Lynne Avril is on deadline. It’s a stuffy July afternoon, and she’s holed up in her daughter’s sunny guestroom in Kalispell. For part of every summer, this room becomes her art studio. Avril’s two teenage grandchildren filter in and out. So does her shitzu, Stetson. But Avril spends most of her time here with an unflappable, literal-minded young girl who wears a daisy in her hair. Her name is Amelia Bedelia.
Avril has been drawing Amelia Bedelia for over a decade. The original character dates back to 1963, when Peggy Parish started writing children’s books about a housekeeper who did everything exactly as she was told. When asked to dress the chicken, she put it in overalls, and she put real sponges in her sponge cake.
In 2007, HarperCollins reinvented the series, casting Amelia Bedelia as a young girl. The jokes are similarly droll – the young Amelia thinks a farmers market is where you buy a farmer, and when she tosses a salad she throws it away. Thanks to Avril, the art is funny, fresh and drenched in color. Each book sells hundreds of thousands of copies.
Today Avril is working on the latest installment, “Amelia Bedelia Under the Weather.” The first illustration shows Amelia Bedelia in bed with a thermometer in her mouth, surrounded by stuffed animals. Avril leans toward a digital tablet on her desk. (She used to illustrate the books with paint and paper, but now she does it digitally.) With her stylus, she sketches a character’s upturned nose and adds a little spiral for an ear. She makes every line count.
“Even a little dot has so much suggestion,” she says.
Next, Avril turns her eye to one of Amelia Bedelia’s stuffed animals, a monkey with a heart sewed on its chest. The real-life stuffed monkey sits next to Avril. She made it for her daughter, Chloe, in the 1970s, when Avril was a young mother living in married student housing at UM and a career in art seemed like an impossible dream.
Avril has come a long way since then. Now, in addition to being a successful children’s book illustrator, she’s a blues bassist, and a fine art painter with a whimsical style all her own. She got here by fastidiously practicing what she loves.
“I always tell people,” she says, peering through her glasses at the characters she is conjuring to life, “if you want to learn to draw, you’ve got to draw.”
Avril can’t remember not drawing. She was born Lynne Woodcock in Miles City to an arts-loving mother and a cowboy father who liked to doodle. Her father, Walter Woodcock, was president of the Billings Arts Association, and even late into his life he was a tough critic of his daughter’s work. When Avril was illustrating a children’s book called “Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse,” her father appraised her pictures with comments like, “That horse has no chest,” “That’s not how you tie a lariat knot,” and “You hitch a wagon like this.” He taught Avril to get over her ego.
The first person outside Avril’s family to take an interest in her art was her sixth-grade teacher in Billings. That teacher invited her to stay in at lunch one day to paint a watercolor of Mount Fuji.
Later at West High School in Billings, Avril met John Armstrong, a young art teacher who encouraged his students to draw imaginative still lifes. Armstrong wasn’t Avril’s teacher, but she would drop by after class to get extra practice.
Armstrong remembers thinking Avril showed promise even then. Now a master printer, Armstrong has followed Avril’s career and formed a close friendship with her. They both live in Phoenix for most of the year and keep up on each other’s art. Armstrong continues to be impressed.
“She’s an illustrator, she’s a fine painter, she’s a colorist, she draws well, she plays in a band, she’s well-read, and she speaks more than one language,” he says. “She’s capable of a lot of things.”
In 1969, Avril enrolled in the fine art program at UM, where she studied under teachers like Walter Hook, James Dew and Rudy Autio. Avril wanted to become a fine art painter.
“I had never had any thought of being a book illustrator,” she says. “When you were at the University, you did not draw little kids with rosy cheeks and cute little animals. You drew dead babies. You know, serious art.”
Avril graduated from UM in 1975 after taking a year off to be a ski bum in Red Lodge. She married a music teacher named Jay Cravath, had a daughter named Chloe and moved to Arizona. Avril already played the flute and the fiddle, and at Cravath’s suggestion, she taught herself the bass guitar.
Avril still aspired to make a living in art, but in the meantime she worked as a dishwasher, a line cook and an aerobics instructor. She spent three years as a firefighter in Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
“I’ve never turned down a job,” she says.
Still, art crept into her life. She illustrated birth announcements and birthday invitations. And she carried a sketchpad to Chloe’s 4-H events and dog shows, where she drew kids and their animals in action.
In the late 1980s, Avril caught a break. She was doing freelance graphic art, designing ads and laying them out for a typesetter in Phoenix. She would pack her infant son, Jeff, into the car when she delivered ads to the print shop. One day her boss got a call from Jostens, the company that makes yearbooks and class rings. Jostens was marketing a series of computer programs and needed a bevy of short kids’ books to accompany them.
“That one phone call changed my life,” Avril says.
She illustrated 18 books for the company. “I knew nothing about children’s book illustrations,” Avril says. “But I learned how to work really fast.” She also cultivated a voice as an artist, something she had struggled to do with her painting. “I saw my style develop in front of my eyes,” Avril says. “And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
So Avril started assembling small packets of her art samples. She mailed them relentlessly to all the major publishers in New York. But after a steady stream of rejections, she decided to go back to school for an elementary teaching degree at Arizona State. That’s when Simon & Schuster called to ask if she would illustrate a picture book by Debbie Driscoll called “Three Two One Day.” Avril dropped out of school.
“Was I going to get a paycheck every two weeks, or was I going to jump off a cliff and be a children’s illustrator?” she says. “I decided to jump off the cliff. And I’ve never had a spare moment since.”
Even cliff jumpers experience turbulence, though. Every time Avril gets an assignment, she comes down with what she calls the “BBBs” – the Beginning of the Book Blues. She flops down on her bed and sighs audibly. The problems seem insurmountable. The art direction seems questionable.
