Ken Stark

I was born in Alameda, California. My brother, Phil, was already about a year old. We were toddlers when our parents divorced and Mom brought us to her hometown, Kakakee, Illinois. Before long, she got sick. Phil and I had to stay in an orphanage for five months. The people there were nice, but we were excited when Mom came to get us.

We kids grew up east of the water tower, in a tiny house next to enormous cornfields. It was funny: we had a chicken house, but no chickens . . . a garage, but no car . . . and a bathroom, but no plumbing. We did have apple trees to climb . . . a bike to ride double… a friend, Tootie . . . a dog named Echo . . .  and plenty of room to run. This was home. We were happy boys.

To support us, Mom took in ironing and tried to sell her stories and poems. Each week, she read a sackful of library books, usually English history. Some had old black-and-white prints of kings, queens, and battle scenes, which inspired Phil and me to draw. We even drew picture stories on strips of paper glued end to end. Then we viewed our “movies” using a cardboard projector. Mom praised whatever we drew. We felt like Rembrandts.

I was twelve when Phil and I went to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with strangers—our father and stepmother. Everything was different. It was hard to fit in. We missed Mom and our country home. I became terribly shy, then my troubles grew. In my freshman year of high school, I broke my collarbone three times. (The doctor said he could set his watch by me.) My interest in art school got shoved aside by my favorite subject, ROTC. I was less bashful in uniform and liked making up fancy moves for my drill team.

A paper route and a job picking up trash at a drive-in theater paid my way to Arizona State University. I loved architecture but hated the math.  After a year and a half, it dawned on me—I wanted to paint!

Home again in Kankakee, I drew up a storm and worked at a kennel. Then off Phil and I went to Art Center School in Los Angeles. In two semesters, our money was gone and my art training was over. I was drafted.

Two years later I was back at home, doing piecework at a furniture factory and painting landscapes on the side. Then, freelancing, I illustrated a string of covers for Quill magazine. This led to a twelve-year stint as a political cartoonist and graphic artist with The Daily Journal, Kankakee. (Imagine, poking fun at presidents and getting paid for it!) I had to draw quickly out of my head and try to write snappy captions—all before deadline. That was perfect practice for making picture books.

My country life came in handy, too. I illustrated Growing Seasons, a memoir by my former neighbor Elsie Splear. Then I wrote and painted a book, Oh, Brother!, about my own childhood. Mom would have smiled. Those pleasant memories just poured out onto paper.

Meanwhile, the peaceful hills of southwestern Wisconsin tugged at my wife, Chris, and me. How could we resist that chunk of rugged land with a tipsy 1800s log house? We took it down and put it back up, straight and tall on a stone foundation we laid. I like looking at the old ax marks on the flattened logs. Did those tough settlers know they made art?

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by the author

Seeing the Elephant

Pat Hughes; Pictures by Ken Stark
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Young Izzie wishes he could join the Union Army with his brothers, Ario and Cal. He wonders what it would be like to “see the elephant”—soldier talk for going...

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