Children's illustrator remembers things past

  • 2006-05-31
  • By Paul Morton
RIGA - Anita Paegle, one of Latvia's top children's book illustrators, began drawing when she was three. She points to a drawing of Santa Claus she did when she was nine. No, she wasn't a prodigy. It's an excellent drawing for a nine-year-old, but it still looks like a child's work. But that's not what she wants to show. "It's all basically the same," she says. "The composition, the textures."

Her point is well taken. In the 41 years since, Paegle's work has grown cleaner and more refined, but she more or less discovered her style as a child. That much is clear from looking at the mini-retrospective of her work currently on display at the Latvian National Museum of Art.

The exhibit is entitled "Orchestra of Silence," which refers to the way Paegle surrounds herself with objects, her instruments as it were, to make her own music on paper, rather quietly.
Paegle collects objects, often not everyday things, but odd knickknacks like old salt grinders or odd bits of jewelry. She studies them, delineating every detail. And then she places them in one of her books, exaggerating sizes or shapes as needed. There's a girl wearing a pink hat decorated with tiny chairs. A small angel crawls around a marble bathroom sink.
"When I draw, I am always remembering things, feelings, moods from when I was a child that I had forgotten." In one book she drew many of Riga's Art Nouveau buildings, including Mikhail Eisenstein's great blue-and-white house on Elizabete Street. Outside the Old Town, Riga is a city without palaces. It has opulent manors, but they're still relatively small compared to what you can see on the streets of Budapest or Paris. Paegle is very faithful to the sculptures and other details of these buildings, but they still seem a little larger and grander in her eyes. Hers is a child's view of Riga, in which even this diminutive city can seem large.

With its turn-of-the-century clothes and themes, she seems to wax a little nostalgic for a time when these Art Nouveau buildings were actually constructed. Maybe objects from the past fuel her imagination the best. Paegle remembers her grandmother, who lived in the countryside, showing her clothes from the '20s and '30s that she kept in her wardrobe when she was a child.
A fascination with objects is essentially a fascination with minutiae, with the smallest details of life, of the small things that are thrown out and discarded and ignored, but, for children, can represent at any given moment the whole world. Her drawings take these small elements, study them, and build a world that is somehow new and which exists outside of time. It's all really about nostalgia.

When she was growing up, her parents never took her artistic aspirations all that seriously. They didn't discourage her, but her mother, at least, thought her flights of fantasy were a little strange.
Yet her mother visited the exhibit on its opening reception on May 25. "I think she understands now," says Paegle.
Paegle's husband is an artist himself. They don't have any children, but they have many nieces and nephews, who she sometimes uses as critics for her work. "Sometimes they tell me they like my work. Sometimes they don't." Children can be brutally honest.

"Orchestra of Silence"
Latvian National Museum of Art
10a Kr. Valdemar Street
Runs until June 25