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 John Schoenherr  (1935 - 2010)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey      Known for: illustrator of children's books, science fiction

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Ad Code: 3
John Schoenherr
from Auction House Records.
Dune, paperback cover, 1965
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following obituary of John Schoenherr was in The New York Times, April 15, 2010.  The writer was Margalit Fox.

John Schoenherr, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator who for a half-century produced painterly, exquisitely detailed images of creatures from this world and others, died on April 8. He was 74 and lived in Delaware Township, N.J.  His death, in a hospital in Easton, Pa., was from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his son, Ian, said.

A highly regarded nature artist, Mr. Schoenherr illustrated more than 40 children’s titles. He won a Caldecott Medal in 1988 for Owl Moon (Philomel, 1987; text by Jane Yolen), the story of a father and daughter who go looking for owls on a cold winter’s night.  Presented annually by the American Library Association the medal honors the best illustrations in a book for young people.

Mr. Schoenherr had a parallel, equally prominent career as a science-fiction illustrator.  He was the first artist to depict the world of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” stories, with its vast windswept deserts and huge menacing sandworms. Through the scores of book jackets and pulp magazine covers he drew in the 1950s and afterward, Mr. Schoenherr is widely credited with helping shape mid-century America’s collective image of alien landscapes and their occupants.

John Carl Schoenherr, familiarly known as Jack, was born on July 5, 1935, in Manhattan and reared in Queens.  Growing up in a German-speaking household in a polyglot community, he used drawings to communicate with his Italian-and Chinese-and English-speaking neighbors. As a young man, he studied at the Art Students League of New York and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute where he failed a class in nature drawing.

Though Mr. Schoenherr planned a career as a painter in the late 1950s he began a long association with Astounding Science Fiction magazine, later known as Analog.

“Painting was my initial impetus,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I just got sidetracked into illustration by things like mortgages and children.  Not a bad way to prostitute yourself.”

Mr. Schoenherr was known early on as one of the few commercial illustrators to work mainly on scratchboard, which gave him stark blacks and whites and a level of fine detail that recalled Renaissance woodcuts.  In later years he turned to media like watercolors and oils.

In 1965 Mr. Schoenherr won a Hugo Award presented by the World Science Fiction Society, for his artwork for Dune, which first appeared as a serial in Analog. He later provided the cover and interior art for several novels in the Dune series and for The Illustrated Dune (Berkley, 1978).

It is no small thing to make a worm look terrifying. Mr. Schoenherr did so evocatively, rendering Mr. Herbert’s sand creature as a rearing, pipelike organism whose jagged, gaping maw revealed a terrible blackness within.

In an interview quoted in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Viking, 1988), Mr. Herbert called Mr. Schoenherr “the only man who has ever visited Dune.”

Mr. Schoenherr’s first children’s book illustrations were for Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era (Dutton, 1963), by Sterling North, about a raccoon.  His art for children centered often on the natural world and in particular on mammals.  Mr. Schoenherr was especially partial to bears, in all their dark-brown density.

His other children’s titles include Julie of the Wolves (Harper & Row, 1972), which won a Newbery Medal for its author, Jean Craighead George; and several he wrote himself, among them The Barn (Little, Brown, 1968) and “Bear (Philomel, 1991)

Mr. Shoenherr's paintings have been exhibited at museums and galleries throughout North America.

Besides his son, Ian, who is also a well-known children’s book illustrator, Mr. Schoenherr is survived by his wife, the former Judith Gray, whom he married in 1960; a daughter, Jennifer Schoenherr Aiello; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

If Mr. Schoenherr’s twin careers had a common bond, it was the rigorous fealty with which he drew all life-forms, real or imagined.

“I’ll always be proud of the ‘genuine aliens’ I designed,” Mr. Schoenherr told the journal Artists of the Rockies and the Golden West in 1983. “Never were they humans with insect antennae.”

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