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Subject: David Wisniewski, Artist and Children's Book Author

dead @ 49
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Date Posted: September 21, 2002 10:42:48 EDT

David Wisniewski, an artist who worked as a clown and shadow puppeteer before turning to cut paper and children's books, died on Sept. 11 at a nursing home in Alexandria, Va., after a brief illness. He was 49 and lived in Monrovia, Md.

He used his layered cut-paper technique to great effect in many books, including "Golem" (Clarion), a version of the cabalist tale about the clay creature brought to life in 16th-century Prague, which won the 1997 Caldecott Medal for illustration.

Mr. Wisniewski (pronounced wiz-NESS-key) was born in England, where his father, a master sergeant in the Air Force, was stationed, and the family moved across Europe and the United States during his childhood. A self-taught cartoonist, he was really interested in theater. After one semester of college, he enrolled in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College.

After three years as a circus clown, he applied for a job in the puppetry department of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George's County. Six months later, he married Donna Harris, who had hired him, and they formed the Clarion Shadow Theater, a touring company that used puppets along with overhead projectors and cinematic techniques.

When their children, Ariana and Alexander, were born, they stopped touring, and Mr. Wisniewski began doing freelance illustration, first in black silhouette, like the puppets, then adding color and depth. His first book, "The Warrior and the Wise Man," was in that style.

Most of his early books dealt with epic and myth, like "Sundiata: Lion King of Mali" (1992) and "The Wave of the Sea Wolf" (1994). His work was translated and published in many other countries.

Using an X-Acto knife, double-stick foam tape and, he said in an interview, "a lot of No. 11 blades," he made, by his estimate, from 800 to 1,000 cuts to do the 16 illustrations in one of his books. Given the mess the work made, he referred to the vacuum cleaner in his studio as "Jaws."

After "Golem," his work grew lighthearted, first with "The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups" (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1998) and then with "Tough Cookie" (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1999), a sendup of a detective mystery. In a review of "Tough Cookie" in The New York Times, Larry Gelbart said the illustrations had an "undeniable sense of animation, offering the reader-viewer a feeling of action through close-ups, crowd scenes, flashbacks, overhead shots and, occasionally, through some sort of cut-and-paste wizardry, the distinct illusion of 3-D."

Mrs. Wisniewski, who survives him along with their children and his mother, Jacqueline, said that after winning the Caldecott Medal, Mr. Wisniewski visited as many as 80 schools a year, giving presentations that drew on clowning and puppetry.

Two of his books are to be published this fall: "Halloweenies" (HarperCollins), and "Sumo Mouse" (Chronicle).

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