March 5, 2009


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Where curiosity can lead
Currier exhibit shows how David Macaulay works

By Heidi Masek

There was a big, well-worn, frequently referenced hardcover book on the living room bookshelf when I was a kid with a title in pictorial letters spelling out The Way Things Work. Over the years, I’ve wished that copy would reappear so I could consult it.

Illustrator and author David Macaulay’s work was endorsed with a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 — a “genius grant” for $500,000. By then, he was well into what became a six-year process to research and create The Way We Work, published in 2008. Macaulay went to anatomy classes, dissections, surgeries and worked with medical professionals for that last title.

Macaulay’s well-known series started with Cathedral in 1973, a fictional story of how a 13th-century Gothic cathedral is built in a French town. His research brought him to Amiens, France, and he later co-hosted a PBS show that mixes an animated version of his story with views of actual cathedrals. (He doesn’t actually watch much TV.) See his original artwork from Cathedral, as well as Macaulay’s City, Underground, Castle, Unbuilding, Mill and Mosque, in “Building Books: The Art of David Macaulay.” The exhibit comes to Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art from Friday, March 7, through Sunday, June 14, and includes studies, sketchbooks, models, manuscripts and a video documentary. It is supported in part by TD Charitable Foundation and RiverStone Resources.

Developed by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., in 2004, “Building Books” shows Macaulay’s process with a look at his materials from Ship. For that book, he visited shipbuilding sites in England and Brazil, and consulted with scientists in Texas who work on underwater archeology and preservation, according to the Norman Rockwell. The third part of the exhibit is “Journey Books: The Evolution of Ideas.”

In a local link, the Vermonter visited Harrisville, N.H., in his research for Mill. He filmed with PBS 10 years later for the book in Manchester and Lowell, Mass. Macaulay said drawing helps him brainstorm for his books.

“Oh, absolutely. I mean I draw to understand ... I don’t draw initially to illustrate,” he said. He finds drawing is the best way he learns, and he makes hundreds of sketches while developing a book. “It’s like writing. ... If you write about something long enough, you begin to understand it,” Macaulay said.

He isn’t just copying what he sees in his intricate illustrations. He’s explaining what he understands through them. With nonfiction, he has the conflicting motives of trying to be accurate and make the picture interesting. He points to The Way Things Work as an example, where drawings can be intentionally oversized, but the information is there.

You’ll find Macaulay’s books in the children’s section, but he doesn’t consider himself a children’s author.

“I write for myself. I always have,” Macaulay said. “I’m in the children’s book area because that’s where I went when I first started out,” Macaulay said of the Houghton Mifflin department.

“But none of us ever really said [these books] are exclusively for children,” Macaulay said. If the information is presented in the right way, it doesn’t preclude younger or older readers, he said.

Macaulay used detailed pen and ink in his early work like Castle (1977), to show how a 13th-century castle and town were built as part of England’s takeover of Wales through a fictional story of Lord Kevin.

What compels him to draw so many bricks and stones? “To impress people,” Macaulay said of his earlier illustrations. Working in pen and ink invites showing that level of detail. And “people love cross-hatching,” he said. They wonder how someone can make that many lines. “The answer is one at a time,” and you learn to work quickly, he said.

“Building Books” shows changes in his style. Macaulay said illustrations in Mosque (2003) are “much looser,” with less concern for that level of detail. He gets detailed if it “feels right,” and eliminates intricacy if it’s not needed, he said. The important thing about style and technique is that they relate to the subject matter, Macaulay said.

“I feel that part of the challenge in making each new book is to try to match the technique and the style to the content,” Macaulay said. He said he doesn’t use each with the same degree of skill, but he tries.

Much has changed regarding graphics and technology since Macaulay began publishing, but “I don’t really think about it,” Macaulay said. He knows production is easier because his work can be scanned. He knows artists can manipulate work with computers, but he doesn’t. In fact, he might be going more “Neanderthal,” he said.

“People need to know that a human hand was involved in making these images ... which suggests that a human was thinking about it,” Macaulay said.

Macaulay’s architectural books show links to his background studying architecture at the Rhode Island Institute of Design, including a year in Rome. Other past experiences influenced him, including his childhood in Lancashire, England, where he was born in 1946. Macaulay’s father, talented with fixing and improving textile machinery, moved the family to the U.S. for a job in New Jersey when Macaulay was 11, according to the Norman Rockwell.

Does he truly understand how everything works? “No way,” Macaulay said. He worked with a team for The Way Things Work, and Neil Ardley, the chief writer, taught Macaulay everything he needed to know to begin to interpret visually their topics, like electricity, pressure and lasers. 

