The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems

March 18 - September 25, 2016


Audio tour transcript for the exhibiton


F1: Introduction to The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems

Hi, this is Mo Willems speaking. Thanks so much for coming out to see the art and whimsy of me. Very excited that you are going to see this exhibit and what I am going to do in this audio tour is talk to you about some of the works you are going to look at; explain how I do my stuff; and maybe encourage you to make some stuff of your own.


F2: Childhood and Sesame Street

When I was a little kid I used to love to draw Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I loved the Peanuts. And that's what I wanted to do; I wanted to draw Peanuts for the rest of my life. But then as I got older I started drawing my own characters and creating my own characters. And by the time I was a young man I was lucky enough to be working on a show called Sesame Street, which you've probably heard of. I made short films and I wrote scripts for that show and really enjoyed it. And that's where I learned how to write for children, but it's also where I learned that I love to write for children. Little known fact about Elmo on Sesame Street -- and I say fact, but I'm really making it up -- El Mo is Spanish for "The Mo"


F3: Knuffle Bunny Series

Now we're looking at a whole bunch of series of books that I've made. And a series is, it means more than one book with same character. And that means you get to know them a little bit more and see them have adventures, they become more like friends or maybe like cousins that you see every now and then. The Knuffle Bunny books are a trilogy, and trilogy means that there are three stories. And in them the main character Trixie grows from every story. Now, I never planned for the Knuffle Bunny books to be a trilogy, I just thought of the first story when I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with my wife and my very young daughter Trixie. The Knuffle Bunny books aren't just a series of stories. They are a photo album for me. They are a reminiscence of what it was like to have a young child living in NYC. Sometimes I'm asked how do you say Knuffle is it knuffle or knuffle. I pronounce it knuffle because it's based on a Dutch word that means to hug or to snuggle and my family is Dutch so I used it when I was a kid.


F4: The Pigeon

Ugghh pigeon. That bird is a stinker. He hates it when I make books that are not about him.

He always hides in all of my other books and he says "When are you going to make another book about me! When are you going to make another book about me!" When you look at the Pigeon books you can't tell where the Pigeon lives, right? All of the backgrounds are just straight flat colors. But no matter where I go all over the world when people read the pigeon books, they think the pigeon lives in NYC. While the pigeon was actually born in Oxford, England when I was there for a couple of weeks, I don't think his personality came from Oxford, his personality came from New York. There is no way I could have created the pigeon if I had spent my life living somewhere else.


F5: Author, Illustrator or Cartoonist?

Now if you look at some of these drawings you'll notice that the lettering and the words can be really, really silly. I think of the words as a type of illustration or a type of drawing. If the letters are big you are going to yell them; if they are small you are going to whisper them. And I kind of think of the posing, of the characters, of how they looked, as a type of writing. So for me I'm not an author I'm not an illustrator, I'm a cartoonist who uses both letters, and shapes, and drawings to create one work. Because my characters have such big feelings, I have to have big feelings. I'm kind of like an actor. So when I'm drawing say Piggie being really excited; I have to be really excited. and if I'm drawing E being morose, I have to be morose. So my family has to watch out because if I'm drawing the angry Pigeon all day, I'm probably going to be a little angry.


F6: Wire Sculptures

You are looking at some of my wire sculptures. Now wire sculpture is just me bending a piece of wire and trying to make a little drawing with it. I like to do them because I love an artist named Alexander Calder who kind of invented this type of art. Also it's important for me to work in different mediums. To make houses out of cardboard or to make wire sculptures or to make big sculptures. I'm not going to use them necessarily in my books but they inform the way that I make my books later on. So with a wire sculpture I have to be as simple as possible in how I bend the wire to make as simple a shape as possible. Maybe you can see that informing the rest of the drawings in this gallery.


F7: Elephant Gerald and Piggie

I'm often asked why Elephant Gerald has a name and Piggie does not. Gerald needs a name because he needs all kinds of things. He's nervous and he needs protection. Elephant Gerald is named after my favorite singer. You have to say Elephant Gerald fast and piggie is named piggie because she looked just like a little piggie when she was born. Piggie is kind of pure so she doesn't need a name. She is just totally totally Piggie.


F8: Cat the Cat

Cat the Cat. Dog the dog. Bird the bird. Blargie the Blargie. These are the simplest books I ever made. I wanted them to be easy easy to read. Easy to listen to. But still have a little twist at the end. I wanted to say they were authored by Mo the Mo. Maybe you the you will enjoy reading them. Perhaps you've noticed a lot of my characters are named after what they are. The Pigeon. Piggie. Sheep in the big city's name is sheep. Well, why is that? Well, I'm very busy and I don't actually have time to name all my characters. Sorry!


F9: Adding Color

Color is super important because color is like the mood ring for what the book is about. Take a look at this drawing here of the Pigeon freaking out saying "let me drive the bus." Now take a look at the color image which is above it. I did the color in the computer and I wanted to make it as bright and as crazy and as weird and contrasty to the rest of the book as possible. Does the pigeon look more angry in color? I think he does.


