The History of Fairport’s Only Statue

by Brady Meixell

Since its incorporation in 1867, Fairport has always been a hardworking  jewel of a town in upstate New York. Kings of commerce, such as the DeLands, have resided here. A classical composer, Christopher Rouse, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music while living in the area. A graduate of Fairport High School has won an Academy Award for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A watercolorist has captured the mood of the environs, and his posthumous reputation has begun to soar (Carl Peters). Besides its physical beauty, Fairport’s history runs deep, from the whispers of the Freedom Trail to the folklore of the Erie Canal.

With so much fame and heritage, no doubt the village is awash in statues glorifying its past. After all, cities and towns and hamlets everywhere are fond of sculpted tributes to their founders, heroes, their favorite daughters and sons.

So what does Fairport have in the Statue Department?

Well, there are some close approximations. For example, there is a Civil War monument up in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, but it is more of a column or elongated tombstone than a statue. There are cannons at Potter Park, flags and a Huey helicopter and a tank at Freedom Hill. There is also Sal in front of the Police Station, but he is from a Monroe County community art fundraiser known as “Horses on Parade.”

No, there is only one real honest-to-goodness chiseled or metal-cast commissioned statue in Fairport. And who does it honor?

Mice.

Three of them.

“I guess we’re not big on statues,” Perinton Town Historian Jean Keplinger appraised. “We tend to name streets in honor of people instead” (Keplinger).

But wait a minute.... mice?

micestatueellens.walsh2012webBronzed for posterity, they stand in Kennelley Park, in a landscaped garden alongside the Fairport Public Library, near the windows to the Children’s section. One of the figures is holding a large artist’s paintbrush. Another is stepping forward, as if in mid-lecture, like a rodent version of a Greek orator. The other has its arms spread wide, almost as though signaling a baseball runner is safe at home. They are indeed cute little critters, and certainly worthy of our historical inspection

Because a hundred years from now, people visiting the village of Fairport will pause and ponder these bronzed beauties. They are in a privileged spot, overlooking Main Street and the historic lift bridge, with great views of the nearby bandstand where summer concerts are staged.

Where did they come from? What do they mean? How did these mice invade the annals of Fairport to become the only statue in town?

 Let’s start with its accompanying plaque. It reads:

miceplaqueellens.walsh2012web

This, of course, will pique anyone’s interest, especially a hundred years from now. They will wonder: who was Ellen Stoll Walsh, and what made her mice so famous?

In search of answers, today’s historian often begins with a quick check on the internet. There we find Ellen Stoll Walsh listed on several literary sites, but most of them use a variation of the same scant barebones biography. It goes something like this:

Ellen Stoll Walsh has written and illustrated numerous beloved books for children, including the bestselling modern classics Mouse Paint and Mouse Count. She lives in upstate New York (“Ellen Stoll Walsh Biography”).

One site provides a bit more depth, quoting her:

I was part of a big family. There were ten children in all and I was    second from the top. As one of the oldest kids I used to cuddle up in bed with my mother and two sisters while my mother read to us. My mother loved books, and she took such pleasure in reading to us that we couldn’t help loving them too. She made up voices for the different characters and great sound effects -- and when something was funny she      would laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks. She knew lots of stories as well -- especially from Uncle Remus -- and sometimes she just made up stories as she went along. We laughed a lot in that warm, safe bed with my mother. As the family got bigger she didn’t have much time to read to the little ones, so I became the story teller (“Ellen Stoll Walsh”).

Still, there isn’t much detail on the internet about how she and the mice became famous enough to merit a statue. Clearly we need more information for a better understanding.

We should go to the source.

Because as Perinton Town Historian Jean Keplinger rather happily put it, “History is not just about dead people” (Keplinger).

And fortunately, the famous author is alive and well, living just two blocks away. It is time to knock on her door.

Dingbat

She lives in a home somehow appropriate for a classic children’s book writer, complete with a diagonal square tower -- a kind of small turret -- above the front porch. Officially the house was built in 1902 by C.F. Parmalee, though some have claimed it was established in the late 1800s. The previous owner, from the 1930s to 1977, was Bessie Kinney, who was the Principal at the old Midvale School on Baird Road. No doubt the educator would approve of the current inhabitant (“West”).

After knocking on her door, Ellen Stoll Walsh nearly bounded down the stairs and let me in with a smile. (I had called ahead for an appointment, and she was expecting my arrival.) In her sixties, she appears younger and at times almost ageless because of her inquisitiveness and flow of creative energy. At first she may seem slightly shy, but then you realize she is busy thinking all the time. There is a positive feeling about her – a kind of overriding fascination with the world.

