detritus dumpster: where the wild things are

Maurice Sendak and more American detritus…

Art Chantry (

We’ve all come to be so familiar with the Maurice Sendak classic, “where the wild things are”, that we really have been blinded to the larger career of Sendak. His efforts at children’s illustration span a very long period of time prior to the publication of that milestone book, and he also continued to work on things after that book as well. Name one.

One of the things I love about researching American detritus is finding early or obscure work by famous folks. It’s always so small and clumsy and human to see the early efforts of later grand masters.

These two little books are children’s classics and they are illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. You can plainly see the basic style of his drawn characters in these pieces. But, they are so crude, simple and primitive in comparison to his cross-hatched masterpiece that it’s hard to imagine them being drawn by the same hand.

I always find it comforting to learn that the mighty and the famous and powerful all have humble stumbling beginnings as well. They seem to be just like us – sorta feeling their way in the dark, trying to find a path.

When artists like Sendak finally see that path and make a quantum stylistic leap like he seemed to have in “wild things”, you can identify much easier what you (as a fellow traveler) also need to do. Seeing early Sendak an comparing it to his later masterwork told me exactly what I needed to do to finally fully realize my own style. We should all find a Sendak to learn from – not by copying, but by example.


I have a funny unrelated m

ce sendak story to tell.

In Seattle, years ago, Maurice Sendak was hired to create the sets and design for the Seattle Ballet’s annual rendition of “the nutcracker” (that creaky old moneymaker). His interpretation of the story and design of the sets stays very true to the classic version we’ve all seen for generations.

The simple impact of his drawing style transfered over to the stage and costumes is so powerful, so perfect, that it does everything one would ever need to freshen and inspire the performance. For a couple of decades, now, ‘his nutcracker’ has been a popular favorite staged every xmas season and supports the other efforts by the Seattle Ballet. It just plain WORKS.

One of the problems with using the same staging for a production like that for many years is that things simply wear out. Periodically, costumes and sets need to be replaced and reconstructed. It’s a fact of life.

AC:here's another early sendak cover. it's so striking to see his usual earlier professional 'illustration' style. you can easily see the foundations he later exploited so well. but, it's like he hadn't really committed to the work yet. when he finally sat down and cranked out "where the wild things are", he must have spent an enormous amount of time lovingly executing the work. it was like he finally "got it" and went for it.

So, what does one DO with an old sendak stage prop? Well, they are required by written contract to destroy the old materials. That way, Sendak doesn’t have to compete in the art market with himself (like all us poster artists) and see the prices for their life’s work get hammered by competition selling his work cheap. It’s simple logic. He gets to control his own market. (it’s something i wish i could have controlled in my career – my stuff sells for crap on ebay and i can’t do a thing to control it.) So, whenever the seattle ballet needs new costumes, they toss out the old ones.

I used to live next door to a costume shop in belltown (an neighborhood in downtown seattle). The woman who ran the rental store had connections into the costume producing community in Seattle. Many of these people whom she employed to make her costumes also worked on major stage productions, making costumes for things like Sendak’s Nutcracker.

Whenever they needed to replace old costumes, these ‘connections’ simply tossed out the old costumes into a dumpster. The woman who ran this costume rental store simply arranged to have those old costumes tossed out into HER dumpster behind her shop. There would be a late night phone call and everybody was happy. She simply dumpster-dived her own dumpster for the costumes. A perfect arrangement.

---Maurice Bernard Sendak was born on June 10, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. He was often sick as a child and spent much of his time indoors where reading was a major pastime. It was during this time that he began drawing, a passion that continued throughout high school. Shortly after graduating, Sendak published a number of illustrations in the textbook “Atomics for the Millions”. Sendak began working for FAO Schwartz as a window dresser in 1948 and took night classes at the New York Art Students League. Four years later, he left Schwartz to become a full-time freelance children’s book illustrator. By the early 1960′s, Sendak had gained recognition as one of the more interesting and expressive illustrators in the business. Where The Wild Things Are, published in 1963, brought him international acclaim and became a favourite among children around the world.--- click image for more...

This was in what was then a really rasty nasty part of town. There has a always been a very large homeless population in Seattle (the term ‘skid row” was coined there). Seattle is very expensive and crowded. Entire families with working parents often are found living in alleys and sleeping under bridges because, even with the two incomes, they can’t afford the housing. It’s a tough town.

The costume shop was in a gentrifying neighborhood of Seattle. Lotsa yuppie twits driving volvos and beamers living in upscale condos – who could afford to do things like rent costumes, but also lots of skid row alley drunks and junkies who slept in the doorways. It was an interesting juxtaposition back then. Very ‘grunge’.

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So, the costume lady gets the phone call that some of the costuming (specifically the “mouse” costumes from sendak’s nutcracker) were dumped in her alley dumpster. The next morning she went out to retrieve the ‘destroyed’ costumes and found a small gang of alley drunks dancing around with bottles in the their hands and laughing and hooting and hollering – ALL WEARING MAURICE SENDAK ‘MOUSE’ MASKS!!

I would have given my left arm to have a video of that.


Art Chantry: i’ve worked on thousands of projects as a designer. i’ve done several thousand posters, for instance. saving samples of my work takes up a lot of space. as a result, if i have (for some odd reason) several hundred copies of particular poster laying around, i need the space, so i will eventually toss out most of them and keep (maybe) a couple dozen. it’s just a fact of the life of a graphic designer. people don’t want your work. nobody will buy it. they all want it for free (because, after all it’s just a poster). but the idea of paying ‘art’ prices for my work is offensive to most collectors. my only alternative is to discard.

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so, anyway, i cleaned out a bunch of extra posters one day. a little later, i drove past the dumpster and i saw a guy carefully collecting out everything i had tossed. some of it later showed up in thrift stores and antique dealers.

so, now when i clean out old files, i literally destroy stuff. once i took a circular saw and cut entire boxes full of my poster work in half before i tossed them into a dumpster. man, that hurt, but it’s gotta go….

---With wit and whimsy, Maurice Sendak illustrates seven tales about the legendary village of fools, Chelm, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Silly, outrageous, and sometimes poignant, the stories (translated from the Yiddish) reflect the traditions, heroes, and villains of middle European folklore. The devil makes an appearance more than once, as do the ever-so-foolish yet highly revered Elders of Chelm. In "The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom," four sisters wake one morning to discover that their feet have become mixed up in the bed they share.--- click image for more....

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