Maine artist and picture book author/ illustrator Dahlov Ipcar died last Saturday at the age of 99. Her two sons described the day of her death as follows:
“Dahlov spent the morning as usual at her easel working on her latest painting; she fielded a few calls with her son, Bob, pertaining to a sit-down interview for a publication and worked with her son, Charlie, on a number of projects related to her upcoming exhibits.”
Ipcar has left behind a wonderful and extensive legacy, both nationally and here in Maine. The exhibit of her paintings at the Portland Museum of Art some years ago was one of the most captivating I’ve ever seen. Locally, Ipcar painted a remarkable mural along the hallway walls of Kingfield Elementary School.
She produced many enduring children’s books of course such as Hardcrabble Harvest, The Cat at Night, and Wild and Tame Animals, which were orignally published by Doubleday and which are now republished by Maine’s Islandport Press. Nonetheless I do have a very clear personal favorite.
The disarming fact that Ipcar worked up until her last day, calls to mind another hard worker, Big Betty, the one horse of Ipcar’s classic picture book, One Horse Farm. One Horse Farm delivers a perfect example of Ipcar’s timeless illustrations, their exquisite palatte, quietly expressive figures and sublime backdrops offer an absorbing visual narrative. This is the story of Big Betty, who was born the same day as the farmer’s son, Jonny. Betty grows up faster than Jonny, and the book shows its readers all the things Betty does on the farm, from hauling logs and blocks of ice in the winter, to pulling wagon loads of apples in the fall, and plowing fields in the spring.
Betty also grows older more quickly that Jonny. One day, noting that Betty is getting too old to do the farm’s work, Jonny, who has now taken over running the farm, decides to get a tractor. Thoughout the story we have only seen Betty at work but now Ipcar shifts gears and shows us Betty’s thoughts. After the Tractor has been purchased an auction is held to sell off all the items, the wagons, the harnasses, and the plows that pertained to horse drawn work. This auction is a source of anxiety for Betty. Here is a the pivotal page from the book which I have read and re-read many times.
One Horse Farm exemplifies Ipcar’s particular genius. She understood the art of picking your spots, of pivoting suddenly from narrative description to an invaluble life lesson. The value of integrity, responsibility, appreciation and caring, is reinforced in the reader’s mind by our attachment to Betty’s legacy of steadiness and hard work. Jonny’s decision to let Betty live the rest of her life on the farm kicking her heels up and eating the best hay is as important as it is moving. Unsurprisingly Ipcar later shared that One Horse Farm was her most autobiographical book. “It was the life I lived,” she said.
I love One Horse Farm as much today as when I first read it as a child, and the childhood copy we have in our personal library at home is one of the books that my wife and I treasure the most. Selling her books at DDG to new generations of children is the epitime of job satisfaction.
When I think of Dahlov Ipcar’s legacy many things come to mind, but her concern for personal character and integrity, so deftly and powerfully expressed, are something for which I will always carry a grateful memory.
This essay first appeared in Publishers Weekly’s Shelftalker.