May 3, 2017
Art, politics, angels, demons . . . and righteous dogs.

SIMMS

Very sad to hear today of the passing of our friend Simms Taback, noted illustrator, children’s book author and activist for artist’s rights. He was a hero to a lot of us in the graphic arts. Here is a post from last June, which Simms saw and liked. In the year plus of grace that he had since deciding to stop immiserating treatment for pancreatic cancer Simms got to travel, be with family and friends and hear what he meant to them. Our thoughts are with them at this time. My reflections are reprinted below.

 

 

He is a kind of four letter man that we rarely see in our profession or any other: someone who is truly excellent at what he does, who is caring about the world, generous to his colleagues and is also a just a great guy. Usually someone can be some of these but not all.  People who are brilliant artists have trouble reaching out to others.  Some who are strong advocates for their cause can’t reach the level of excellence that time and attention would yield. Simms cultivates all these sides.  He gives us a lot to admire.

An excellent website SEE HERE designed by Jeff Seaver gives you a strong sense of his career and what his work is like. I am grateful to him and Simms for allowing me use some of the work posted.

He had helped found the Graphic Artists Guild, first as it merged with the Illustrators Guild to become the Graphic Artists Guild of NY.  The Guild was growing and when I joined the board in ’83.  Till recently he was editor of the Pricing and Ethical Guidelines book, which has kept standards as high as possible in a slippery industry.  Other issues he worked on were those of copyright protection, work-for-hire ethics. The idea of artist’s right to original art became industry standard.  In the encouragement of contracts written up by artists, we learned to get more of a grip on our relationships with publications.  His time at the Guild was one of empowerment for artists.  While the Guild is now not what it was, the ideas have taken hold and continue to maintain moral-suation we use with clients everyday. I learned and grew a lot in those years and Simms was a big reason for that.

As an author/artist he has won two Caldicott medals (very prestigious). His work is deceptively simple.  But this kind of simplicity is derived from an eloquence we all strive for: nothing out of place or distracting.  The story, the design, the color, the humor all blend seamlessly.  The delight here is of seeing a piece by an artist in full charge of all the elements and gifting to you a wonderful world. Here are four examples plus a some animated film clips.



Here is Simms himself talking about The Was an Old Lady and how he got the idea for the die-cut solution.

None of this touches on the most important point about Simms; his mensch-hood.  This is a person who believes that artists  . . and all humanity . . .  are sharing space and could,  if they chose, to behave with respect to and for each other.  In a competitive market this is a challenge. Fewer assignments means more bumping around for all of us.  But the awareness necessary of how we are in this world makes a difference in what kind of place it is.  That we are creators of the larger space as well as the smaller one.

Simms has done well  . . . and done good for some 50 years. There is never a question he won’t answer, never a problem you can’t talk over with him.  He has knowledge and spiritual support and is generous with both.  And also can kvetch at you when you got it wrong.  In my life I have met many wonderful people.  I find them as teachers.  The observational learning I got from Simms has stayed with me for almost 30 years.  And nothing would please me more than to think that I got to pass some of it along myself.  Here’s to Simms.  And thanks for the overcoat.

Here’s a tribute to Simms at Tablet.com.  Go there to see the slide show!

Steven Heller’s NYT Obit reprinted here:

Simms Taback, a children’s book illustrator and author who won the Caldecott Medal in 2000 for his adaptation of the nonsensical Yiddish folktale “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” died last Sunday at his home in Ventura, Calif. He was 79.

Joseph A. Garcia/Ventura County Star

Simms Taback, at his studio in Ventura, Calif.

Courtesy of the Estate of Simms Taback

The cover of “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” which won a Caldecott Medal in 2000.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his son, Jason.

Mr. Taback was one of a new breed of commercial illustrators who in the 1960s rejected realistic trends in favor of expressionistic and comic visual storytelling.

Known for a wry naïf style, he enjoyed using snappy colors and playful cut-and-paste imagery. His whimsical characterizations of human beings, barnyard animals and jungle beasts entertained audiences through tales both new and retold.

Yiddish was Mr. Taback’s first language, so he took pleasure in adapting old Yiddish stories and song lyrics. His most successful, “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” follows Joseph as he removes his garments until all that’s left is a button. The story takes a quirky turn when Joseph decides to make a book about his coat. Throughout “Joseph,” a menagerie of animals with human expressions watch his transformation. Visual and textual gags spice up the story, including a newspaper headline that states “Fiddler on Roof Falls Off Roof.”

