Artist Mary Azarian tills her Vermont garden as skillfully as she carves her unique woodcuts. Exposed to rural life when she grew up on her grandfather's Virginia farm, her real expertise in cultivation came from on-the-job experience in adulthood. Her gardening ability is the direct result of her chosen country lifestyle; necessity, however, led her to work as an artist. Following her graduation from Smith College in the early 1960s, Azarian and her husband moved to northern Vermont to live off the land. The difficulties of subsistence farming soon led to the need for outside income. An opportunity arose for her to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, and she accepted the position. The prospect of teaching, let alone teaching eighth grades, filled Azarian with fear. She had not taken education courses in college, and a preview of the austere classroom heightened her anxiety. Before school began, she produced a set of alphabet posters both to enliven the room and to keep from thinking about the upcoming challenges of such a teaching assignment. The dread she felt soon gave way to enjoyment as she and her class had fun learning from one another. She taught school for several years until the impending birth of her second child made working out of the home difficult.
Like many unexpected events in life, this classroom experience opened up new fields of opportunity for Azarian. Azarian did not plan to be an artist anymore than she planned to be a teacher; in fact, she had planned to major in medicine. However, her strong interest in science gave way to the delight she found when studying printmaking and etching at Smith under artist Leonard Baskin. She changed her major to art. This college training enabled her to work at home as a woodcut artist after she gave up teaching. Printmaking provided her the kind of work flexibility a young mother needed. "I was amazed that the business was a success, and thus began my thirty plus years as a printmaker," the artist recalls. After Azarian was awarded a grant to produce a set of alphabet poster with a rural theme, the Department of Education printed a set of her posters for every primary classroom in the state. The prints seemed perfect for a children's book; but although Azarian had illustrated a cookbook with her prints, she discovered that the New York publishers she approached had no interest in woodcut prints for children's books. Time passed and David Godline offered her the chance to publish her alphabet posters in book form, A Farmer's Alphabet (1981). Other books followed.
In the late 1990s, Azarian enthusiastically agreed to illustrate a book about Wilson Bentley. She had already touched on his life when illustrating Faraway Summer; his love for snow, a passion she shared, drew Azarian into the story. Her admiration for Bentley grew as she researched his life in Jericho, Vermont, and learned of his life-long dedication to photographing snowflakes. On an appropriately cold and snow-encrusted February morning in 1999, Azarian received work that she had won the Caldecott Medal for Snowflake Bentley. Today, Mary Azarian remains content to confine the subject matter for her work to the animals, people, places, and activities she knows best--from those in rural New England to the medieval rural scenes that first sparked her interest in woodblocks. She confronts the challenge of interpreting an author's words by seeing the task as an opportunity to learn and to grow. The work is sometimes difficult, but it is never dull. "My medium, hand-colored woodcuts," she admits, "is a bit unusual and, by its very nature, makes a strong statement."
Azarian shows respect for the children who read her books in much the same way she respected the students in her classroom. "I try to do each illustration as well as I can, regardless of whether it will be viewed by a child or an adult," she explains. "I think it is a mistake to talk down to a child. Early in my career, I did a book cover that showed a man feeding a live mouse to an owl. Everything had gone well design-wise with this cover and I was very pleased with it. However, a horrified editor called me with the news that I would have to redo the cover. She considered the subject too gruesome for a children's book. I should add that the text had mentioned feeding the mouse to the owl. I complied, but I have always regreted that I didn't defend my choice. I know that children don't need or even want to have things toned down."
Three cats--Phoebe, Trey, and Big Kitty (also know as Barn Cat)--and her beagle, Hilda, keep Azarian company now that her three grown sons (Ethan, Jesse and Tim) have left home. Her time is split between the studio and the garden, and she finds inspiration in both pursuits. She relaxes by reading, playing tournament bridge, and listening to medieval music. The artist continues to use the 1880 Van der Cook proof press she purchased years ago. It is probably no coincidence that Azarian selects a medium and a press that require physical strength, much as gardening does. She works rapidly when carving her woodcuts, mimicking the fast-growing plant varieties selected for Vermont's brief growing season. Printmaking is repetitious; therefore, Azarian particularly enjoys book illustration because it is a one-time process. She researches the subject matter, plans the book, and flies into action. She sketches directly on the basswood block and then cuts into the block with her Japanese tools. Azarian describes the desired result in these words: "My favorite moments in illustrating a book come when I am able to suspend conscious thought and let my hands and eyes work, guided by the well of creativity that nourishes all of us. No matter what you may choose to do in life, if you can find that magic moment, you will be happy in your work."
Mary Azarian: From A to Z