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All About
For twenty-eight years, I shared a studio with Simms Taback. He’s innovative, creative, warm. He sees the overview, the underview, and the details. He cares. But his work habits are a strange symphony of beauty and agony.
First the many, many exploratory drawings using a lead pencil. Then a colored pencil. Then trying the same subject in crayon or with ballpoint pen. Then pen and ink. Or a number 6 brush with watercolor and two-ply kid-finish Strathmore. Perhaps a number 10 brush over the ballpoint on color paper with the pastel smudge would be more interesting. Or the texture of the Arches with watercolor and pencils would lend a certain something. In the process, this patient perfectionist produces a thousand gorgeous sketches of a character or a scene for a forthcoming gem of a book. That’s the beauty.
The agony comes with the whistling that accompanies the creation. Sometimes the whistle is meandering. Sometimes it is piercing. It is a sound in search of a song. Perhaps it’s a sound that is necessary, like the sound that comes before a fine cup of tea. Perhaps it’s as integral to his creative process as the grinder to the sausage factory. Perhaps it is the agony of creation.
Simms Taback, like Giovanni Bellini, Hans Holbein, and Pieter Bruegel, is the son of a painter. But unlike those earlier artists, Simms did not study painting under the tutelage of his father. In fact, it can be said with some certainty that most of Leon Taback’s work is now covered by fresh coats of Benjamin Moore — or even wallpaper. The younger Taback was, instead, privileged to study art with the best and brightest at two of the finest art institutions in New York City — the High School of Music and Art and the Cooper Union.
Although Simms’s application of paint was different from his father’s, Leon’s sense of fairness and the family’s deep interest in social issues shaped the young artist. They strongly influenced his direction and the sensibility he brought to his work and to the business of his work. In the 1930s and 1940s, Leon Taback had been a union organizer in his trade. Simms’s mother was a proud member of the ILGWU. In 1974, Simms began organizing illustrators. He could see so clearly the need for freelancers, who worked in isolation, to be in touch with one another and to be informed about current business practices. His efforts resulted in the formation of the Illustrators Guild, which, in 1976, affiliated with the Graphic Artists Guild. He conceived of, led, art directed, and gently shepherded Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, a publication central to the Guild’s mission — to raise standards and protect the interests of the freelancer and, in fact, of all art professionals. Simms served as president of the Illustrators Guild from 1975 to 1977 and of the Graphic Artists Guild from 1989 to 1991. He sat on the Guild’s national board for over twenty years. He was chair of the Society of Illustrators’ groundbreaking show and book, The New Illustration.
Simms dedicated himself one hundred percent to every Guild endeavor — generating ideas, selecting staff, organizing and chairing meetings, art directing publications, and dealing with the management of minutia. As a freelancer, he also dedicated himself one hundred percent to creating unique, beautifully conceived and executed illustrations for advertising and publishing. Impossible, you say? That’s Simms Taback, I say.
Simms’s work has given pleasure in so many varied areas over a long, successful career. He has won many awards from the Art Directors Club and the Society of Illustrators for work done in advertising and publishing. He has worked as a designer for the New York Times, Columbia Records, various advertising agencies, and his own studio and greeting card business. His strength as a designer is manifest in all his work. He is designer, illustrator, letterer, and typographer on all his projects.
All these accomplishments come despite Simms’s ongoing battle with an addiction that threatens his brilliant career and clear complexion. Often, working late into the night, poor Simms is seized by an all-consuming craving. All attempts to dissuade him are futile. It’s a sad and tragic thing to see an otherwise sterling man sneaking out to his supplier and hungrily requesting “a Hershey with almonds, please.”
Simms once did a series of posters for children published by Scholastic. One in particular expresses his philosophy of life. It is called “Giving and Sharing,” and it depicts those acts in simple imaginative ways that cross the lines of gender, ethnicity, disability, and age. No better person could have been chosen to illustrate what might have become joyless or trite in other hands. Simms combined sensitivity and humor — without being maudlin or cartoony — to create engaging, well-designed teaching tools.
He has done this many times over in books and posters that sometimes deal with difficult social or scientific topics. He has the enviable ability to take any subject and infuse it with his own personality. Simms’s hand is always evident, enlivening without intruding on the subject. Two very different assignments come to mind: one, illustrating construction equipment in the book Road Builders; the other, depicting insects on a large poster called “Bugs, Beetles, Flies & Wasps.” Engineers and entomologists alike would be impressed and, perhaps, surprised by his accuracy. Certainly, they would be charmed by his style.
Simms is genetically programmed to be generous. He deals with an open hand with family and friends, clients and colleagues, students, strangers, and stray dogs. He is always giving. Simms offers more — more interest, more time and attention, more care. A bit like a loving mom with a pot of hot soup.
Although his talent has been commissioned countless times in the service of advertising and publishing, it’s particularly magical when performed for family and friends. When Simms’s kids were away at camp or when they were separated from him for any period, he would always write, draw, or paint the perfect personal postcard. (Often they were part of a series, “Believe It or Don’t.”) He has often had to work late into the night because he spent the day finding just the right gift, illustrating just the right sentiment, decorating the paper and wrapping the present in the most perfect personal way. He couldn’t do less.
Randolph Caldecott’s name is synonymous with excellence in illustration. Caldecott gave up the life of a bank clerk to become a freelance illustrator. Simms Taback put aside an early interest in engineering to study art. How fortunate their career choices were for the rest of us. The Caldecott committees of 1998 and 2000 are to be praised doubly for twice recognizing and rewarding Simms Taback for his very special and tradition-breaking work.
The good people on the 1998 Caldecott committee wisely chose to award a Caldecott honor to Simms Taback for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. It should be noted, however, that if there are a few holes to be found in the fabric of Simms’s nurturing, empathetic nature, they appear in this book. Usually caring to a fault, Simms barely managed to squeeze out a tear as he coolly, deftly, and humorously documented the demise of an elderly and obviously demented woman who kept swallowing things she must have known were not good for her. Children and teachers, parents and pastors find themselves in paroxysms of laughter as the dear, unfortunate, omnivorous woman topples over with a large Equus caballus clearly seen inside her.
Simms’s transformative magic goes into high gear with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, this year’s Caldecott winner. Simms makes ingenious use of die-cutting, drawing, design, collage, and exciting color to move the story with a surprising focal point on each page. The book is a Möbius strip of creation and re-creation: 
Joseph is Simms, Simms is Joseph. In this hole-y book, Joseph, using the wit and wisdom given him by his creator, shows us that “you can always make something out of nothing.” If that’s true — and Joseph convinces us it is — imagine what we can look forward to from Simms, a man who has so much of so many things — and who gives so generously.
Copyright 2000 The Horn Book
In addition to enduring Simms Taback’s company in the studio for twenty-eight years, Reynold Ruffins is a legend in his own right in the graphic design and illustration world. He was a founding member of the famous Push Pin studios, and has designed and illustrated over 20 children’s books. He has exhibited at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, and his freelance design clients have included Coca-Cola and the U.S. Postal Service. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York with his wife, Joan, and continues to work in his studio, which is “bursting” with colorful paintings.
The Horn Book
Across the Drawing Table
from Simms Taback
By Reynold Ruffins


Reynold Ruffins        â–ş

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