We sit down in her living room and begin with the general facts. She’s written seventeen children’s books, half of them revolving around her famous mice characters. “That’s what people want,” she says with mock resignation.

Most of the stories are illustrated using cut-paper assemblies of vibrant colors. The characters appear to be simple, but close scrutiny shows otherwise. Each animal connotes a motion and expression with remarkably spare details. With equally sparse but beautifully crafted words accompanying the panels, her style creeps up on the reader and involves the imagination. Evocative might be the best description of her pictures and prose. Also fun and educational.

The plots, likewise, seem simple. Mice spill paint and their little feet mix the pigments into new color evolutions. Frogs and salamanders get crazily uneven on a teeter-totter to teach us about balance in life. Animals constantly have to adapt to unexpected changes. Their Eden becomes troubled, then through adjustment or understanding, the landscape becomes livable and satisfying again. The reader slowly realizes: there are layers here, complexities, inner lessons going on beneath the surface. The books often seduce, then surprise and challenge us. They underscore awareness and responsibility. They are pleasant, yet thought-provoking, much like Ms. Walsh herself.

Her books have now been translated into a whopping thirteen languages and are distributed across the globe. “I’m very proud of all the translations,” she tells me, “That just doesn’t happen a lot with this kind of children’s book.” Because of the prose style, most of her readers probably range from six-months to five years old.

I ask about the number of books out there.

“I’m not really sure of the sales figures,” she admits, “I was told quite some time ago that Mouse Paint has sold over a million copies. But that was years ago. I’m not sure what it’s at now. It remains very popular.”

Her books also are a mainstay in libraries, and in the classroom, where they have become ideal teaching vehicles.

It seems staggering... seventeen books, in thirteen languages? And just one of them has sold well over a million copies? Some of the best books in publishing history never came close to that number. The Great Gatsby originally had meager sales: when F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, it was no longer even in print. And very few authors ever have their fictitious characters put on pedestals in parks and town squares. Maybe Huckleberry Finn. Scrooge and Tiny Tim. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps Harry Potter, a Cat in the Hat, or a Hans Christian Anderson homage somewhere. This is rarified air indeed. I quickly realize that in tandem with all her talent, Ellen Stoll Walsh is also quite humble about all this.

So how did her illustrious career begin?

It started on her son’s third birthday. “Someone had given him the book Alexander and the Wind Up Mouse by Leo Leonni. About half-way through reading the book to him, I simply knew I had to write and illustrate,” Ms. Walsh explains, “Up until that point I had no idea where my life was going.”

So she set to work on her first children’s book and sent it around to a few publishers. “I heard a lot of, ‘some nice things there, try us again next time...’ ” And then with her second effort, a pen-and-ink book named Brunus and the New Bear, she made her breakthrough into publication.

“That’s where I really learned how to draw,” she offers, “I mean I had gone to art school, but I didn’t really have to draw there.” It was the era of pop and modern art, color fields, expressionism. “We were always painting these big bold things where you could get away without a lot of drawing.”

After another pen-and-ink book was published, she switched to her now iconic cut-paper style for Mouse Paint. “After a couple months, I found out I had sold 5,000 copies,” Ms. Walsh said, shocked by its success. “I still can’t believe it. And it just kept going. It’s kind of like it’s not really mine.” She tries to downplay it. "Of course they certainly milk it. They've printed that book on small board, large board, monster board, regular hardcover, and paperback."

She laughingly points out that it's really the mice who are famous: “I don’t think I’m well known at all. When I walk around the village, people stop and talk to me about them!”

Which brings us to the statue. How did that happen?

 “I’m not very sure. Robin Benoit, the Children’s Librarian, had the idea. She commissioned it somehow. One day I walked into our wonderful Library and she said, ‘Come look at your mice!’ The clay models had arrived. I was amazed” (Stoll Walsh).

Actually, in the spring of 2002, Ms. Benoit explained in a Perinton-Fairport Post article: “It’s been my dream to have those bronze sculptures at the library as a way to honor a local author. Now our children who come to our storytime room will be able to look out the window and see the characters we read about in the books.” The statues were created by Dexter Benedict, an artist and teacher from Penn Yan. Library Director Betsy Gilbert said the underwriting was provided by a memorial library fund. The Fairport Industrial Development Agency paid for the garden landscaping. The unveiling ceremony occurred in April, 2002 (Bassett).

