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Back to the Society

by | Nov 12, 2014 | Appearances, Family | 4 comments

The good folks at the Society of Illustrators asked us to come lead a workshop this past Tuesday. So, on Monday night, we drove to New York. When we got to our friend David’s place in the West Village, something strange was afoot.

The police cars seemed not quite right, not quite of this decade.


Filming was under way for something or another. David told us this happens all the time on his block. I’m guessing it’s the cobblestones.


We brought the kids along this time. There are some things that you learn in school and other things that you learn from a day in the city.

The subway ride north to Lexington and 63rd was a serious affair.


The kids hung out on the fourth floor of the Society of Illustrators building with our friend Maya, who came along for the day. Robbi and I presented in the main gallery to a select group of kids from seven high schools throughout the city. They were there as part of an enrichment program sponsored by the School Arts League, an organization that has provided enrichment, education, and support for New York public school  students in the arts since 1909.

We started out with our Microflash Picture Book exercise. The kids made some wonderful and hilarious books together. When they were done we did a public reading of a few of the resulting titles.


Then we gave a talk, outlining the unpredictable and winding road that led us from that fateful decision to quit our jobs and make books to the present day glut of presses, projects, and progeny. The kids were interested in what we had to say and had lots of good questions for us afterward.

Then we explained the other exercise, the make-your-own mix-and-match book project.


Robbi did a demo to show them just how simple it is to work in this format if you have the right tools and framework.


And then we turned it over to the kids.


The great thing was, since the program was voluntary, every single one of them wanted to be there.


In fact, they had given up their day off school. It was a motivated bunch. And that was part of what we tried to convey—the critical importance of relentlessness when seeking a life of art making. The importance of creating constantly, but also the importance of showing up, of being present, of being seen and heard.


There were some incredibly talented artists in the room. Check out this wonderful cowboy.


Every person there had his or her own voice.


They worked quickly and got to have the fun of separating the panels and seeing their images recombine.


It’s a fun and empowering exercise. A little bit like magic.


While the kids finished their books, Robbi did an impromptu portfolio review with one young man who had brought his book in progress along.


Somehow along the way we have developed a body of perspectives and expertise. In the right circumstances, it can be channeled into advice. Whether or not it is useful remains to be seen.


Our host for the day was the incomparable Anelle Miller, the fearless, visionary Executive Director of the Society. She was extremely welcoming to our tiny army, sending them off with a gift and a “pinky promise” that they would send her some original artwork in return. It is in the process of being made as we speak.


It was another great visit to a remarkable place. If you care about or admire great illustration and are ever in New York, swing by and tour the galleries. On display through the holidays is the annual exhibit of the year’s best children’s book illustration. So many of our heroes’ work was on the wall. We hope against hope to one day join them there.


After our workshop, we walked to the zoo.


The boys are there, too, stuck behind my great big head.

It was perhaps the perfect fall day. The temperature, the quality of the light.


We saw all sorts of animals. Some of them made of stone.


Some of them definitely not.


I was pleased to find monkeys.


And rabbits.


The zoo held our interest for a while, but as it turns out, we shouldn’t have bothered.


Just north of the zoo was the paradise the children have been waiting for all their lives. I am referring to a mountain of rock, just waiting to be conquered.

They climbed like mountain goats.


It was a bit scary, but also thrilling to see them scramble and slide and jump and then do it all again.


They were a blur. A happy blur. Alden told me she wished that our family could move to New York City, if only to be closer to that mountain of rock.


I reminded her that the majority of New York was quite different, that we have rocks in Chestertown, that she would miss our quiet streets and sleepy river.

But she was not convinced.


We climbed and played until we could climb and play no more. And then we took the subway back to the Village. Just as the sun was dropping down, leaving just the tops of the taller buildings illuminated.


We stopped for ice cream. In full disclosure, I let the kids know exactly what they were eating, to which Alden expressed utmost approval (and excitement) at the prospect of eating “big guy” ice cream.


It was a whirlwind trip on top of a whirlwind trip, which seems to be the norm these days. The kids had fun. We got to share our story with a group of great students. And we had the chance to reacquaint ourselves with the wonders of the New Jersey Turnpike.

We’re home again, and glad to be. But Alden’s not the only one who left a little piece of her heart in New York.





  1. jenifer endicott emley

    Quel coincidence. I was in the West Village on Monday and Tuesday too. I saw the signs about the filming taking place. Yes, it was incredibly beautiful weather.
    While there, I did have a sense that there was a greater power near me. Must’ve been the Behr-Swansons.

  2. Carol Sterling

    Thank you to Annelle Miller, for inviting Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson to share their story and conduct a workshop for the high school students who participated in The School Art League ‘s visit to the inspiring Society of Illustrators on November 11, 2014. Their spirited presentation, followed by a dynamic participatory workshop reflected thoughtful and personal attention to each student, only surpassed by Ms. Miller’s, Ms. Behr and Mr. Swanson’s warmth and caring ways.
    Carol Sterling
    Trustee, The School Art League ..

  3. Matthew

    Carol: Many thanks for your kind words. Robbi and I had such a nice time with your colleagues and your students. They were inquisitive, engaged, wonderfully creative, and asked such great questions. They reminded us why our very favorite thing is not making the books but talking with young people about the challenges and rewards of the creative life. Thank you for all you do to make the School Art League such a valuable resource to New York’s bright future. It was our pleasure and honor to spend the morning with them.

  4. Diana Cagle

    Youngsters who were not able to attend the event are begging to be allowed to come to our next 3 sessions! They ran, did not walk, to see teachers and art supervisors the next day. The School Art League group sent your blog to the trustees and I also sent it to people who sent checks this year to support our scholarship program. Some have never seen a blog before so they are quite proud of themselves.

    This also makes a wonderful summary for our next presenters. Thanks for a wonderful, inspiring day. And thank you Anelle…you are the angel of SAL.


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