- Virginia Johnson
- Born on December 8, 1940, in Washington, D.C. to L.G. and Eleanor Schneider
- Received a B.A. in art from Smith College in 1963
- Married Tomas Azarian, a musician, that same year
- Mother of three sons—Ethan, Jesse, and Timothy
- Now resides in Plainfield, Vermont
Mary was raised on a small farm in Virginia, yet her life's road would take her into the New England countryside where she would create folk art that celebrates the region's traditional farming culture. She has illustrated more than 50 books and written several of her own, often employing a 19th-century hand press to create her woodcut designs.
Her path to fame runs alongside the Green Mountain State's history and memories of its old country ways, some of which she experienced first-hand. When she was fresh out of Smith College, Mary and her husband began their married life on a small hill farm in Vermont. They farmed with horses and oxen, raised chickens, made maple syrup, and planted a vegetable garden. To make ends meet, she taught in a one-room school house. Though she was not yet an experienced teacher, Mary quickly noticed that her new classroom needed something to brighten its bare walls so she designed a series of illustrated alphabet panels on wood. She then took an old-style, 19th-century hand press produced the panels as prints. They were so successful that some years later the Vermont Council for the Arts accepted her grant proposal to do another series of woodcut alphabet posters. These prints featured aspects of traditional Vermont life: A is for apple, B is for barn, C is for cow, and so on. Not too surprisingly, M is for maple syrup. Sets of these were printed up and distributed to every public elementary school in Vermont.
In 1981, the new series was published in book form in 1981 as The Farmer's Alphabet. It was a critical and commercial success and led to other illustration work. She and Tomas later collaborated on a small book entitled Recipes from Armenia. With the success of The Farmer's Alphabet came many more opportunities to illustrate children's books.
Wilson A. Bentley of Vermont (1865-1931) was not a trained scientist, but he carefully recorded magnified images of snow crystals and shared his important findings with scientists all over the world. Mary's illustrations of old-time Vermont were a perfect match for this story, and the Caldecott committee agreed. In 1999, Snowflake Bentley won the Caldecott Medal for best children's illustration.
When the Moon is Full: A Lunar Year has a year of nights recounted in Penny Pollock's words and is illustrated by Mary Azarian. Each month's moon is named in a way familiar to Native Americans and accompanied by a poem. Mary's illustrations match the quiet, reflective nature of the poems.
A Christmas Like Helen's tells the story of how the holiday was celebrated a few generations ago in the Vermont countryside. Author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock shares memories of her grandmother's Christmases before cars or electricity: ice skating by moonlight, church on Christmas Eve, and, of course, the family gathered round from far and near. Once again, Mary's woodcut illustrations were a perfect choice to capture the mood of long ago country life.
Some artisans preserve the past by practicing old-style folkways such as pottery, baking, weaving, and carpentry. Mary Azarian uses her design skills and a 19th-century hand press to make rural New England's past come alive for new generations of readers.
Click here to see a list of books illustrated by Mary Azarian that are available at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
Mary Azarian on the Web
Artist Profile: Mary Azarian
A thoughtful look at milestones in Mary's life and some of her works.
Mary Azarian, Vermont Woodcut Artist and Caldecott Medalist
The author/illustrator's own site keeps readers up-to-date on her books and prints and includes a bit about her life.