Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of Azarian's illustrations for children's books are of farms and country scenes. She was born in 1940 and grew up in what is now suburban Washington, DC, although at that time it was very rural. She recalls "I had the best of two worlds. On the one hand, I lived surrounded by gardens, fields, and woods. I spent hours on a pony exploring what was then still a rural area. On the other hand, we lived within thirty minutes of Washington and its wealth of museums and other cultural opportunities. I spent many hours in the National Gallery, the museum of Natural History, and other parts of the Smithsonian." She studied art, specializing in printmaking, at Smith College in Massachusetts and received a BA in art in 1963. She and her husband, Tom Azarian, moved to a small farm in Vermont in 1967 with the goal of living on a subsistence farm with a cow, a flock of chickens, and a garden. When it became obvious that additional income would be needed, Azarian began teaching in the one room schoolhouse in her area, responsible for children in first through eighth grade. The school had very few resources and, to help decorate the classroom and teach the alphabet to the younger students, she created a set of alphabet posters made in her preferred medium: wood block prints.
Several years later, the Vermont Council on the Arts sponsored grants for artists working on projects with themes related to Vermont. Azarian proposed to create another set of alphabet posters, with each letter representing something that is traditional to Vermont. She won the grant and, when the project was completed, the Vermont Council on the Arts was so taken with her work that they arranged for a complete set of the posters to be printed for every elementary school in Vermont. This set of posters later became a book entitled A Farmer's Alphabet . The prints are all done in black and white and the lettering is in red. Drawing inspiration from her love of gardening, she also produced another alphabet book, A Gardener's Alphabet, in which the illustrations are woodblock prints that have been colored.
Most of Azarian's book illustrations are woodblock prints that are later painted with acrylic paints. This approach is unusual for a printmaker as most printmakers ink the woodblock if color is desired in the final print. It also provides a very different "look". Azarian usually makes several copies of a print, allowing herself to experiment when painting the print so that she can get just the right effect.
Another striking aspect of Mary Azarian's art is that much of it is so solidly based in New England. Looking at the illustrations in Snowflake Bentley, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, Faraway Summer, and From Dawn Till Dusk, the location is very clearly New England. The details of the tidy farms and farm houses, the apple orchards, the gardens, the interiors of the houses all have a classic New England look about them. I grew up in South Carolina, accustomed to the look of farms in the South - old ramshackle barns, graying fences, verdant growth. It is a very, very different scene than that of a Vermont farm with its crisp, tended look. I did not visit New England until I was in my twenties, but the landscape was familiar simply from being exposed to illustrations such as those by Mary Azarian and Tasha Tudor, another New England artist and illustrator.
Although it is based in Norway rather than Vermont or other parts of New England, The Race of the Birkebeiners captures the essence of the "look" of Northern Norway. These illustrations are filled with birch trees, thick forests, mountains, traditional Norwegian architecture and, of course, lots of snow. What a wonderful armchair adventure it is to be able to immerse yourself in a story from another time period in a faraway corner of the world, yet have the sense of knowing what it might have been like because the story has been so carefully and ably illustrated.
Mary Azarian continues to run her print shop in Vermont and continues to illustrate children's books, preferring to do at most one a year. I hope you will find as much enjoyment from her illustrations as our family has.
A Christmas Like Helen's written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and illustrated by Mary Azarian
A Farmer's Alphabet written and illustrated by Mary Azarian
A Gardener's Alphabet written and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Barn Cat written by Carol P. Saul and illustrated by Mary Azarian
From Dawn Till Dusk written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Here Comes Darrell written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel written by Leslie Connor and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Snowflake Bentley written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian
The Race of the Birkebeiners written by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Tuttle's Red Barn written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Mary Azarian
Faraway Summer written by Johanna Hurwitz and illustrated by Mary Azarian
The Unsigned Valentine written by Johanna Hurwitz and illustrated by Mary Azarian