A Prairie ABC, Sept 04 | Claudia McGehee’s Ode toTallgrass Flowers and Plants


Illustrator Claudia McGehee. Photo by Michael Kreiser.

Eleven years ago, illustrator Claudia McGehee and her research scientist husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to Iowa City. “One of the first things we wanted to do when we moved here,” Claudia reports, “was to connect with the Iowa landscape.” By way of explanation, she quotes Aldo Leopold, renowned among naturalists as the father of wildlife ecology: “If you know the landscape, you know the people,” she says. The couple explored their new environment by bicycling and by engaging in what Claudia calls “ a woodlands kind of trekking around."

“I’m a big gardener,” the artist says. “I also tried to integrate native plants in my garden.”

Cultivating native plants paid off when Claudia began working on her first picture book, A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, published this spring by the University of Iowa Press ($16.95, hardcover). On every page, this luminous ABC book features a plant, bird, or animal native to tallgrass prairies. “I definitely had an interest in the prairie,” the artist explains.

But she originally proposed a book focused generally on Midwest natural history. Press Director Holly Carver suggested narrowing the slant to tallgrass prairies. As Claudia explains, “Tallgrass prairie went all the way up to nearly the border of Canada and down to Texas. It was a great swath in the middle of the North American continent, but Iowa’s the only state that tallgrass prairie covered one hundred percent of at one point.”

Although she’d raised ironweed, queen of the prairie, and other native species, Claudia wasn’t an expert on prairies. However, with a B.S. in Anthropology from Central Washington University and a degree in graphic design from Seattle Central Community College, she knew how to study.

For six months, Claudia studied tallgrass prairies. She read field guides and books like John Madson’s classic, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie. She also talked to experts, who directed her to prairie reconstructions scattered around the state. Claudia visited the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site near West Branch, an oak savannah cemetery prairie in Rochester, and the Finkbine Prairie on the University of Iowa campus. At these sites, she took photos, made sketches, and hunkered down “to get the feel of tallgrass.”

Claudia also toured the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, with its small reconstruction prairie and diorama of a tallgrass prairie. “The staff there is very good,” she says. “They dug out a 125-year-old dickcissel specimen so that I could look at and unfold the wings and make sketches.”

On some research jaunts, Claudia’s daughter, Lucy, accompanied her. “She’s probably one of the few five-year-olds in Iowa who knows what a dickcissel is,” Claudia says.

According to the “Prairie Notes” at the end of her book, a dickcissel is a colorful bird that resembles a miniature meadowlark. The sophisticated language of her book’s sparse text—which includes names like “regal fritillary” and “aromatic aster”—makes it more appropriate for older youngsters than for those learning their ABC’s. (The text fails author and former children’s book editor Jane Yolen’s X test: the X page sports a charming illustration of a large bug above the inscription “SphinX moth.”) Nevertheless, this book’s scientific accuracy will make it a treasured resource for teachers of natural history. Claudia’s panel of prairie experts helped her select the most appropriate species to depict in the book; only original species, rather than introduced varieties, are featured.

Claudia created woodcut-like, incandescent illustrations of the 26 featured species using old and new technology. She first carefully transferred hand-drawn images onto scratchboard—a white chalk-covered cardboard overlaid with black ink. Using an X-acto blade, she then painstakingly scratched away everything she wanted white and left other areas black. “This takes a long time,” she says. “It’s the old-fashioned way of doing things.”

With her computer, she scanned the black-and-white images, then printed them onto watercolor paper, which absorbs color better than scratchboard. To achieve rich shades, she hand-tinted the printed images with watercolor and vibrant Dr. Martin’s dyes. “I felt the prairie really needed those colors,” she says. “When you look at a prairie, the cone flowers pop out at you. The greens are fluorescent.” Excluding research, each illustration took about eight hours to complete.

When not creating children’s books, Claudia works as a freelance graphic designer. Her clients include the University of Iowa, Java House (that’s her logo on their to-go mugs), and the Hills Bank headquarters, where she drew and painted a mural of an Iowa landscape. “I have so many interests, and that’s what’s great about being an illustrator. You get to indulge yourself,” she says.

A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet is available at bookstores, or call (800) 621-2736; or visit www.uiowapress.org.