But “Joseph” was not entirely a flight of fancy. Mr. Taback spent time at the Jewish Museum to view period clothing and other artifacts and learned everything he could about shtetls in prewar Poland and Russia.

Born in the East Bronx on Feb. 13, 1932, Mr. Taback graduated from the Cooper Union and, after being discharged from the Army, worked as a graphic designer for Columbia Records and The New York Times, and later as a freelance advertising artist for Eastern Air Lines, American Express and other companies. Mr. Taback started a successful greeting card company, Cardtricks, in 1989, with his longtime friend Reynold Ruffins, a founder with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser of Push Pin Studios.

The paper novelties, including die-cuts, that Mr. Taback developed for cards inspired him to create the children’s book “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” which received a Caldecott Honor in 1998. Cut-out windows on many of the pages enabled readers to view the innards of the old lady’s stomach as she swallowed the fly and consumed larger and sillier creatures throughout the book.

Mr. Taback taught illustration and design at the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University. As president of the Graphic Artists Guild, he helped steer the organization toward advocacy on copyright issues.

His most recent book, published last year, is “Postcards From Camp,” a warmly sardonic correspondence between a first-time camper and his father. “Simms Taback: Making Pictures for Children,” a solo exhibition, opened at the Museum of Ventura County on Dec. 4 and continues until Feb. 12.

Besides his son, Jason, survivors include his wife, Gail; a daughter, Lisa Deane; a stepdaughter, Emily Kuenstler; two grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

Comments

  1. Fay Barrows says:

    I am grateful to Steve for forwarding your article. When my grandkids were younger, I purchased your wonderful books. Congratulations to you for sharing your wonderful with millions of kids.
    Fay (Smith)Barrows

  2. Nancy Paulsen says:

    Fabulous tribute to one of my favorite artists ever!

  3. DK Holland says:

    Hi Steve

    I just went to see our Simmsila in Ventura. And he looks more handsome than ever, and just the same in all other ways. We went out to lunch (after he had to go through boxes and boxes in his studio to give me lots of Simmsy things.
    I have photos of him, his studios walls. I want to remember everything and hold him to my heart.

  4. Steve says:

    DK:
    Many thanks for this. We hold him to our hearts today and always. His gifts to us are many. I want him to know this and that we are thinking about him a lot.
    Gratefully,
    Steve

  5. Bert Silverman says:

    Steve,
    I can confirm that all of the qualities you reveal about Simms were there from the beginning. Good Sam was a name we used when talking about him. And we still do. In our youth he responded to many names, Sam, Max. I’m not certain why we did that. Maybe because as kids Simms seemed like such an unusual name. As you probably know, his parents named him after the legendary labor leader. Yes he was brought up in a radical activist family who instilled in him the need to organize in defence of worker and human rights. Simms’ work in the guild was a product of that history and is the root of his moral outlook and ethical beliefs. His struggle to define himself as an artist was not easy. It involved a difficult path of breaking away from the world of advertising that he so hated and entering the more independent life as an illustrator especially of childrens book. The playfullness of his illustrations and their disceptive simplicity reflects not only his artistic skills but his capacity to enter the minds of children. But some of his work also reveals another aspect of his childhood, his yiddish heritage. Noone could capture that cultural world as he did in Jacob Had An Overcoat if one did not have an intimate connection with that world. I was glad to have played a small role in inspiring him to do that project. But Simms gave back so much more than he received. To have shared the love and support of friend through the joys and trials of our youth and adulthood is a gift that is irreplaceable. He is and has always been a friend and to borrow and old word whose deeper meaning Simms wouild understand, a comrade. Bert

  6. Steve says:

    Bert:
    This is so wonderful and generous. Than you so much for sharing this with us. Lots here I never knew, especially about how far back you guys went. I’m making sure Simms sees this and all the marvelous comments that have been flowing. We are all lucky to have Simms with us.
    Steve

  7. Ray Stollerman says:

    I met Simms in Camp Kinderland, the socialist Jewish camp in Duchess County, where most working-class left-wing Jews sent their kids. I was about eight years old and Simms just a bit younger. That was 1938. I think he realized immediately that I needed help. It was my first time away from home. I needed a friend, a compassionate and supportive friend. Simms became that friend. Our friendship continued and grew throughout the years as campers, then as kitchen workers, and of course, in the progressive movement in the city.