Ms. Walsh followed Mouse Paint with Mouse Count, now her second most popular work. She again used the cut-paper format, a style she hasn't stopped using since. "Cut-paper just seemed right for Mouse Paint, and it seemed right again for Mouse Count, and before I realized it every book I was doing was cut-paper," she chuckles. "Finally my editor said, 'You know you can use any medium you want, right?'"

But she has stuck with it. Of the twenty-five flat files in her studio, twenty-three hold various sizes and shades and templates of paper for her signature compilations.

She has become a master at the method. If aficionados can spot a Degas or Jackson Pollack or Dali right away, the same can be said of a Ellen Stoll Walsh goose, snake, frog, or mouse.

At times, her style can resemble the two-dimensionality of Egyptian art, especially in the profiles, for a very good reason. “Growing up in Baltimore, in the Fifth Grade, I saw a wonderful museum exhibit and fell in love with Egyptian art. In looking back, I see a little in my own work -- though I think that's more coincidental than decided."

She tends to release a new book every year-and-a-half or so. "Of course in the old days, my editor would accept just about anything,” she modestly offers.  

Besides the famous mice, Ms. Walsh's subjects have included a menagerie of birds, hamsters, snakes, frogs, and other animals. She says her characters "just kind of come together. If I don't have an idea for a story, I'll just make a list of names. Some are regular commonplace names, but others are off-the-beaten-path like Dot and Jabber -- when I wrote down those two, I knew I had to do something with them." They soon became a new breed of mystery-solving mice.

Ms.Walsh studies the animals she depicts before putting them on the page. On occasion, she walks along the Erie Canal to observe closely the movements of frogs. At one point, she even had a cage full of mice for a few months. But that didn't last. "I'm not sure if you know this,” she confides, “but mice really smell.”

She also is cognizant of how her audience will perceive her work. "Sometimes when illustrating, I imagine children looking over my shoulder.  I really focus on the way they'll view it..." Then she smiles. "Though I haven't always been right.”

When I ask her how she wants to be remembered for her work, Ms. Walsh laughs. "I don't really want to be remembered!" But then she fine-tunes her response. "What really pleases me is when parents tell me they had to read one of my books to their children seven times. That they just wouldn't let them stop. That's when I know I've hit my target audience” (Stoll Walsh).

Currently Ms. Walsh is at work on a new book with her now grown-up son Ben, drawing on some of her experiences from a recent trip to India. It will again have mice at its helm.

The afternoon is getting late, and the interview draws to a close. She offers me a copy of her latest book, Balancing Act, and signs it with a friendly note. I accept it gratefully, knowing it is already in libraries and homes all across the United States, in several countries around the world. I think of all the smiling and oohing/aahing little children who are delighted by its story as they learn to conceptualize and read because of its simple, digestible, and yet deeply involving content.

By the end of our visit, it is apparent Ellen Stoll Walsh is much like her characters: casual yet precise, intrigued and open to the world, but also acutely aware of situations and demanding of her own talent. She explores art freely, but with high standards. Above all, she offers warmth and humor. No doubt her readers sense this, page after page.

As I leave Ms. Walsh’s home and walk down the street, I continue back into town to Kennelley Park for another look at the statue. I see it now in a new light. These humble creations have represented Fairport worldwide. Combining all the shared copies of Mouse Paint in homes, libraries, daycare centers, and schools, several million children have learned, loved, and followed their adventures. And that’s just the mice. Ellen Stoll Walsh has added many other books and characters to the delight of readers young and old everywhere.

To think it all came from Fairport... from the very famous author you’d never know was world-renowned.

No wonder we built her a statue, in tribute to her mind and enduring reputation.

Dingbat

For information on the Perinton Historical Society Scholarship Program and other winners see the Scholarship page.

Editor's note - Ellen Walsh's home was featured on the Society's House Tour in 2007. For additional photos and information see the architectural page for the Queen Anne style.

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Scholarship Winner - 2012

b.meixell6.6.12Brady Meixell is a 2012 winner of the Peter McDonough Memorial Scholarship.

He is one of two high school seniors given $1000 for historic essays judged to be the finest among a large number submitted for consideration. 

Brady Meixell's research paper, The History of Fairport's Only Statue (at left), looks at the life and work of Ellen Stoll Walsh. The Fairport author has written and illustrated many much-loved books for children, including the modern classics, Mouse Paint and Mouse Count. Brady will study at the College of William and Mary.

The other 2012 scholarship winner is Megan Gilmore.

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