The Suitcase Lady


June 1, 2021, 11:03 pm

When I was in my early teens, my parents let me take Saturday morning art classes at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. I cannot thank them enough for all the times they drove me there and paid for the classes and art supplies.

My teacher for those classes was Lois Ehlert. I could not have been luckier. She was about 23 years old at the time and an art student herself at Layton. She made Saturday my favorite day of the week.

Lois went on to be a world-famous illustrator and writer of children’s books, winning a Caldecott award in 1990. But fame came late. For many years she was a commercial graphic designer. It was not until her 50’s that she began creating children’s books.

Above all, Lois was a colorist and a lover of folk art. With scissors, vibrant colored paper, fabrics and collage materials, she would cut out and paste down eye-popping pages for her books. At heart, she was always a brilliant graphic designer.

Lois was generous with her time, making frequent appearances at libraries and community events. Many of my fellow art teachers and I were able to be part of some of these workshops. Lois would walk into the room with her huge smile, colorful jewelry and hand-made outfits and make creativity run rampant in all of us, young and old alike. Being part of her library “Poetry Concerts” was an unforgettable experience.

And I have a personal Lois story to tell. My husband and I were at an outdoor sculpture exhibit by a Wisconsin folk artist, Ellis Nelson. We ran into Lois who was also there to see Mr. Nelson’s large, bent wire animal figures.

“You know, Mary”, she said, “you should buy one of these. He’s terrific.” Lois lived and worked in a very colorful apartment near Lake Michigan…but she had no yard. We took her advice and bought a rabbit and a dinosaur. They now run (in place) perpetually through our meadow.

Lois Ehlert died last week at the age of 86. She has left behind an enormous legacy of color, kindness and joy.

My favorite book which was both written and illustrated by Lois is Feathers for Lunch.

Ellis Nelson’s Rabbit

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