The story of Berta and Elmer Hader, which you can enjoy for the next month at Eugene's Jacobs Gallery, is so sweet and whimsical that it could have formed the basis of one of their many children's books.
The two met in San Francisco. He was a young artist who needed a place to store his easel. A friend suggested she, also a young artist, might just have room in her apartment.
They became fast friends before he was drafted into the Army during World War I. He was sent to Paris, where his artistic skills were put to use not in the trenches but in the Camouflage Corps, designing camouflage.
When the war was over he found her in New York, where she was working for McCall's. They quickly married and set to work on a career in illustration that spanned the middle half of the 20th century. They produced children's books - including the Caldecott Award-winning "The Big Snow" in 1949. They also created a torrent of such works for children as paper dolls and plans for peep boxes, both of which were done as exquisitely designed pages to be inserted into magazines.
After their marriage the couple found rural property 30 miles north of the city and built their own stone house, where they lived to the end of their days. The Haders liked to throw parties, and so they designed a dining room to hold a table for 40, with a stage at one end of the room.
The Haders didn't like going into New York City as much as they liked staying at home. No matter: The literary and artistic crowd of New York made their way to the Haders.
The famous wit Dorothy Parker came to their parties, as did actress Helen Hayes, poet Carl Sandburg, writer Katherine Anne Porter (who apparently helped build the house) and photographers Dorothea Lange, Edward Curtis and Imogen Cunningham, as well as her husband, artist Roi Partridge.
The Jacobs exhibit, in fact, includes photographic portraits of both artists by Cunningham. The first, of a younger Berta, was shot while Cunningham was still under the influence of gauzy pictorialism, while the second, of the mature Elmer, shows the photographer's subsequent embrace of more straightforward photography.
The Haders had a single child, Hamilton, who died of meningitis just before the age of 3.
Perhaps that sadness accounts for the long list of books for children the couple created together, under titles such as "Snow in the City," "Berta and Elmer Hader's Picture Book of Mother Goose" and "Chuck-a-Luck and His Reindeer" - and, of course, "The Little Stone House," an account of building their home.
John Steinbeck so liked Elmer Hader's artwork that the writer chose him to illustrate the cover of "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1939. The artist would also do covers for Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (1952) and "The Winter of Our Discontent" (1961).
The Jacobs exhibit offers a fascinating if somewhat narrow assortment of Hader originals.
The show mostly offers a combination of the couple's magazine-insert paper dolls and peep boxes along with a series of their personal Christmas cards, which they designed together each year; what it lacks is much of their children's book illustration.
No matter. This is seriously interesting and engaging work, the kind of thing you're as likely to find in a major metropolitan art museum as in a small city gallery.
The work happens to be in Oregon because the Haders' niece Joy Hoerner Rich lives in Roseburg. Through her, the University of Oregon Library acquired several cases of the Haders' papers some years ago.
The work at the Jacobs comes largely from Rich's personal collection, which was expanded hugely two years ago when a workman doing remodeling at the old stone house in New York fell through a ceiling and discovered what is now called the "secret vault," a closet-size room, with no doors, into which were sealed about nine cartons' worth of artwork and correspondence.
The room had remained unnoticed by several subsequent owners of the house after the Haders died, he in 1973 and she in 1976.
One of the most fascinating things you can see at the Jacobs is the peep boxes the Haders made. Readers of a certain age may be lucky enough to remember the last days of peep boxes - intricate illustrations that, when cut out and pasted into a shoebox with holes poked in appropriate places, created miniature hand-held dioramas.
The Haders made these, along with paper doll designs, until the post office banned magazine inserts (which were always, annoyingly, falling out) in 1927. (That was the year they began doing children's books instead.)
The rest of the show consists largely of the couple's Christmas cards.
These are as slick as illustrations in the New Yorker magazine, for which they sometimes worked.
The cards range from deftly sentimental to lightly sexy, as one showing a night-gowned Berta sitting upright in bed as Elmer enters the room with a tray.
All this work, largely done in gouache - that's a type of opaque watercolor popular with illustrators - has a presence that needs to be seen and appreciated in person.
Like many children's book illustrators, the Haders didn't just produce their work to be enjoyed only by children. Rather, they created sophisticated artwork based around childlike themes that adults can appreciate as well.
Illustrations by Berta and Elmer Hader
Where: Jacobs Gallery in the Hult Center, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street
When: Through May 2
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, as well as one hour before and during all Hult performances
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|Title Annotation:||Arts and Literature; A Eugene exhibit tells the story of a mid-20th century, husband-wife artistic team- who created children's books, drew their own Christmas cards and hosted fabulous parties|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Apr 9, 2009|
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