In Memory of the Great Bear of Locktown

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Today, I’m very sad to say, the artist John Schoenherr passed away. Among his honors, Schoenherr earned a Caldecott Award for his paintings for the book Owl Moon. His dark, textured artwork did justice to all manner of life, from a Canada goose to a giant sandworm.

I met Jack when I was just ten years old, through his son Ian. He was not the typical father of your fifth-grade friends. He got up not long before noon, sat for a while at the kitchen table with some coffee, making a few  jokes, and then headed to his barn, where he would paint till midnight or later. His barn was filled with dismantled MG’s, Japanese swords, a complete collection of National Geographics, snapping tortoise shells, camera equipment, years’ worth of paintings, and an atmosphere suffused with good cheer. We kids were always welcome, whether we wanted to ask questions about the latest painting on his easel, or if we just wanted to wander along his rough bookshelves and be alone in his company. I learned some of my most important early lessons about nature from Jack, and I also learned from him what it’s like to love the act of creation, day in and day out.

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The kids in the studio eventually grew up, but kept coming back. His son Ian became a fine artist and children’s book illustrator in his own right. I’m sure that much of my interest in natural history stems from my time in that barn, too. When I got older, I was proud to come back there, where Jack was still painting, his beard gray now, his shoulders stooped, and tell him about my own encounters with walking whales and enchanting flatworms. Everyone always joked that Jack was a great bear. It wasn’t just his ursine cast that earned him that name; it was also his  combination of grouchiness and loyalty. Bears are also strong, and over the past few years Jack showed amazing strength as well, as he struggled with his failing health. Now the Great Bear of Locktown has left us, but we will not forget him.

[Update: The New York Times has a lovely tribute, with pictures.]