In a third-story studio on the east side of Providence, in a neighborhood that he describes as looking like “the quiet Midwestern suburb” of his childhood, author Chris Van Allsburg conjures the magical stories that have made him famous worldwide.
Van Allsburg’s books, which include the made-into-movie bestsellers Jumanji and The Polar Express, often pivot on the idea that magic surrounds us, sometimes capriciously revealing itself, other times revealed only to those capable of seeing it.
In his beautifully appointed living room, which is leavened with clusters of clever and mirthful figurines, Van Allsburg offers insight into why this proud Grand Rapids, MI, native has called Providence home for nearly forty years.
A RISD graduate with a master’s degree in sculpture, Van Allsburg says he chose to stay in Providence because of its proximity to the arts centers of Boston and New York, but also because it offered access to the specialized materials he needed without being a hectic urban city.
“I need to work in a place that’s not particularly stressful,” Van Allsburg explains. “A place that’s manageable and doesn’t actually overstimulate me, but allows me to reflect on the childhood experiences that are an important part of my inspiration.”
And while he may primarily draw on these youthful recollections, he was influenced by Providence’s architecture when sketching out his vision of the North Pole’s toy factory in the 1986 Caldecott Medal winning book, The Polar Express.
“I was trying to imagine what Santa’s workshop would look like,” says Van Allsburg. “It struck me that it couldn’t be a chalet, the way it’s often depicted. It would have to be a large network of factories. I think maybe the reason I chose to depict it that way is because I’d seen a lot of that around Providence — mostly old, abandoned, and reused textile mills that struck me as the way the North Pole might look if it actually had to produce the quantity of toys that were needed each Christmas.”
Last Fall, another Van Allsburg work, The Widow’s Broom, was reprised in dance form by Providence’s Festival Ballet, a dance company that Van Allsburg’s wife Lisa has championed for years.
“It was great to work with the choreographer and to figure out a way to tell the story through dance,” said Van Allsburg. “I found the process very interesting because dance cannot be so concise narratively. It’s really suggestive unless you get into pantomime, which is not really considered dance. I had to satisfy myself that the story could be depicted through movement and suggestions instead of something very specific. And the result is very appealing. It was great to know that this thing I was working on as a novice ballet librettist was going be in the hands of an excellent dance troupe.”
Currently, Van Allsburg is working on his next book, which tells the story of the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel – and survive. It is a story he first recalled reading nearly 30 years ago in a Sports Illustrated profile of daredevils.
“I remember one of these characters was so unusual and exceptional, that I found it amazing that I’d never heard of this person.”
That this daredevil is lost from our collective conscious is surprising, Van Allsburg says, “because the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live in 1901 was a 62-year-old retired charm school teacher named Annie Edson Taylor. So I thought this person was worthy of a biography.”
Look for Van Allsburg’s next work at your nearest bookstore. And if you’re looking for Van Allsburg himself, you might find him in some of his favorite local places, sites that to this master artist of light, shadow, and magic reveal the best elements of Providence: Swan Point Cemetery, the Blackstone Boulevard walking path, the East Bay Bike Path, Adler’s Hardware Store, New Rivers and Benefit Street. When it’s snowing. At night.