kęstutis kasparavičius: rabbits and elephants and eggs, oh my!

I first saw the walking eggs, then the flying books and the TV set with arms and legs. By the time anthropomorphized tableware, teeth playing musical instruments, and a bear vacuuming the moon appeared, I was hooked.

Initially, I didn’t realize these fanciful pictures were from children’s books. They certainly felt child-centric, but they also had an elegance and sophistication that belied classification. I loved the subtle watercolors, innovative composition, precise drawing and masterful rendering of details, all bathed in refreshing optimism and off-center humor.

“Easter Eggs,” “Silly Stories,” “The White Elephant.”

Just who was this artist whose work was so unique, making it easily identifiable once you were aware of it? 

Lithuanian author and illustrator Kęstutis Kasparavičius.

Kęstutis Kasparavičius (1954 – ) has published over 60 children’s books which have been translated into dozens of languages, including Chinese, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Korean. Since he’s worked mainly with European publishers, I had not encountered any of his picture books before – including the handful he published in America (e.g., The Pied Piper of Peru by Ann Tompert).

Born in Aukstadvaris, Lithuania, Kęstutis studied choir conducting for ten years (beginning at age 8) at the National M.K. Čiurlionis School of Art. He then transitioned from music to visual arts, earning degrees in graphic design at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts. While working as a graphic designer for a publishing company, his talent for illustrating was noticed. His first children’s book, Crafty Art Lessons, was published in 1984. 

During this early formative period, he produced art for Lithuanian Fairy Tales (1989) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ( 1987). He was learning about art history and prototypes, and searching for his own style. His work was mostly monochrome with strong graphic lines and a small color range.

Collaborating with German publishers beginning in the early 90s was critical in his evolution, since he had to conform with their rules and strict illustration counts. There were important changes in his style: he abandoned graphic lines in favor of pencil and watercolor and added touches of surrealism. Over the next decade, he was able to perfect the aesthetics of nonsense and other unique aspects of his work, as he illustrated the stories of many contemporary Lithuanian and international writers. 

from Pinocchio
from Thumbelina

During this period he also illustrated several classic works to wide recognition: Pinocchio, Thumbelina, and The Nutracker, blending realism with fantasy. He also produced realistic illustrations for Dostoyevski’s An Honest Thief, and for several stories with American publishers (Boyds Mills Press, Abrams). He apparently found that experience unsatisfying.

That was my darkest period… I certainly didn’t want for work: I continued working with the German publisher and also received commissions from Taiwan. But I wanted to test myself in the English-speaking world. It turns out that was a mistake… It was uninteresting, boring, and there were no special editions or sales. I made a few books: “Saint Valentine,” “Saint Martin,” more saints’ biographies, and h. Ch. Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” However, I started writing after that!

~ Kęstutis Kasparavičius: The Conductor of the World’s Imagination (Lithuanian Culture Institute)

This prompted him to begin writing his own stories. His first self-illustrated book, Silly Stories, was published by Grimm Press in Taiwan. This led to more story collections as well as the opportunity to publish titles in Lithuanian with Nieko Rimto. This established his reputation as a teller of witty and humorous tales. 

“Short Stories”

I think that a good book for children must also be a good book for adults. I try to write so that one would want to read the same book over and over again. Books should be such that one wouldn’t want to throw them in the corner after opening the first page. Such that one could turn the pages for a long while, look at the drawings without reading the text, or, quite the opposite, read without paying attention to the illustrations. Such that one could start reading right from the middle or actually try reading from the end. Such that there would be points in them at which one wants to pause and think for a while and, certainly, not rush.

~ Profile (Lithuania in Bologna, 2011)
“Christmas! Christmas!”

What is interesting about Kęstutis’s process is that he completes all the illustrations before writing any text. In fact, some of his stories have different texts written by different authors, proving that his art is rich with narrative, open to varied interpretations and cultural nuances. He’s the most famous author and illustrator of children’s books in Lithuania, and his work is known to readers in Europe, Asia, North and South America.

“The Missing Picture”

He excels in depicting comic animal characters (bears, pigs, rabbits, turtles) who find themselves in puzzling and provoking situations. Often drawing from life, he’s a stickler for accurate detail, researches extensively, and sometimes includes autobiographical details in his paintings. 

I was happy to learn he admires Beatrix Potter and admits to a certain British influence in his art, though he has never visited England. “My illustrations are dominated by the colours of an English town.” His favorite fairy tale is The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.

Kęstutis has participated in many solo and group exhibitions all over the world, and has been recognized with many awards during the span of his career. He’s been nominated three times for the Hans Christian Andersen Award (2008, 2010, 2022), and twice for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (2005, 2006). Other honors include two IBBY awards for Best Book of the Year, Lithuania (2005, 2007), and at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, he was awarded the UNICEF Illustrator of the Year Award (1993) and an Award of Excellence (2003).

Enjoy this short video. Although I can’t understand a single word he’s saying, it’s nice to see him in his studio space. He’s discussing The White Elephant.

For more, visit Kęstutis Kasparavičius’s Instagram. You can purchase framed prints, greeting cards, and other merchandise (apparel, mugs, pillows, etc.) here.

*Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “kęstutis kasparavičius: rabbits and elephants and eggs, oh my!

  1. Thank you so much for researching and sharing this amazing artist/author!! Im mesmerized by this artwork and would love to add his books to my collection!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jama, appreciations for bringing to us this brilliant author, artist & man. He deserves a Western Hemispheres fandom, which I feel you’ve launched cekebratorily! My favorite image here, as I’m in Florida are the otters on ice cubes, with Sol wearing a scarf!!
    Although unique, he makes me think of how Paul Reubens [incidentally, my grade school classmate]created talking chairs & household gadgets Rube Goldberg-style that delighted kiddos & their grownups inPeeWee’s Playhouse.
    I look forward to returning to the links & looking for his books in all the books & cranies of book-finding.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, thank you for the intro! This guy is brilliant and can drawing like an angel. I picked up strong Carl Larson vibes in the watercolor technique and settings and then Mister Kasparavičius just blows through all that into delightful absurdity drawn with perfect perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jama, wow! I love his humor, detail, colors, style… He has a great imagination! It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but since I love cats, I love the illustration of the dog in the tree with all the birds around it and on the bottom the cat’s smug smile having the doghouse all to himself. I also like the rabbit teacher with a soccer ball for a globe, the rabbit students in hilarious positions and the one student looking at the real globe, which I didn’t find until my second look. The cats fishing, the lady catching a fish in the clouds and the one cat cooking a fish. The fish with the boots on and putting logs into the stove is so funny. Then, the shenanigans going on in the left top of the illustration with the chickens flying or are they being tossed by the fork? I also love all the egg illustrations, the one where the white eggs are climbing to be boiled then walk to be painted and climb to be eaten is hysterical! The more looks you take at the illustrations, the more you find. Thank you for these treats and delight!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Really special to read and see about this artist, I guess new to most of us, Jama. I remember “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” movie. And, I imagine you love the art with bears especially, yet each one is so enticing. I love what may be a self-portrait as you mentioned, with the man sitting at the table with his dog on a pot, not so surreal but endearing. I am lucky because my library has several of his books! Thanks for your fabulous post!

    Liked by 1 person

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