“You understand them long enough to illustrate them,” Macaulay said. Now that he has the book, he can just go look it up, though, he said. (The New Way Things Work was the 1998 update.) After six years of learning about the body, more sticks with him, but there’s still a lot in the The Way We Work he would need to reread, he said.

Macaulay thought about doing a book on mosques in the 1970s, according to the Norman Rockwell. After Sept. 11, he got back to the project, working with experts to make sure, as a non-Muslim, he got everything right. He thought the subject had been completely ignored — it wasn’t taught in elementary or middle schools. He figured he was “as guilty as anyone” for that lack of information, and thought, “Well, better late than never.” He set to explaining how and why a 16th-century mosque was built in the Ottoman empire.

“Nothing is more threatening than being ignorant. I think we’re likely to be more threatened of something of which we are ignorant than of something we know a little bit about,” Macaulay said. Walking into a mosque, “you really are impressed by this level of human achievement,” Macaulay said. It reminds people of those links of being human, and that humans are capable of achieving remarkable things working together, Macaulay said. He sees Mosque as at least one piece of information on the shelf that casts a different culture in a positive light, Macaulay said. “I’m glad I did it,” he said.

Macaulay’s next project will probably be a team effort about inventions. He wants to try to give a sense that inventions are made out of things that already exist, by people who take a new viewpoint but build on what’s already out there. Sometimes it depends on who gets to the patent office first. “It’s not like a bolt of lightening,” Macaulay said.

Macaulay has called himself an “explainer,” and in fact taught high school art and is listed on the RISD faculty of the Department of Illustration.

“It’s a living. You can be curious and not make a penny,” Macaulay said of being an “explainer.” He loves to teach and loves to make books, but there’s a practical side to figuring out what you do best, he said. Macaulay’s books lets him create and learn, and make a living at it, he said.

Learn more about David Macaulay. Visit your local library to read his books and look for his PBS pieces. His TED talk video is posted at A similar but longer talk he gave at MIT is at Some of his speeches are at

Related goings-on
• “The Way Things Work” is the theme for the Currier’s “Family Saturday” for this month, on March 14 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., which includes hands-on art activities. (Museum admission is free from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and always free for those under 18).

• Guided tours of “Building Books” are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, at 12:30 p.m. starting Monday, March 16.

• Currier Museum Art Center workshops include Macaulay themes. “Drawing The Way Things Work” Saturday, March 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is for preteens through adults. Macaulay’s exhibit serves as inspiration for “Comics in the Museum” Saturday, March 14, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for preteens and teens. Fees are $60. Call 669-6144 ext. 122 to register or see

• On Friday, April 3, Macaulay joins another MacArthur Fellow, author and illustrator and naturalist David Carroll, at Bow High School. Geared for everyone from teachers and children’s librarians to parents and middle and high school students, the day includes presentations from each, and an interview facilitated by New Hampshire storyteller Rebecca Rule. To get involved in “Follow the Passion: A Celebration & Exploration of Arts, Literacy and Creativity in Education,” contact the presenter, New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, at or 271-0795.

• The Currier’s weekly “Family Studio” activities and gallery talks are Wednesdays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. “Building Books” is the April theme. “Building Books – David Macaulay” is the topic for the Thursday, April 16, “New Parent Gallery Talk” at 11 a.m. The monthly event allows new parents to interact with adults, with baby in tow.

• Currier admission is free during school vacation April 27 through May 1, and activities include a story time, with a reading of Macaulay’s Rome Antics, Monday, April 27, at 11:30 a.m. 

• Learn about the medium of paint during “ARTalk: The Way Painting Works,” Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m.

• Smuttynose Brewing Co. talks about brewing basics and offers samples Thursday, May 7, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. during “First Thursday: The Way Beer Works,” $12 for members, $22 for nonmembers, for those 21 and older, only. Reserve space.

• Learn how a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home works Saturday, May 16, at 1 p.m., in “ARTalk: The Way the Zimmerman House Works.” 

• Join a Manchester Historic Association and Currier walking tour, “The Way Manchester’s Original City Plan Worked,” Sunday, May 17, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., or “The Way the Amoskeag Millyard Worked,” Sunday, June 7, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., $5 for members, $10 for nonmembers. Call 622-7531.

• The “Currier Art Center Family Day to Play” is Saturday, May 30, from 1 to 5 p.m., during which David Macaulay demonstrates his craft in the auditorium. Buy tickets through or call 669-6144 ext. 108.

• David Macaulay talks about his techniques and signs books at “ARTalk: The Way David Macaulay Works,” Sunday, May 31, at 2 p.m., at the Currier, 150 Ash St. in Manchester. Reservations are required; call 669-6144. Most Currier events are included with admission, which costs $10 for adults, and is free for those under age 18. See  

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