    Simms always knew he wanted to do something in graphic arts, which is why he chose Cooper Union. I too wanted to do something in “commercial art,” but I chose Brooklyn College because they reputedly had a great art department, with artists like Ad Reinhardt, Jimmy Ernst and Mark Rothko. They all frowned on commercial art, especially Rothko who also frowned on me for my socialist realist style.

    After graduation I just couldn’t get a job with my abstract art work. I turned to Simms. He looked at my Mark Rothko portfolio with sympathy and told me as gently as only Simms could that I needed a real advertising portfolio. Then he showed me his. I had never seen paste-ups or color separations before. I asked if i could borrow a few pieces to add to my “portfolio” just to get a job. Simms didn’t hesitate a minute. “Sure,” he said.

    Although this seems unethical, I must emphasize that I did not ask for anything creative, such as his illustrations, layouts or design work. In any case, it worked and I eventually became a successful art director.

    If i hadn’t thanked you enough back then, thanks, Simms. Where would i be without your compassion and unflinching help?

  8. Alan Trachtenberg says:

    My friendship with Simms also goes back , way back, to Camp Kinderland — actually, the adult section of the camp known as Camp Lakeland. We Lakelanders were dining room workers, the proletariat of Kinderland, waiters and busboys, and we lived in crowded bungalows known with affection and a touch of satire as The Bowery. Simms and I bunked together one summer, an experience designed to test anyone’s mettle in getting along with others, particularly relative strangers. What remains with me, a permanent memory, are indelible impressions of decency, goodness of heart, openness of spirit, and not least, of beauty: not just his eye-catching beauty of stature and feature but beauty of character, his willingness to share his mind and feelings, his searching understandings of the world and of himself in the world, his struggles to know himself and confirm his identity in art as well as life. And his depth, the silent mysterious depths within: he gave the impression of being as bottomless inside as he was tall on the outside. In many ways he seemed to me as the quintessential citizen of the Bowery, deeply serious yet full of fun and adventure. As an artist, by magic of invention and discovery, Simms created a plastic medium of story and color and form that perfectly expresses who he is, what he is by tradition – a Jewish partisan for justice and freedom — and what he became in maturity, a master artist of life. Genius married to goodness: a rare mix that makes Simms Taback such a presence in so many lives, including my own.

    Alan

  9. Norman Toback says:

    What can I say other than amen to what Bert, Ray, Alan and others have written? It’s hard to believe that our lives intersected some sixty-five (or more) years ago. Ah, the “Bowery” – Pajama’s famous,” I vuden’t stop de flow from de river” – our youth, our hopes, our seldom more than 4 hours sleep, setting-up breakfast in a coma. Tempus fugit indeed, or as Bowser would say, borrowing from Mailer, ”Tempus? Fug it!” Others have written more eloquently than I how you were perceived; how you affected their lives, and lest you have forgotten, mine as well. It was you who introduced me to Steve F. who in turn opened the door for me into that seductive world of advertising in which surprisingly I had a deceitfully happy thirty years. Miraculously I somehow managed to never lose sight of what really matters in our all too short sojourn. How could I and still be your friend? I truly regret that we have yet to fish Lake Casitas together – maybe we can give it a shot when you get back. Nimm

  10. Steve says:

    Ray, Alan and Norman:
    Many thanks for these. And for the views into your lives with and around Simms. Today is the first birthday of Cynthia’s niece, Taylor. She’s getting “There Was and Old Woman . . ” a good start!
    Gratefully,
    Steve

  11. Lenore Cymes says:

    I have known Simms my whole life, or rather, he has known me…. he was one of the older cousins.. He was the really good looking cousin. We had many aunts/uncles/cousins, either in the Bronx or Brooklyn. The Brooklyn contingent were the more traditional Jews, while those of us in Bx were the left wing politico’s. One thing all the female cousins agreed on – “Simms was better looking than Tony Curtis”

    When I got older and moved to Manhattan, I would drop in from time to time at his studio. I can’t remember what I said, but this kind and generous man always gave me “something” . Fifty years later, his work still hangs on my walls and never ceases to make me smile.

    With many wonderful memories, what stands out the most is Simms the uber mench. Several years ago, I needed answers to some personal questions from my childhood I wrote Simms a long letter. I wasn’t sure if he would even respond. But, respond he did and we had a very special conversation that was valuable then – and now.

    Simms – you are one of those people that dignify the best in what we all want to be and how we would like others to think of us. Knowing you, all this praise, won’t even go to your head…. you will still be the Simmsy we know and love.