F10: Work Charts

What the heck are you looking at? It's definitely not a drawing. It's not a piece of art from a book. So what is it? Well actually it's my version of what the book is. I can't make a book. It's too hard but I can do little things like make a single drawing, or ink a single drawing. So what I've done is broken down this book into all of its different parts, every single surface, every page and all the steps that I need to do to complete it. And every time I've done a little thing like put in the words or scanned a drawing, or colored something I get to color in one of those squares so that I can see that chart grow and get fuller and fuller with color and I know where I am in the process of making the book. It's also like a little reward. Coloring in that square is kind of like getting a cookie or something when I've done something right.


F11: Choosing Materials

You're now looking at some of the preparatory sketches for That is Not a Good Idea!, which is a stand alone book. Actually the title That is Not a Good Idea probably is going to be the title of my autobiography if I ever write it. Anyway, because it is a new book I did a lot of experimenting. Should it be a sketchy line, should it be a fat line, how should the colors look. This is part of the process about getting to know your characters. You'll notice that the Pigeon books are made with a crumbly crumbly crayon. You'll notice that the Elephant and Piggie books start with a light charcoal and as they get older they get thicker and darker. The cat the cat books were created with a thick brush line with ink. The pens you use and the colors you use is kind of like the costumes that you put on an actor. The actor is going to do what the actor is told, but as you change the costume the meaning will change. Often the end result doesn't look anything like the early sketches, and that's part of the fun.


F12: Body Language

One of the very important things for me is that you understand how my characters feel: if he is really angry, he is really angry; and if she is really happy she is really happy, and I do that not just by smiles or the ways the eyes look, I do them by body language. I make sure that if I look at a character in silhouette - that means if I were to darken them in - I can still see how they feel. So look around this gallery and look at all the different characters and see if you can tell how they feel just by their body language.


F13: Knuffle Bear!

So now you are looking at the original dummy for Knuffle Bunny. And dummy is not a mean word in this case. Dummy means a book that you use to get a sense of the rhythm and the story and you can take this dummy and bring it to an editor and pitch the book and see if they'll make it. Well if you think about the final Knuffle Bunny and look at this you'll see a big difference. And that is the star in the original is a bear. That's right! It was going to be Knuffle Bear. But I realized as I was drawing and researching and working on the book, that the bear, who was just a stuffed bear, couldn't have any feelings. But if I made it a bunny I could pretend like the stuffed bunny had feelings by using its ears. If the ears were straight up the bunny looked surprised. If the ears went straight down, the bunny looked sad, if the ears went wiggle waggly, the bunny was freaked out. So just by the silhouette of the head of the bunny, you get an insight into what that stuffed bunny feels like, and that is why the book isn't called knuffle bear.


F14: Drive the Bus and Read a Book!

Oh man. There is so much art here. I'm starting to get museum feet. Well if you are getting museum feet you can go to one of these cool reading areas, like this one here that looks like a bus. Sit down, read some of my books. The art is not going anywhere.


F15: Thank You!

Elephant and Piggie are my two best friends. I love drawing them and I really have gotten to know them over the last 25 books that I've made with them. You are now looking at some of the original drawings from my most recent Elephant and Piggie book and the last Elephant and Piggie book called the Thank You book. Now, I made this book specifically for you because I wanted to thank you for reading my books, for being a reader, and for coming up with your own stories. So I hope you enjoy these drawings and thank you so much.


F16: Charles Schulz's Nib

We're now looking at some of the original art from one of my books called Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. Now you see when I was a little kid I loved Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And when I was five years old I wrote a letter to Mr. Schulz, who drew the strip, saying "Dear Mr. Schulz, can I have your job when you are dead?" And then I waited. Well, fortunately for all of us he didn't die for a long time and he made a lot of other strips. But later on after he had passed I became friends with his widow, and I was walking through his studio and talking about how much I loved Charles Schulz's work and how important it was for me when I was a kid. And his widow gave me one of Charles Schulz's nibs. Now a nib is a little piece of metal that you put on the pen and you dip in the ink. And this book, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed was drawn with Charles Schulz's nib. On a side note I recently got a letter from a young fan who asked if he could have my job when I'm dead. So I am going to have to save some of my nibs for later.


F17: Building a Character

Here's a collection of drawings of some of my characters getting dressed. I like to draw my characters but I also like to put them in costumes because it is kind of fun to try and be somebody else. I remember one of my very first Sesame Street scripts. It was about Elmo and Zoe learning to waltz and it is very hard to learn how to waltz. You have to know how to count to three and you have to learn a little bit about the history of waltz music, but also you get to dress up. And I remember going to the set the day that we were shooting this episode and one of the guys on the crew coming to me and saying, "I just love it when we dress up these little guys." And I guess that kind of stuck with me because I feel like I am almost constantly taking my characters and having them try on a new outfit.


F18: Draw The Pigeon (and Goodbye)

Thank you so much for coming to see my exhibit about the way that I work and the type of drawings that I make. And I'm such a lucky guy because they got put in a real museum for you to come a visit and see. What would it be like if you had one of your drawings in a real museum? Well you can try it out right here. Here -- and only here -- you can draw your characters or some of my characters and other people who come to the museum after you will be able to see your drawings. Don't forget to sign your work! And have fun.


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