Artist Beckie Prange draws upon biology for new book “Song of the Water Boatman”
Growing up on a farm in west central Illinois, Beckie Prange had a wonderful time exploring the world of plants and animals. Beckie’s mom was always pointing things out on long walks with the kids. Beckie grew to discover she enjoyed drawing what she saw and with practice she could represent things rather accurately. Her mom said that when Beckie was three she was trying to draw a beaver. It just wasn’t turning out accurately enough and she was getting so frustrated that her mother thought, “That kid will never be an artist.” Look at her now. After many prints and now with a book out, Beckie has found ways to express her lifelong development as an artist as well as a biologist. She still likes to make art that accurately represents the character and habits of animals and plants. All through school Beckie was asked if she was going to be an artist or a scientist when she grew up. She chose biology as a major, with a few art classes mixed in at Lake Forest College in northeast Illinois. She took a biological illustration class from her botany professor, but didn’t really know where to go from there with it. All she knew about were medical illustration programs. By the time Beckie got out of college she was frustrated with academics and wanted to see what the rest of the world did. For about 10 years, she moved around a lot, and took up lots of odd jobs: park maintenance, lawn chair assembly, crab and salmon processing in Alaska, medical transcription and other secretarial work and volunteer work in biology. She tried to make it back to Ely to work as a camp cook every summer. She’d been on an Outward Bound course in the Ely area while in high school and after that, just couldn’t stay away. A great opportunity came along in 1989-90 when Beckie found out about a natural science illustration program at University of California in Santa Cruz. They were looking for students who either had a degree in biology or art and wanted to learn about the other discipline, putting them together as natural science illustration. The program was in its second year with only five students, all in their 30s, looking to change their career direction. This class helped Beckie combine her skills in art and biology and take them to another level. When the class concluded, Beckie moved to Ely permanently. She worked as a baker at the Chocolate Moose for a couple of summers. In 1992 during a lunch break from the Chocolate Moose, she road her bike over to the Blueberry Art Festival. She was just going to take a quick cruise through the park ... when she found Betsy Bowen, an artist from Grand Marais, who had a booth at the festival, and whose art work reminded Beckie of her favorite illustration technique - scratchboard. (Betsy has quite a few children’s books out, the best known are Antler Bear Canoe, an A B C Book, and Tracks in the Wild, and a counting book for kids called Gathering. Beckie was so inspired by Betsy’s work and the woodcut medium that that’s what she decided to do next - woodblock printing. She began in 1993 and found that along with the creative process and experimenting with color, the production part of printmaking, making multiples from one design, truly appealed to her (something that carried over from her lawn chair assembly days). She was immediately successful in selling her woodblock prints at the 1993 Blueberry Arts Festival. Beckie’s work was becoming known and in 2000 she was approached by a children’s book editor from Houghton Mifflin Company. The editor lived in Lutsen and was familiar with Beckie’s work. She had been waiting for the right manuscript to come along for Beckie to illustrate and along came Song of the Water Boatman. When this opportunity presented itself Beckie decided to shift gears from being a full-time mom to her then two-year-old son Izaak and began work on the book. She was given the manuscript and her job was to create the book layout and illustrations. The subject matter couldn’t have been more suited to her interests and the writing by Joyce Sidman was wonderful to work with. Biology, poetry and art came together in Song of the Water Boatman, which was published in early 2005 just in time for poetry month (April). Beckie is very happy with how it turned out and it is getting excellent reviews nationwide. Her next project is to get a web site under www.beckieprange.com. Beckie will have her books and woodcut prints at the Blueberry Art and Harvest Moon festivals and in the meantime will be making hand-made editions of prints based on her illustrations for Song of the Water Boatman. You can find Beckie Prange prints in the Kess Gallery in Ely and also Sivertson’s Gallery in Grand Marais and Duluth. Her illustrations are currently on display at Lisa’s Second Floor Book Store with a book signing at the store on Saturday, May 28 , 1 to 4 p.m., Memorial Weekend.