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October 23, 2013

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The Story of the Sesame Street Dictionary: Parts 2 & 3

Betsy Loredo is the executive editor of Sesame Workshop’s publishing group.

PART 2: The Artist

Once you get to know Joe Mathieu a little better, it’s easy to see why he was the perfect choice  to illustrate the Sesame Street Dictionary.

He’s the one on the right above.

“Jim Henson encouraged me to go to the Muppet workshop and sketch and photograph the characters in the ‘morgue,’” Joe explained when he shared this shot with us. To tackle more than 1300 words, Random House author Linda Hayward, Sesame editor Anna Jane Hays, and Joe together intended to feature many obscure, cult-favorite characters from the show. For a list of the ones to look for in the finished book, check out Muppet Wiki

There wasn’t a lot of reference for those rarities, so Jim opened the doors to the Muppet Workshop.

“[Then Creative Director]Michael Frith took me to the headquarters,” Joe told us. “I met [puppet designer] Kermit Love – he was in the process of building Big Bird’s head, he had these huge plaster casts. I saw a guy there with long hair and a Hawaiian shirt – that was Caroll Spinney.”

He also met a lot of Muppets.  “I had free reign to put them on and work them,” Joe said. “This photo was taken at one such visit.”

Not many artists end up grappling with fuzzy monsters, but Joe got his start the way so many of them do: getting into trouble. His school-newspaper cartoons of the Lithuanian priests who ruled his prep school didn’t go over very well with the powers that be. But they did earn Joe an early award for illustration that helped decide his career path.

Next came a stint at Rhode Island School of Design in the psychedelic 60s (“A heck of a time to be at RISD!”), where he crossed paths with Janis Joplin and experimented… with Luma dyes. Maybe a little acrylic. Later, through his years with Sesame, he most often used watercolors with pen or pencil line work.

The book was still being written when Joe got started (“We did it in alphabetical order. Z was the last illustration.”), so he had no idea what would be coming up later, what idea might be better served by a concept he’d already applied. And while the words were provided, it was his job to somehow make all the pages and interwoven words into a coherent whole.

“That was what was so difficult – laying the book out, I didn’t know how much room I’d need for each word.”

Joe is exceptionally proud of his work on the Dictionary and calls it his best Sesame Street work. But even almost 35 years later, the late nights and strain are clearly quite vivid to Joe. Each of the thousand-plus vignettes was rendered first as a sketch that was then transferred, very lightly, onto white board and painted over with the color. All the black lines and spaces were then rendered separately (a process that is still mind-boggling even to Joe) and printed on acetate overlays. Those were layered on top of the color to create the complete image, similar to the way hand-painted cel animation is created. All incredibly labor-intensive.

“I’d get a big idea for one word a small idea for another and find a way to connect them, figure out a way to make it work. I had to keep reworking the page, peel up the type, tape it down again. “

Joe put in 12-hour days for months, “working into the wee hours. So my agent put me on a schedule. He asked ‘What were my strongest hours?’ Nine to three. ‘I want you to be in there at 9am every day and walk out at 3.’” Joe also roped in a colorist to help him paint some pieces and the project finally, mercifully ended…two and a half years later.

Joe lightened the pressures of the workload by slipping in little portraits of family and friends among the thousands of Muppets.

Still, after such a marathon project, it’s maybe no surprise that, when asked which entry is his favorite, Joe’s emphatic response is: “The last one! Finish. The end.” Also kind of easy to see the artist himself in that final page’s ultimate illustration:

PART 3: The Future

Flash forward to 2013. A cold spring day in May. After lots of conversations, a promise to treat the art like our very own—because, of course, it’s in our DNA—and an offer he couldn’t refuse, Joe and his wife arrived at our office with five carefully packed bins of every layer of the 1300+ drawings. Over a celebratory lunch, Joe revealed a few more nuggets of Dictionary history:

“Ernie was always my favorite. So many subtle angles and curves. He’s difficult to draw and make look cute and not stupid,” Joe said, nostalgic about the book’s characters, if not its process. “Big Bird is tough, too, giving him expression but retaining that beak shape.”

And now, the artwork is being preserved in every way possible: stored archivally and hi-res scanned while its colors are still glowing with those strangely fluorescent Luma dyes. Here’s a graphic illustration of why we were so intent to get those originals. The copy on the left was made few years ago, for a new international edition of the dictionary, scanned from the only assets available at the time.

And on the right, a recent un-retouched scan from Joe’s vivid original art:

We’re having a lot of fun with this extraordinary treasure trove as we send batches out for scanning. We’re noticing the zanier details even more in person. Sure, nowadays, we might think twice before having a witch gleefully turn Prairie Dawn into a toadstool. (Perhaps irrevocably.) And there probably wouldn’t be quite so many cookies. (There are a LOT of cookies.) The artwork is full of these references to our earlier years of more unrestrained mania. Happily for all of us, they’re “grandfathered in.” So we grown-up fans can continue snickering right beside our giggling preschoolers

The only question that remains, now that we have all this art at our fingertips: What next? The dictionary will continue in print and keep on winning legions of new readers. And we have lots of ideas to turn these thousands of charming, wordy life lessons into ebooks and apps,.

Now that the art is where it truly belongs in the Publishing Archives, we welcome your ideas, too. How would YOU ensure this unique literacy tool  gets in front of a whole new generation of teeny-tiny fans to help them learn and make them laugh? Let us know, and when you do, remember to say what we do every time we work with the art, “Thanks, Joe!”

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