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Artist conjured up Harry Potter's world

Mary GrandPre waved her pastel wand, sprinkling magic hues across a fantasy.

By Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic
Published July 15, 2007


Along came Harry and for Mary GrandPre, life would never be quite the same.

GrandPre, a Sarasota resident, is the artist who has created the book covers and inside illustrations for the American edition of the series since its inception in 1998. She is also one of the few people who reads the books in advance. No, she won't discuss Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and, yes, she's tired of being pumped for plot tips. Her work with the Hogwarts gang comes to an end with the publication of this seventh and final installment, which goes on sale Saturday.

But GrandPre's reputation was secure long before the Harry Potter juggernaut. Years prior to Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore and You-Know-Who, she was an award-winning commercial artist. As much as she has enjoyed the magical ride with these books, GrandPre, 53, is ready to reclaim normality and to continue with a career that has included covers for Time and Atlantic Monthly, art for the DreamWorks movies Antz and Ice Age, and numerous books, including one for children that she co-wrote and illustrated with her husband, artist Tom Casmer.

GrandPre, the youngest of four siblings, was born in South Dakota but grew up in Minnesota, where her parents moved when she was an infant. Her father, a carpenter, and mother, a cashier, instilled a strong work ethic in her, she says. After high school she landed in "a bad marriage," got a divorce and waited tables. Always artistically gifted, GrandPre enrolled in the Minneapolis College of Art and Design when she was 27. She left before graduating.

"I got done what I was going to do there," she said. "I wanted to work, to support myself."

She built a strong portfolio, developing a unique style, usually working in pastels, combining softly blended colors with full, geometric forms and a dash of mystery, surrealism and glowing richness that pays homage to some of her favorite artists: Marc Chagall, Charles Sheeler and Henry Moore. It was her style that prompted publisher Scholastic, which had worked with GrandPre on other children's books, to hire her for the first Harry Potter novel, its representative saying there might be more to come.

Indeed.

Her visual interpretation of the boy wizard puts a delightful face on the character as he grows up. The task, she says, isn't difficult "because J.K. Rowling is so descriptive. I spend a week doing sketches and then there's a lot of back-and-forth with the publisher. I usually have about two weeks to do the final art."

An increasing challenge has come in choosing the details for the covers and chapter art, which reveal hints but do not disclose the plot. The cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is her favorite.

"It's dramatic, and the expanse of it is almost like a stage," she said.

Although Harry Potter made her famous beyond the world of illustrators, he has made her comfortable, not rich.

Illustrators usually own the originals, and the Harry Potter art, reproduced in prints and posters, is a cash cow. (Please see box about a show and sale of limited edition prints at Nuance Galleries in Tampa.)

"Harry Potter is not a typical arrangement," GrandPre said. "After the first book, Scholastic wanted control; it was so huge with so many spinoffs. I sold the copyright. I get a flat fee."

She's not complaining. She and Casmer moved from Minneapolis to Sarasota about four years ago when he was named head of the illustration department at the Ringling College of Art and Design. She loves the mild winters here. The couple traveled to China in 2006 to adopt a daughter, Julia, now 2 1/2. GrandPre works from a studio in her home so she can be with Julia.

She has all the assignments she wants and routinely turns down jobs. At the moment, she is working on a new children's book for HarperCollins Publishers titled Schmuel that reworks an old folk tale, collaging fabrics with acrylics. She said the different medium has been a fun departure.

"I have always kept my nose to the grindstone," she said. "Being self-employed requires a lot of discipline. I'm not the workaholic I once was. I've been a mom for only six months, and my priorities are changing."

In the past she preferred editorial assignments, such as magazine covers, but now leans toward children's books.

"The schedules are flexible enough to have a family life," she said.

She's creating more of her own noncommercial art which, she says, brings her "the most personal joy." There are no plans for a gallery show because "putting one together is so time-consuming."

She is frequently asked to make personal appearances at bookstores and schools, which have kept her especially busy during the countdown for the Deathly Hallows release.

And GrandPre is now a proud college graduate.

"My college contacted me two years ago," she said, "and I was able to earn the remaining credits by delivering some lectures there. I never really needed (the diploma) and it was almost humorous after so many years but it's also satisfying. Getting it was great."

She believes she will always be associated with Harry Potter.

"I got lucky, but my portfolio is what got me that job," she said. "It will probably be the most popular thing, but it's not the defining thing."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

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Picturing Potter
If you're looking for Harry Potter art, Nuance Galleries, 804 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, has 14 limited edition prints for show and sale through Aug. 15, taken from Mary GrandPre's original Harry Potter art, such as that shown here. Also available are prints made from Jim Salvati's drawings for the Warner Bros. movies. For information and hours, call (813) 875-0511 or e-mail nuanceart@earthlink.net.