Addy American Girl illustrations tell Civil War Christmas story


KINDERHOOK, N.Y. -- Addy Walker is a 10-year-old African-American, born a slave, living around the time of the Civil War. After escaping from a plantation with her mother, she adapts to a new life as a schoolgirl in Philadelphia -- and prays for the safety of her father and brothers and sisters.

This month, the Vanderpoel House of Local History will display original oil paintings from the Addy American Girl books. Albany, N.Y., artist Dahl Taylor re-illustrated the six-part series that accompanies the Addy doll, one of the dozen American Girl dolls.

More than 21 million of the 18-inch American Girl dolls have been sold in the past 26 years.

"I don't have any daughters or nieces," Taylor said with a laugh. "So I didn't know how big a deal this all was."

Each doll has set of stories from her own time and place, ranging from Kaya, a girl of the Nez Perce in 1764, to Josefina Montoya on her rancho in New Mexico in 1824 and Rebecca, a Russian Jewish girl in New York City in 1914, and more. Addy's follow her road to freedom and the risks and richness in her new home in 1864.

To create his illustrations, Taylor advertised in local churches and community centers, searching for models for Addy and the supporting cast. An Albany girl got the leading part, and she flew to Madison, Wis., for photo shoots in period-appropriate costumes.

Taylor thinks of himself "as a kind of theater director."

"The story's the script," he said, " and the models are actors. I spend hours with the lighting and getting everyone to emote."

In two years Taylor produced 57 oil paintings, a number of cameo portraits, and artwork.

He focused on historical accuracy. For the scenes of Addy's journey on the Underground Railroad and her education in the country's first high school for black students, he worked from objects in museums' Civil War exhibits and sketched historical districts in The City of Brotherhood (Philadelphia), where Addy would have lived.

"In the sixth book, there's a scene at a church that I made sure was accurate down to the position of the constellations seen through the window," Taylor said.

One of Taylor's portraits captures the moment where Addy's father, Ben Walker, is reunited with his family in a Christmas surprise.

The separation of Addy's father from his loved ones was a reality for the families of many former slaves . Historical actor Clifford Mealy brought it to life in an original performance, "Addy's Poppa: Freedom Seeker," last weekend.

On Saturday, Taylor will give a workshop, "Come Sketch with Me," at the House of History in Kinderhook, N.Y. Children will meet Taylor and learn how he works.

"It will give (children) a connection to history," said Diane Shewchuk, Columbia Historical Society Curator and Executive Director.

Taylor will lead them in crafting a scene, and they will make their own drawings around pieces in the Vanderpoel House of Local History's current exhibit, "A Civil War Panorama, Columbia County, 1860-1865."

These objects include a sewing machine and dressmaker's form like the ones Addy's seamstress mother would have used.

"I'll make up a story for them to work from. They'll become aware of the difference between this kind of work and just drawing a pretty picture," Taylor said.

Since Addy, Taylor has taken many commercial and art on projects. He is now illustrating a children's graphic story for the Kindle called "Willoughby: The Dragon From Suburbia." But Taylor takes special pride in bringing a project based around a local girl back to the community.

"Addy was a big, important assignment. I have the satisfaction of being a part of something iconic," he said.

At the Vanderpoel House, visitors cam try on period costumes, send messages in Morse code, and hear the 150-year-old diary entries of locals. Shewchuk hopes the Addy-related programming will go even further in making the realities of the Civil War concrete for children.

Shewchuk first encountered Dahl Taylor, a commercial artist of the area, during his demonstration of graphic design at the Albany Institute of History and Art. She appreciates how his dedication to historical accuracy enriches his work.

"Taylor's preserving and presenting the past," she said. "It's exactly what our society tries to do."

Shewchuk hopes the Addy exhibit and programs willmake the realities of the Civil War concrete for children.

"It's something to hold onto, which is very important," she said.

If you go ...

What: Dahl Taylor, illustrator of the Addy books, gives ‘Come sketch with me' workshop -- children will make drawings connected to historical stories

When: Saturday at 2 p.m.

Where: Vanderpoel House of History (Columbia County Historical Society), 16 Broad Street, Kinderhook, N.Y.

Admission: $5 per child; space limited

What: 'Civil War paintings of Addy: Dahl Taylor's original illusrations for American Girl'

When: Exhibit through Dec. 22

Where: Vanderpoel House of History

Hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4

What: Doll tea parties

Talk with doll care expert Melody Howarth
of Mel's Belles, with tea, snacks and goodie bags

When: Sunday at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m.

Where: Vanderpoel House of History

Admission: $25 per child

What: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' holiday greens show with Kinderhok Garden Club

When: Dec. 14-16



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