people and artists from around Tucson. My mom played violin in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, so music (also one of Charlie's loves) played a big part in our upbringing.
I can honestly say, my childhood was wonderful. I think about my parents, uncle and aunt almost every day. I know Uncle Charlie would like to be remembered as a person who passed on his considerable knowledge of life and art to others, so that they could pursue and continue his love of art and life. He was the most generous man (with his time and knowledge) that I knew. He felt like if things could not be passed to someone else, they were wasted.
End note: Peter now works in commercial landscape design in Tucson and his sister, Chris, teaches medical/biological illustration at Pima Community College. She also teaches a pen and ink course at the Sonoran Desert Museum.
As for Charles Clement, it's no small feat to create something that's remembered by so many so fondly after so many years. Of that, Peter and Chris have a great deal to be proud of.
Thank you Peter for sharing that pride and his memory with us.
(Various covers and original drawings from Charles' books.)