Wendell Minor


It’s possible to stand in almost any American bookstore and, by simply pivoting, spot at least three books with Wendell Minor covers. Minor is a prolific illustrator, whose job it is to augment words with pictures, and give faces — cover images — to books. He has created some of the most iconic book jackets ever published, over the course of a career that has spanned nearly forty-five years and more than two thousand volumes.

The memorable cover illustration of the paperback reissue of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — a black silhouette of a bird in flight, moving away from a tree trunk, its knothole housing a pocket watch and a ball of twine — is Minor’s work, and is credited with increasing sales of the book by seventy-five thousand copies. The worn leather jacket on the cover of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, the weathered wooden windmill that graces the cover of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, and the majestic sperm whale rising out of the sea on the cover of Nantucket resident Nathaniel Philbrick’s Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex — all are images intrinsically linked to our idea of the book, and all are Wendell Minor’s creations.

Original art for the cover of John Hersey’s Blues, Watercolor gouache on paper, 12 x 16”.

Original art for the 1987 cover of Harper Lee’s  To Kill a Mockingbird: Acrylic on Masonite, 12 x 12”.

If there were an honorary Islander award, a plaque or a key to the village or some such thing, Wendell Minor would be an ideal choice as inaugural recipient. While he’s never officially been a resident, Minor’s Vineyard connections run deep. He has many friends here and has created book covers for some of the Cape and Islands’ favorite famous authors, including David McCullough, John Hersey, and Philbrick.

Minor first met McCullough in 1972 after they worked together on The Great Bridge, McCullough’s book about the Brooklyn Bridge. They formed an immediate and lasting bond, and Minor has created the covers for almost all of McCullough’s books since; he has given McCullough’s body of work a recognizable face. Minor cites the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, a Vineyard summer resident of fifty years, as the inspiration for the portrait of Harry Truman on the cover of McCullough’s biography of the thirty-third president. He devoted forty-eight hours over the course of four days to the cover painting, which was requested by McCullough himself. That book, that particular face, was a game-changer for Minor. He states emphatically, “That cover made all the difference in my career.”

John Hersey’s Blues — an eloquent and locally beloved discourse on the natural history of bluefish, Vineyard Sound, wind and weather and poetry — is another book with a Wendell Minor face. The artist’s silver fish, with its perfectly rendered ochre eyeball and razor-spike teeth, hovers above the bluest of blue Vineyard water, East Chop Light, and the sails of what can only be one of the Black Dog Tall Ships on the horizon.

In Wendell Minor: Art for the Written Word, a compendium of his book jackets and illustrations published in 1995, Minor explains his approach to design this way: “A good cover has to have a sense of time and place, a sense of the atmosphere of the book. I think of it as a picture puzzle with one or two pieces missing. Only by reading the book will they be found. There needs to be enough ambiguity so people project their own feelings into the image.”

An interior page from Wendell Minor’s newest book, Edward Hopper Paints HIs World, by Robert Burlgh. Watercolor gouache on paper

An interior page from Wendell Minor’s newest book, Edward Hopper Paints His World, by Robert Burleigh. Watercolor gouache on paper

More than fifty picture books for children have also received the Minor touch. The most recent of these is Robert Burleigh’s Edward Hopper Paints His World. Minor has had a lifelong love affair with Hopper’s work and was allowed the privilege of spending time at Hopper’s home and studio in Truro on Cape Cod while preparing the art for the book. He’s responsible, too, for the art of The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow. In his illustrations for this book, Minor captured and interpreted the ephemeral qualities of shifting sands, fluctuating tides, the smells and sounds and light of the seaside, perfectly. Martha’s Vineyard seems present, if not in actuality, certainly in spirit, on every page.

Minor explains that he’s got a “lifetime’s worth of painting to do,” and he’s working his way there, one book at a time. Upcoming projects with an Island connection include Philbrick’s first picture book, based on a story found within Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, and a project with Martha’s Vineyard resident and author of One Good Dog, Susan Wilson.

“Art and writing are how we all leave our little messages that we existed in time,” Minor says. Minor’s “little messages” are so much more than that. They are images permanently linked with some of the world’s favorite words — the recognizable faces of a treasury of classic books.

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