Cat at Night

About a year and a half ago, I was initiating a new journal, trying to overcome clean-new-journal writer’s block, when I came across a postcard that had the cover of Dahlov Ipcar’s “The Cat at Night” cover illustration on it. I cut out the picture, pasted it into my journal, and voila, the juices started to flow.

Today, taking my grandson to story hour at the Bowdoinham Library, I also had a chance to view for the first time the mural my daughter-in-heart, Manon, painted on the walls of the children’s room. With iconic scenes from Bowdoinham — a moose, an owl, a goat, the Bowdoinham bridge — the mural is a black silhouette against a blue wall. Katie, the children’s librarian, had asked Manon to use the illustrations in “The Cat at Night” as inspiration. And it was only when I went to visit the mural that I made the connection to Ms. Ipcar and the picture I painted in my journal. Little did I realize, at the time, what a significant artist Ms. Ipcar is.

Born in Windsor, Vt., in 1917, Dahlov Ipcar grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village. While she showed artistic talent at an early age, her parents, William and Marguerite Zorach – both famous artists – did not believe in “art instruction” per se. Consequently Dahlov was never enrolled in art schools or art courses as a child.

Nonetheless the Zorachs provided their personal encouragement and inspiration, allowing Dahlov the freedom to develop her own unique style. Her parents sent her to some of Manhattan’s most progressive schools, all of which provided an atmosphere to nurture her creativity.

The Zorach family spent many summers on the Maine coast in order to escape the heat and bustle of New York City. Maine provided a contact with nature which would leave a lasting impression on Dahlov. When she married in 1936, she and her husband Adolph Ipcar eventually moved to a small dairy farm in Georgetown, Maine, where they have lived ever since.

Ms. Ipcar and her husband enjoyed the challenge of simple country living without modern conveniences. They cut their own wood and ice and read by kerosene lamps. Up until 1948 they had no electricity. Indoor plumbing and central heating would come even later. While farm chores and raising two sons were more than a full time job, Ms. continued to pursue her career as an artist and author.

In 1939 she had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the first of many solo shows over the next forty years. Ms. Ipcar’s works are now in the permanent collections of many important art institutions such as the Metropolitan, Whitney, and Brooklyn Museums in New York. She is also represented in all the leading art museums of Maine, as well as in many corporate and private collections throughout the country.

In 1945 she illustrated The Little Fisherman, her first children’s book, for author Margaret Wise Brown.  Since then Ms. Ipcar has gone on to write and illustrate 30 children’s books of her own. She has also written four fantasy novels for a slightly older audience, as well as a volume of short stories for adults. While her art in general might be described as cheerful, her writings for adults turn to a darker, almost grim intertwining of reality and fantasy.

In the 1940s and 50s, Ms. Ipcar’s art was influenced by the prevailing style of Social Realism as best illustrated by her paintings of farm workers accompanied by their heavy draft horses and domestic farm animals. However, by the 60s and 70s, although she remained outside of the art movements of the day, her work began to take on a new direction.

Ms. Ipcar’s love of nature, especially jungle animals, led her to experiment with a more fanciful approach. One of her children’s books, Calico Jungle, represents a turning point in her artistic style. The intricate patterns and geometric designs which she developed within those pages were to become her artistic signature.

In addition to easel paintings, illustrations, and soft sculptures, Ms. Ipcar has also completed 10 large scale mural projects for public buildings, two for U.S. Post Offices in LaFollette, Tennessee, and Yukon, Oklahoma. Her murals may be seen at several locations in Maine as well, including the children’s room at the Patten Free Library in Bath, and a 106 ft. panorama of Maine animals in the Narragansett Elementary School, Gorham. Golden Savanna, a 21 ft. mural of African wildlife, is currently installed in the atrium of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In 1972, Ms. Ipcar and her husband together received the Maine Governor’s Award for “significant contributions to Maine in the broad field of the arts and humanities.” She has also received three honorary degrees from the University of Maine, Colby, and Bates colleges. In April of 1998, the University of Minnesota honored Ms. Ipcar with the Kerlan Award for Children’s literature.

At the age of 92, Ms. Ipcar continues to produce her fanciful paintings and murals at her home and studio in Georgetown, Maine.

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