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Coloring Outside the Lines

Hardie Gramatky, beloved Westport son, and my dad

Illustration by Hardie Gramatky

The creator of Little Toot, the classic children’s book about a mischievous tugboat in New York harbor that becomes a hero, was also a world-famous watercolorist. But I knew him as a loving, warm and optimistic father.

Dad’s extraordinary artistic career started out in a rather mundane (and mischievous) way. In 1916 when he was growing up in Dallas, a fourth grade teacher left the room and Dad drew a caricature of her on the blackboard to amuse his classmates. His teacher returned, caught him in the act, and asked to speak to him in the hallway. Instead of chastising him, she said, “Hardie, you are so, so talented with your art. Why don’t you use it to make people happy rather than to make fun of them?” Years later Dad said, “I wish I could have thanked her. When she praised my art, that’s when I decided to become an artist!”

Dad did make art his life. After going to Stanford University and art school and working for Walt Disney, he and my mother (known by her nickname Doppy) moved to New York City in 1936 to be illustrators. From his studio window, he noticed a small Moran tugboat on the East River, and out of that experience came Little Toot. 

At Home in Westport
In 1946 my parents and I moved to Westport and a wonderful 33-year love affair between my father and this town began. My parents bought the Roseville Road house without being able to see the interior, but its view of the Sound was the deciding factor, and Westport — the famous artists’ colony — became our home.

My father always welcomed neighborhood children who wanted to see his studio or try their hand at watercolor, while Mom would put out lemonade and a plate of homemade cookies. These were fun days in Westport and I remember his playing in a charity basketball game between the local artists and writers (like Peter De Vries and Max Shulman) with Amy Vanderbilt refereeing. 

What I didn’t understand as Dad’s only child was that he was not a typical father. He told puns constantly (when I broke my pencil, he told me with a twinkle that to write with it was pointless) and encouraged my writing of plays in the magical forest down in our back acres. I could come up to his studio anytime to paint. Once, when I was five and he’d been working on an illustration but couldn’t mix the exact color paint he wanted, he glanced down at the artwork I was doing on the floor and there was the color! He asked me, “How did you get that?” but of course I couldn’t tell him. My husband, Ken, and I still have his taboret and drafting table in what is now our computer room, and I love to run my hand over the deep grooves made from his razorblade cutting thousands of mats.

When I watch a video of Dad giving a “chalk talk” to a large school in 1977, he comes alive to me. He is so open about his love of art and I see him encouraging each child’s own creativity. He says, “When you’re an artist, for the first time in your life you’re the boss! Isn’t that nice? You can put birds in the sky and fish in the sea or you can reverse it, because it’s your picture!”

Once he told me, “I’m so fortunate to be both the artist and the writer. If I write something that really captures what I want to describe, I don’t have to insult my audience by then illustrating the same idea. But if I paint a watercolor that captures perfectly what is going on, I don’t have to retell it in words, but can let the child’s imagination go to work.” My Dad kept extensive journals showing how he began each children’s book with the germ of an idea and then wrote, rewrote and edited versions of the story and then sketched what art he envisioned. The journals are peppered with quotes from admired writers like Balzac, Eudora Welty and E. M. Forster.

An American Master
Dad was an energetic and young seventy-two (with only a touch of grey at his temples) when he died of cancer at home in 1979. He had felt that Ken was the son he never had, and there was a real love between them. Because of that, and because we felt humbled by the body of work he left behind, we slowly began to share it with others. First, Ken and our daughter catalogued all of Dad’s art. Soon came requests for retrospective exhibits of Dad’s paintings, such as one in Gualala, California, where eighty percent of the pieces were sold before the exhibit opened. Another at the Bergen Museum of Art and Science in New Jersey included two floors of paintings, with one wall showcasing 100 watercolor sketches so viewers could glimpse Dad’s creative process.

The ultimate compliment came two years ago in a rare interview by American painter Andrew Wyeth. Asked to list the twenty all-time great American watercolorists, he named my favorites like Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. He also named Hardie Gramatky. My modest father would have been amazed to be in such company. Private collectors have long acquired Gramatky watercolors, but now giclée prints on heavy watercolor paper that appear identical to the originals are available from California Watercolor, so art lovers everywhere can enjoy his light-filled works — many depicting Westport scenes.

Last September, Putnam Juvenile, a sister imprint to the book’s original publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons, issued a restored edition of Little Toot with the original art rescanned. Dad’s life has come full circle, with a new generation of people loving his art and books. In town, two pastel drawings of Little Toot hang in the Westport Library children’s room.

To honor his legacy and share his marvelous gifts, I continue to talk to schoolchildren, read publicly from his books, and organize exhibits in our area. My hope is that the next generation will be inspired by the wonderful artist I was so fortunate to call Dad.