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Show draws on couple's colorful life's work

AMHERST -- It was 1943 and the war was on. Martin Provensen left his job sketching character designs and storyboards for Disney films -- ''Pinocchio," ''Fantasia," ''Dumbo" -- and signed up with the Navy. His assignment: Make military training films at Walter Lantz Studios in Los Angeles. Taking a break from his classified labors one day, he wandered into another part of the studio and met a woman named Alice who was animating films featuring Lantz's 3-year-old star, Woody Woodpecker. Did he sense how fateful a meeting it was?

''Picturing the World: The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen," at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst through March 12, offers an exquisite selection of drawings and paintings from the 51 books the Caldecott Medal-winning couple, who married in 1944, illustrated together over the next 44 years. The 70 works shown are a parade of wise and curious children, kooky dreamers, barnyard beasts, and fairy-tale critters.

The show opens with tiny tempera and watercolor spreads from the Provensens' classic Little Golden Books ''The Fuzzy Duckling" and ''The Color Kittens," both from 1949. Living in New York City after the war, the couple shed studio animation styles and invented their own look. ''The Fuzzy Duckling" is painted in a soft yet precise manner, the cartoony critters wandering a three-dimensional landscape. ''The Color Kittens," a primer based on Margaret Wise Brown's great poetic script, shows how the Provensens flattened their forms. They composed many of their illustrations for the next two decades from broad shapes of color with details picked out by fine lines on top. It is one of the signature looks of the era.

After they moved to a farm not far from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1951, they experimented stylistically while working at back-to-back drawing boards. (It was around here that they also dabbled in advertising, helping create Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's.) For 1962's ''Shakespeare: Ten Great Plays," they made beautiful mottled ink drawings by sketching atop wet paper. Another time, Alice said, ''We'd paint the whole background and run it under the faucet, and whatever stayed on was the background."

Their most wild expressionist work appeared in their 1964 take on Alfred Lord Tennyson's ''The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the 1965 book ''Aesop's Fables." In ''Light Brigade," white splashes of paint become the blasts of cannons all around the doomed cavalrymen. The strong painting was not enough to keep this gloomy book from flopping commercially.

The Provensens adopted a simpler, airier style, built around thin earth tone washes, for many of their books of the 1970s -- particularly several inspired by life on their farm. In such 1980s books as ''A Visit to William Blake's Inn," which won a Caldecott Honor, and ''The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel With Louis Blériot," they concocted a folksy Americana look. ''Glorious Flight," which won a Caldecott Medal, is the true tale of a pioneering French aviator who made the first flight across the English Channel in 1909. There's a terrific watercolor and gouache spread depicting the moment when Blériot caught the flying bug.

Pulled out of the context of the book, the painting doesn't reveal how this spread fits so beautifully into the story. The page before, you're at street level, preoccupied with a car wreck, when (turn the page) a ''Clacketa, Clacketa" draws everyone's attention to the sky. You look up to see an airship and the buildings lean out to either side, so holding the book in your lap, it's as if you're right in the middle of everything.

In March 1987, Martin was felled by a heart attack. He and Alice had collaborated for decades, roughing out designs together, then dividing up the pages between them, passing the illustrations back and forth as they worked. Their collaboration was so smooth you'd be hard pressed to separate out who did what. His sudden absence was a shock, and for a time Alice thought she'd abandon illustration. But her daughter and an editor friend encouraged her to go on. The exhibit closes with books she's made since. See her lovely oil painting of a boy meeting the ragged old swordsman at his mountaintop hut from 2001's ''The Master Swordsman & the Magic Doorway." Check out the terrier's-eye-view from under the dinner table in 2003's ''A Day in the Life of Murphy."

This exhibition offers a chance to examine the complex details of one great work after another -- qualities often washed out in reproduction -- but you lose much of the storytelling. These works were made to serve tales, and without the texts, without the related images, they're not quite whole. Another thing: These works were made knowing that some of the beauty of the original work would be sacrificed as it was mass produced, a trade willingly made to reach more people.

The reason these works have amused and edified so many, the reason seeing them in person brings a warm wash of nostalgia, is that they were created to be affordably and widely disseminated. And this reaching out, this sharing, is its own art.

Picturing the World: The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen
At: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, through March 12. 413-658-1100,

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