Walk into the Mazza Museum and you might hear Terry Willems Olthouse ’72 asking a group of rapt children how they think illustrator Victoria Raymond made Rosa’s beautiful hair in her book Still-Life Stew, then showing them how by putting gold clay through a garlic press.
The Mazza describes itself as the world’s first and largest teaching museum of children’s picture book art, and Olthouse is its delighted education coordinator. “Who knew there was such a job?” she said. “It was a God-match for me!”
Professor Jerry Mallett began the collection in 1982 at The University of Findlay (Ohio), when, Olthouse explained, “the art made for children’s books was not considered fine art. He wanted to give it the same respect.”
Olthouse looks to Mallett as her mentor. She works with current director Ben Sapp to create the programs that are central to the museum’s mission.
“Book art doesn’t just illustrate the words of a story,” Olthouse explained, “because that would be redundant. The real masters, like Maurice Sendak, have a whole story that’s going on above and beyond the words. And children see that. They’re more visually literate than adults, who give so much attention to the words that they miss the visual details.”
After seeing art made for books in dozens of styles and media, children who tour the Mazza Museum can go to its art studio and create their own. “They feel so important and valued when we ask them to create their own versions of what they’ve just seen,” Olthouse said. “We also have a children’s art exhibit, where their art is displayed with the same respect we give to our professional book artists.”
Besides school day tours, Olthouse oversees a summer camp, during which children write and illustrate their own books, and a monthly “Funday Sunday” program that draws 500 children and their families. “We sing and play games and eat, all focused on a particular book,” Olthouse said. “It’s all about making books fun.”
The Mazza Museum isn’t just for children, though. Adults are welcome. Often they come, Olthouse said, to see original panels of a favorite book from their childhoods, images, say, of Curious George or Clifford the Big Red Dog. “But then they see the quality of the original art, especially of the more recent books, and they’re amazed!”
Olthouse and the Mazza staff also organize summer and weekend conferences featuring noted book artists and authors at which attendees can earn graduate credit. Another opportunity—for credit or just fun—is the annual Mazza Study Tour: a busload of picture book enthusiasts traveling to a city or region to meet book artists there and visit the places that inspire their art.
“It’s amazing,” Olthouse said, “the way the artists welcome us into their homes and studios. We take pictures to put in a notebook that’s displayed with their art in the museum, and then we can tell visitors personal stories about them, because it’s the stories that help people connect with and appreciate the art.”
Learn more about the Mazza Museum at www.mazzamuseum.org.
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