Exhibition looks at Maurice Sendak in the wild

The first touring exhibition of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations since his death at 83 last May is making its debut at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. It’s called “Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons,” but a more apt title might have been “Where the Wild Cards Are.”

The official title alludes to the fact that this is the 50th anniversary of Sendak’s landmark children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Sendak designated the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia as the official repository for his work, but he also sometimes did work for hire, including posters and preliminary drawings for operas based on his books, and he would dash off drawings for friends or fans. Some of these have wound up in private collections — and privately loaned works make up the show that’s at the Bowers through April 28.


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The exhibition’s curators are art dealers Nick Leone and Heidi Leigh, a husband and wife whose AFA Gallery locations are devoted to animation and illustration; they’ve teamed with Steven Brezzo, former longtime director of the San Diego Museum of Art, who’s a fan of illustration and now runs his own exhibition company. In 1986, Brezzo mounted a major retrospective of the work of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel at the San Diego museum and sent it on a national tour.

Nonprofit museums are expected to avoid being used to further private interests. Leigh said in a recent interview that the collectors who’ve loaned works for the Sendak show have personal attachments to their holdings and plan to keep them rather than using the tour as a way to increase their prestige and sales value.

Many have been loaned by Leone and AFA. Leigh said she and her husband were friends of Sendak, and in 2009 they mounted a large gallery show in New York City to help him sell working drawings, limited edition prints and other items he’d kept at his home in Connecticut.

The motivation for the touring exhibition, she said, was to launch a memorial to the artist as soon as possible. “It was a labor of love.”

The show includes plenty of images related to “Wild Things,” but also goes back to Sendak’s very beginnings as an artist.

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There are eight signed watercolor and ink illustrations of scenes from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that he made as a 16-year-old in Brooklyn who wanted to avoid flunking English. Leigh said Sendak’s teacher couldn’t get him to speak up in class or write essays, but she’d noticed he was always drawing and told him he could earn a grade with his artwork.

The teacher kept the drawings and went on to exchange letters with her former student for decades until her death, Leigh said. The first book Sendak illustrated, “Atomics for the Millions” (1947), had a similar genesis: It was a science text by his former high school physics teacher, who had also let him earn course credit by drawing.

The exhibition also includes “Mickey and Me,” a self-portrait lithograph from 1978 in which Sendak looks into a mirror and sees one of his favorite characters, Mickey Mouse. A hand-drawn birthday greeting that Sendak and his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, sent in 1974 to their housekeeper’s brother has Mickey Mouse saying, “Happy Birthday, Peter!”

The show’s next stop is the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, Brezzo said, followed by libraries and museums in Portland, Maine; Reno; New Britain; and Connecticut.


‘Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons’

Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

When: Ends April 28. Closed Mondays.

Contact:, (714) 567-3600