Peter de Seve lives in a fantasy world

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The imaginary life of illustrator Peter de Seve is filled with fantastical creatures. They populate New Yorker covers, scamper across screens big and small, and burst out of the pages of storybooks and magazines.

In the fertile field of animated films, his character designs form the basis of classics, such as "Mulan," "A Bug's Life," "Tarzan" and "Finding Nemo." Most famously, for the prehistoric "Ice Age" series, he gave birth to the world of Sid the Sloth, Manny the Mammoth and Scrat, the single-minded saber-toothed squirrel forever in fruitless pursuit of an elusive acorn.

During his more than 35 years as a professional artist, he has won numerous awards, including a Clio for a Nike ad and an Emmy for the Sesame Street series "Abby Cadabby's Flying Fairy School."

On Saturday at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, de Seve will give an illustrated talk about his career and the artists who inspired his work. His presentation is part of the "Picturing the Fantastical" series that accompanies the museum's current exhibit of art by Tony DiTerlizzi, whose extensive body of work includes "The Spiderwick Chronicles" book series and illustrations for the fantasy card games "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Magic: The Gathering."

As a commercial illustrator, de Seve thrives on the challenge of an assignment to help spur his creativity.

"Left to my own devices, I never get off the ground," he said, "I need the parameters and the riddle to answer."

He first collaborated with the Rockwell Museum when his artwork was included in a 2005 exhibit of New Yorker covers, and he shared his admiration for Rockwell during his exhibit opening address. A short time later, de Seve was invited to join the museum's board, a position he held for some five years. In 2011, he helped organize a landmark exhibit on 3D digital animators Blue Sky Studios, whose catalog of films includes "Rio" and the blockbuster "Ice Age" franchise.

During his talk, de Seve will share images from his collection of original and historic artwork that was recently shown in the exhibit "Under the Influence" at the Society of Illustrators, where he is a Hall of Fame recipient. Reflecting his personal tastes, the exhibit became an overview of 150 years of humorous and inventive fantastical illustration.

"I feel like I'm part of that continuum in a way," de Seve said.

A treasured artwork is one of the first examples of animated art, a frame from "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914) by renowned early 20th-century cartoonist and filmmaker Winsor McCay.

McCay had a huge influence on animation, de Seve said, from Disney to everything that came after. Disney also drew on the work of artist Heinrich Kley, whose images of ice skating alligators and dancing elephants can be seen in the animated masterwork "Fantasia."

A self-proclaimed "compulsive doodler," de Seve grew up immersed in comics and fantasy art. "While other kids were collecting baseball cards, I was collecting paperback covers by Frank Frazetta," he said.

Arthur Rackham, A.B. Frost and Kley were among the artists who most inspired his career as an illustrator.

"[Rackham's] draftsmanship, invention and water color technique, his combination of ink-and-water color has always been super appealing to me," de Seve said. "And I think Rockwell's most humorous stuff is [also] influenced in a huge part by Frost, it had this exaggerated animated quality.

All of them shared [what] I emulate and envy most in my favorite artists: an ability to invent in a fun, but convincing way."

De Seve said he and DiTerlizzi are old pals. "When he was a young lad, when he first arrived, he tells me I was the first artist he visited in New York," de Seve recalled.

They both admire many of the same creative forefathers.

"There's a very strong common thread," de Seve said.

"Peter is extremely imaginative and a great draftsman," said Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, museum deputy director and chief curator. "Like Rockwell, he has a way of giving his characters an inner life. He's a great observer of human nature, and a great visual storyteller, and he is so passionate about what he does."

His talk is timely, with a great deal of interest in fantasy illustration among younger people these days, Plunkett said.

As de Seve is quick to point out, no artist grows or develops in a vacuum.

"My work ultimately is the result of the artists and artwork that I loved to look at. What I learned from them is what shaped who I am as an artist."


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