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Mary Ann Barr: Preserving a mother’s legacy

Sammy the seal, Bobo and Mozart, and runaway chimps have all found their way to the Weston Public Library.

Those endearing characters are the mischievous subjects of beginning reader books written and illustrated by the late Cathrine Barr, who once called Weston her home.

Last week, Ms. Barr’s daughter, Mary Ann Barr, came to town and donated 14 of her mother’s books to the library. “This just seems like the logical and appropriate place for Mom’s books,” Ms. Barr told Karen Tatarka, library director, and Joy Beckwith, children’s librarian.

First published in the 1950s, the donated books are Bobo and Mozart, Dan and Sandy, Hound Dog’s Bone, Jingle and Socks, Little Bear, Little Ben, Sammy Seal of the Circus, Smokey’s Big Discovery, Snoop Waits for Dinner, The Bear Cubs Escape, The Runaway Chimps, and Whoo Whoo.

Ms. Tatarka and Ms. Beckwith were thrilled to receive the books and will add them to the collection for young children to enjoy. Ms. Beckwith was particularly happy because the few books the library still has of Ms. Barr’s have gotten worn and dog-eared over the years.

Although Mary Ann Barr now lives in Danby, N.Y., she grew up in Weston on Ladder Hill Road with her mother and sister Elizabeth. She has fond memories of the town, and enjoys visits with friends who still live here.

Hand-lettered

Cathrine Barr’s books are special. Each one is exactly 32 pages long, as required by the publisher. She not only wrote all the stories but she created the original illustrations for each book. And instead of using standardized typeset for the print, she hand-lettered each book.

“That sometimes caused a problem for Mom because the lettering would be too much for the page so she would have to start over and rewrite the text so it would fit,” Ms. Barr recalled.

Cathrine Barr was a painter, commercial artist, and teacher as well as the author of 22 children’s books.

She was born in 1914 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and died in 1987.

No one knows why “Cathrine” is spelled the way it is — without an extra vowel between the h and r. “We’re Scottish, that’s all I can say,” Ms. Barr said with a smile.

When Cathrine Barr was a child she loved stories about animals and started drawing at a young age. She attended the Massachusetts College of Art and wrote a thesis on illustration for children. She is among the artists who came from the “Boston School” of art.

After graduation, she worked in Boston as a freelance artist in advertising. She also drew for the Washington Post and the Boston Herald-Traveler’s children’s feature pages.

Her primary painting medium was watercolor and she traveled across the world to places like New Zealand, India, and Haiti capturing those landscapes in her work. She taught watercolor painting in Boston, Connecticut, Iowa, Montana and Florida. Her work is often compared favorably to that of Winslow Homer.

In 1950, Ms. Barr, who was then divorced, moved into a converted barn in Weston with her daughters Elizabeth and Mary Ann.

“The house was great because there was a large open room Mom could use for her studio,” Ms. Barr remembered.

When she and her sister were beginning to read, Ms. Barr said her mother discovered there was a lack of good books with a simple text. While Cathrine Barr had illustrated children’s books before, she now felt the need to write them as well, her daughter said. So family pets and animals seen on trips out West became the inspiration for her stories.

Rejection

But, while she had enjoyed a nice life doing illustrations for advertising agencies, getting her children’s books published was another story.

“My mom went through rejection after rejection, after rejection,” Ms. Barr recalled. She said her mother would spend all day in New York City walking to publisher after publisher only to come home empty handed.

The workplace in the 1950s was dominated by men, with most women staying at home to raise their families. But as a single mother with two young mouths to feed, staying at home was not an option for Cathrine Barr.

The book rejections created problems for the family’s finances. A bill collector threatened to repossess their car, and a banker threatened to foreclose on their home.

“I asked Mom if we were going to lose our house, but she assured me we weren’t,” Ms. Barr said.

Cathrine Barr then caught a break when Oxford University Press expressed interested in her work, and published her first book, Monkey’s Big Discovery. Ms. Barr was not surprised at her mother’s ultimate success. “She had a lot of business acumen and was very gutsy,” she said.

Cathrine Barr then went to work on other books, such as Snoop Waits for Dinner, which was based on the family’s cat. Other drawings in that book depicted the family’s mailbox and a stone wall on Ladder Hill Road.

“I’ll never forget when Mom came home with a new car and we started traveling and taking trips. I knew then everything was fine and Mom had managed to make things work,” Ms. Barr said.

Creating each book took a long time. Some drawings were pen and ink and some were filled in with colored pencil or watercolor. She would create a dummy, sample book and send it to the publisher for review before publication.

Ms. Barr recalled helping her mother by proofreading the books and reading them with her sister Elizabeth, who became a journalist and has since died.

“This was the perfect thing for Elizabeth to do. Copy editing was her specialty,” Ms. Barr said.

Because each book took upwards of a year to complete, Cathrine Barr also continued to work in advertising and did artwork for client Newtown Savings Bank well into the 1980s before she died in 1987.

Her work has been exhibited across the country including locally by the Westport Women’s Club, The Paint Bucket in Westport, and in local shows and annual exhibits in Fairfield.

Sammy Seal of the Circus is her most popular book, but Ms. Barr’s favorite books are Smokey’s Big Discovery, a cat and mouse tale that contains a drawing of the family’s rabbit and Whoo Whoo about an owl.

Like her mother, Ms. Barr is also a painter and has enjoyed a career as a graphic designer. Now that she has freed up some room in her home by bringing the books to the library, she is looking for a permanent spot for some of her mother’s watercolors.

“I’ll find just the right home for them. I’m like my mother that way. I’m not going to give up,” she said.

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