“I get really depressed and stressed,” Avril admits. “But as soon as the problems are worked out, I love it. I thrive on the intensity.”
When she’s on assignment, the pace builds until, in the final stretch, she’s working 18-hour days. Then, when the book is finished, she feels aimless. “I guess it’s the End of the Book Blues,” she says. Fortunately, it’s rarely long before the cycle starts anew.
Busy as she is, Avril still makes time for other interests. Every Thursday in Phoenix, she practices yoga and meditation at the Self Realization Fellowship, a community founded in 1920 by the Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. She attends political rallies and protests. She brings her books into elementary schools to speak with children about art. She illustrates for Highlights High Five magazine.
She hasn’t stopped learning, either. One day, she decided she wanted to learn French. So she canceled all of her TV stations except for the French one. Now she speaks the language fluently and spends six weeks of every year in Paris, recharging her creative batteries by sketching street scenes and visiting places like the Halle Saint Pierre, a museum for outsider art.
She also frequents the city’s jazz clubs – sometimes playing her electric bass on stage, and sometimes just listening and sketching the musicians on bar napkins. She does these spontaneous portraits all over the world. They keep her skills sharp and inspire some of the characters in her illustrations. Starting in September, Avril will have an installation of these napkin sketches and an oil painting on display in a jazz-inspired art show at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum.
Former UM art Professor Jim Todd met Avril last year in Phoenix and remembers walking through a garden of tall cacti to get to her studio. Inside he was moved by Avril’s fine art, which is inspired by music, politics, the environment and spirituality.
“Her studio is filled with large and small imaginative paintings,” Todd recalls. “Like the late Swiss painter Paul Klee, her smaller works were especially impressive in the way they combined the symbolic imagination of a child with the sophistication of abstract design.”
Avril’s first book with Simon & Schuster led to more work for Random House and other publishers. Then in 2007, she got a call from Sylvie Le Floc’h, an art director for HarperCollins. The publisher was reimagining the Amelia Bedelia series and wondered if Avril could submit some samples. Avril quickly painted two scenes of a young, old-fashioned Amelia Bedelia in a vintage uniform and cloche hat.
“She got the personality of the character,” Le Floc’h remembers, “but we wanted her to be more contemporary. So we gave her another shot, and that was it.”
Now Le Floc’h and Avril work closely together on at least four books a year. Le Floc’h loves Avril’s sense of color, her humor and her speed.
“It’s one thing to be fast,” she says, “but Lynne is fast and good.”
Avril’s illustrations inject humor into a book and embellish the narrative. That sense of optimism and fun are a big part of Avril’s personal magnetism, too.
“I’ve gone on vacation to Montana,” Le Floc’h says, “and I’ve stopped by and spent the day with her. That’s how much I like her.”
Le Floc’h knows firsthand how hard Avril works, even when she makes the job seem easy. “Her art looks very simple,” Le Floc’h says, “but if you go behind it and see how much she works, it’s not. Sometimes it’s harder to do something that looks so simple.”
Herman Parish, the author of the new Amelia Bedelia books and the nephew of original author Peggy Parish, remembers seeing Avril’s depiction of the young Amelia Bedelia for the first time. “I thought it was gorgeous,” he says. “It was just right. She’s found this energetic persona that everyone would like to have as their friend. If you were in first grade, and it was a confusing day, you’d want Amelia Bedelia sitting next to you.”
Parish says he’s always pleasantly surprised to see Avril’s illustrations. “They’re just happy,” he says. “You can’t look through one of those books and be in a bad mood afterward. It takes you to this normal, safe place, where it’s not boring, and if anything hard or bad is going on, it’s solved with humor.”
Parish continues. “She’s nice. She’s positive. She’s optimistic. She’ll help you get through anything.” Is he talking about Amelia Bedelia or Lynne Avril? Parish laughs. “It could be both,” he says.
Back in Kalispell, Avril is adding color to an illustration with compressed charcoal brush strokes that don’t always obey the lines. “I want to give children art that has integrity,” she says. “I don’t want it to be too cartoonish or cute.”
Suddenly, Avril looks at her watch. “Oh my gosh, it’s 4 o’clock,” she says. “Time to go.”
She sets down her stylus and drags a knee-high Fender amp out of the bedroom closet. She picks up a battered guitar case and carries it all downstairs to her Prius in the driveway. She has an evening gig with a jam band at the Sitting Duck Bar in Woods Bay.
Avril adores art, but music is a special passion. In Arizona, she used to play for the late, great blues drummer Chico Chism, who introduced her to people – including B.B. King – as “my lady bass player.” Now Avril is in a Phoenix band called The Chevaliers. Avril makes time for music wherever she goes. It’s a valuable social outlet that offsets her solitary hours illustrating.
“When I’m playing music, I’m about as blissed out as you can get,” she says. “When I’m doing art, it’s intense and hard and time stops meaning anything. I get in the zone, but it’s not bliss.”
It takes about an hour to drive to the Sitting Duck. When Avril arrives, she unloads her amp and guitar, orders a Miller Lite and a shot of tequila, and sets up with the other musicians on the deck outside, overlooking the glittering Flathead Lake.
Avril sits on a stool and cradles her guitar. She’s bright and youthfully effervescent, with a chartreuse top, black leggings and shoulder-length blonde hair. The band starts up with songs by Johnny Cash and Jimmy Buffett. Avril is in the background, making every note count, like the lines in her drawings.
It’s a sun-soaked summer evening, and from Avril’s stool she can see the dock below and the blue waves lapping ashore over rainbow-colored stones. The scene is so cheerful and awash with color that it almost looks like an illustration, perhaps with a little girl on the dock with a daisy in her hair, skipping stones into the water and trying to make sense of this big, wild world.