Louis Slobodkin was born to Ukrainian immigrants in Albany, New York, on February 19, 1903. Although he briefly held
the office of “chief cartoonist” on the Albany High School newspaper, Louis was unsuited to the rigors of a public
education and anxious to become an artist. When he was 15, he conducted a “one-man sit-down strike” until his parents
permitted him to leave school and enroll at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. He worked odd jobs
for five years to pay his way through school, meanwhile earning a Louis Tiffany Foundation Fellowship and 22 medals
for life study, composition, and drawing.
At age 20, his restive spirit compelled him against better judgment to ship out as a deckhand in the merchant marine. This experience later yielded a treasure trove of salty sea stories in his 1945 memoir, Fo’castle Waltz, based on his “alleged adventures aboard an Argentine freighter.” Returning to the States to resume life as a landlubber, Slobodkin apprenticed in commercial art studios and then spent a year and a half as a sculptor’s assistant in Europe. He settled in New York City and got involved with various New Deal art projects and organizations, contributing statues, reliefs, and panels for government buildings in New York, Washington, and elsewhere. One was a featured statue of Abraham Lincoln at the 1939 World’s Fair that became a focus of controversy, ending in the destruction of the work by sledgehammer (see “Unity” Statue Sparks Controversy at 1939 World’s Fair). His work during this period was being exhibited widely, with installations at the National Academy of Design, the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other venues.
While vacationing on Cape Ann (Mass.) in 1941, the Slobodkins met two young librarians, Eleanor and Rice Estes. Eleanor promptly persuaded Louis to exchange chisel for pencil and collaborate on her first children’s book, The Moffats. This was a great success and Slobodkin agreed to illustrate two more Moffat books along with The Hundred Dresses and The Sun and the Wind and Mr. Todd. (Indeed, his first crack at book illustration betrays a sculptor’s practiced eye—the Moffats, an admiring critic once pointed out, evince the sturdy style of a sculptural armature.) In 1944, he was accorded the prestigious Caldecott Medal—awarded to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children”—for his work on James Thurber’s Many Moons. He then tried his own hand at writing and produced three books in 1944-45, inspired by his two children, Larry and Michael.
He came full circle in 1958 with The First Book of Drawing, which opens—as if speaking to his own inner child—with the assurance that “ancient Greeks (some of whom you know were great artists) used the same word for ‘drawing’ as they did for ‘writing.’ It made good sense, really.” Slobodkin wrote and drew fifty books all told, and illustrated nearly forty more, including three by young adult biographer Nina Brown Baker and regrettably but one by the wonderful Edward Eager (Red Head). Women may wistfully recall The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, a Newbery Honor Book in 1945 and still an annual bestseller, while boys more likely enjoyed The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree and several sequels, in which Eddie Blow was forever visiting his grandmother’s “farm up above Albany.” Slobodkin also illustrated five books written by his wife Florence, such as the beautifully decorated Io Sono, I Am: Italian with Fun.
His disarming drawings have been praised again and again (“You like to keep on looking,” murmured May Lamberton Becker in the New York Herald Tribune). And it seems the man himself could draw a good bit of awe as well. On the dust jacket to his memoir, his publisher at Vanguard Press wrote: “We have boisterous evidence that he has two strapping sons, who, when you ask for him on the telephone, demand: ‘Do you mean Mr. Slobodkin, the sculptor, painter, author, lecturer, book designer, illustrator, chef, factory hand, chicken farmer, bell-hop, dish-washer?’ We settle all that by merely asking for the Eminent.” So here’s to Albany’s own, the Eminent Louis Slobodkin!