    Txs cuz
    Love
    Lenore

  12. Steve says:

    Thank you Lenore. Sorry for the lag. A little crazy here.
    Simms is tops.
    S

  13. Al & Ann Wasserman says:

    As former Coopniks, Kinderland alumni and Cooper Union alumnus (Al), we want to let everyone know that we agree with our friends above who commented so completely & articulately. We could not have said it better.

    In Peace, Love & Justice,
    Al & Ann

  14. Lenore Cymes says:

    I just wanted to go back and read this again. At Simms’ retrospective in Ventura he must have been exhausted yet hid it all very well. There he was with his scarf, jacket, huge smaile and open heart since there seemed to be more than 100 people throughout the evening – and all of us wanted a small piece of this beautiful person.

    On my way home from LA two days later, I stopped off for a few minutes and really thought he had about 1 -2 month left. I guess he was feeiing worse than he let on. I don’t know anyone who handled this entire process with the same style and grace as Simms. Always – there was an ache here or there, but he was doing fine.

    I wend back to the museum to look at the exhibit once more and talked with the Education Director. (I think that was her title). She couldn’t stop raving about how fantastic ahd helpful Simms was. Anything he could do or make or give…… he did. She said something about never working with such a cooperative, generous artist for their own show.

    His passing is a real big loss – and he left behind a reminder of how to live with grace and dignity in life and in illness. He set the bar high for me (and probably many others). Simms will be more than missed – he will be a role model for those moments I don’t want to be so “nice”….

    Lenore
    (the cuz)

  15. Steve says:

    Lenore:
    Thanks so much for this. We have a smaller draftier world today.
    Can you tell me about how many pieces were in the show. I would like to see if we can find a place here in NY.
    Peace,
    Steve

  16. Lenore Cymes says:

    At Simms’ retrospective in Ventura he must have been exhausted yet hid it all very well. There he was with his scarf, jacket, huge smaile and open heart. There seemed to be more than 100 people throughout the evening – and all of us wanted a small piece of this beautiful person.

    On my way home from LA two days later, I stopped off for a few minutes and really thought he had about 1 -2 months left. I guess he was feeiing worse than he let on. I don’t know anyone who handled this entire process with the same style and grace as Simms. When asked how he felt, he replied with a variation of – “there is an ache here or there, but doing fine”.

    I went back to the museum to look at the exhibit once more and talked with the Education Director. (I think that was her title). She couldn’t stop raving about how fantastic and helpful Simms was. Anything he could do or make or give…… he did. She said something about never working with such a cooperative, generous artist for their own show.

    His passing is a real big loss – and he left behind a reminder of how to live with grace and dignity in life and in illness. He set the bar high for me (and probably many others). Simms will be more than missed – he will be a role model for those moments I don’t want to be so “nice”….

    Lenore
    (the cuz)

  17. marjorie says:

    Very, very, very sad.

    Thanks for reprinting my Tablet piece.

    Simms Taback was a genius, and I don’t use the word lightly.

    I wish his family comfort. May his name be a blessing.

  18. emily kuenstler says:

    I am here right now, in Ventura with Gail: it is a sad day indeed. We are doing ok; and I feel so lucky t be able to say “I too knew and loved him!”…

  19. Steve says:

    Emily:
    Thanks for this. Simms made thousands of people lucky because of his great gifts. The hardest thing is to see this through the deep loss. A very bright light which we can pass along.
    SB

  20. ann mcgovern says:

    Simms illustrated my book, TOO MUCH NOISE, published in 1967 and we were both so proud of its longevity.When the publisher decided to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2007, Simms and I talked often about the new cover . We had occasional phone conversations and I always wished I could have known him better. I remember his saying once that our book was the first one to earn him real money. He was, as everyone knows who knew him and/or his work, a genius and a wonderful guy. This year, he sent me a photo I could use in “Meet my artists” for my new web site. He talked about his illness. What a brave man. My heart goes out to his family and his many friends. Ann McGovern

  21. Frume Sarah says:

    A beautiful tribute to an artist who clearly touched the lives of so many. Both through his art and his caring guidance, Mr. Taback was a gift to those who knew him in person as well as though who knew him “only” through his gift of story.

    May his name always be sweet on the lips of those who knew him.

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  1. […] genius…and by all accounts a mensch. Tablet magazine contributor Steve Bodner wrote a lovely tribute, and included my Tablet profile from earlier this year. It’s worth rereading just for the […]