Arthur Geisert is the author of more than two dozen children's picture books. Three of his titles have won The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book Award. He's most famous for his intricate illustrations of the Midwest — sprawling prairie, family farms and his signature mischievous pigs.
But Geisert has never lived on a farm. He's from Los Angeles. Six years ago, he moved to Bernard, Iowa. At the time, his marriage of more than 40 years was ending, and he wanted to stay in the Midwest to be near his ailing parents. He needed a cheap place to live and it to be available right away.
"I had never heard of Bernard. I just drove into town, and I saw a for sale sign in front of the bank," he says. "And the next day, I bought the bank!"
The old brick bank building was small — about 700 square feet. He fixed it up as a joint studio and home. His bedroom is in the old vault. In the center of the studio, he has an enormous metal etching press. Geisert makes his illustrations using an elaborate etching process that dates back to the 15th century. It produces detailed pictures. Often, his books don't have words. The etchings tell the story.
When Geisert first arrived in town, people were curious about who he was and what he did. There were rumors he was going to print T-shirts on the etching press. But he quickly became part of the community.
"I go to coffee early morning," he says.
He has breakfast with the farmers and truckers who come through town.
"It's mostly crop stuff and farm business," he says.
Early morning chatter at Pearl's Place has inspired Geisert's work. In 2010 he published an ABC picture book called Country Road ABC that was about farming in Bernard. In it, 'A' is for Ammonia Fertilizer. 'M' is for Milking.
An Unorthodox Book Signing
On a recent blustery spring day in Bernard, the entire town came out to celebrate the recent publication of Geisert's new book, Thunderstorm.
Coe's Bar, the town watering hole, was packed to the gills. Outside, flags were out, banners were up and a glossy red tractor was sitting on main street.
At the back of the bar, between the meat slicer and the noisy beer cooler, Geisert signed copies of his books. The line stretched nearly to the door.
Fans — most of them parents and grandparents — came from all over.
Maryanne Peters, who sells Geisert's books in her shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says they are very popular.
"I think it's the fact that there isn't the written word, and you can get out of the pictures what you want," she says. "If you're sitting down with a little child, you can talk about whatever is of interest, whatever level they're at."
And, Peters says, kids like Geisert's books because they capture what it's like to live on the prairie.
"It provides sort of that source of pride for kids growing up in Iowa," she says.
By late afternoon, the line of people waiting to get books signed is just a few stragglers. The day was a success. In a town of 98 people, Geisert sold more than 500 books in the back of a bar.
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
Arthur Geisert is the author of more than two dozen children's books. He's famous for his intricate illustrations of the vast Midwest - sprawling prairie, family farms and his signature mischievous pigs. But Geisert has never lived on a farm. He's originally from L.A., although he now makes his home in the tiny Iowa town of Bernard. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on how a man from the city made a name for himself as a country illustrator.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The first thing you need to know about Bernard, Iowa, is that it's a tough place to keep a secret.
ARTHUR GEISERT: This is Zelda's house, the mayor's mother.
HERSHER: Bernard has 98 residents. Standing in the middle of the street, you can see from one end of town to the other. It's only about 500 yards. Everyone here either is a relative or feels like one.
GEISERT: This is what George Manders lives and his wife, Connie. The Takis girls, there's three of those.
HERSHER: Arthur Geisert is giving me the grand tour of Bernard, and it doesn't take long. The town bar, post office, converted chicken coop, Bernard Telephone company.
GEISERT: And the town ends right here. And it's just crops, you can see. As the summer progresses, the corn gets higher and higher, and it's a little claustrophobic because it goes around the entire town.
HERSHER: This is Arthur's sixth summer in Bernard. He's originally from Los Angeles. But then six years ago, his life changed. His marriage of more than 40 years dissolved. He wanted to stay in the Midwest to be near his ailing parents, and he needed a cheap place to live that would be available right away.
GEISERT: I had never even heard of Bernard. I just drove into town, and I saw a for sale sign in front of the bank. And the next day, I bought the bank.
HERSHER: The old brick building was smack-dab in the middle of town. In a place without secrets, here was a mystery. A new guy, no ties to anyone. People were curious. There was a rumor that he was going to print T-shirts on the big etching press they had seen him moving into his studio. But he quickly became part of the community.
GEISERT: I go to coffee 5:30, quarter to six at Pearl's Place up the street. It's mainly crop stuff and farm business.
HERSHER: That early morning chatter at Pearl's Place has inspired Geisert's work. In 2010, he published an ABC picture book, all about farming: A is for ammonia fertilizer; M is for milking.
And on this blustery spring day in Bernard, the entire town has come out to celebrate his newest picture book called "Thunderstorm."
GEISERT: Hi. How are you? Good morning.
HERSHER: Coe's Bar is packed to the gills. Outside, flags were up, banners were out and a glossy red tractor was sitting on main street. In the back of the bar, between the meat slicer and the noisy beer cooler, Arthur Geisert is signing copies of his books. The line stretches nearly to the door. Fans, most of them parents and grandparents, have come from all over. Caroline Rundy is here with her four children.
CAROLINE RUNDY: We are actually from Cuba City, Wisconsin. It's about an hour from here. It's worth it. This is exciting.
HERSHER: Ten-year-old Matthew says Geisert is one of his favorite authors.
MATTHEW: I like farms, so - and I like adventure books.
HERSHER: Maryanne Peters sells Geisert's books in her shop in Cedar Rapids.
MARYANNE PETERS: They're so popular. I think it's the fact that there isn't the written word, and you can get out of the pictures whatever you want. If you're sitting down with a little child, you can talk about whatever is of interest or whatever level they're at.
HERSHER: And, she says, kids here appreciate that Geisert's books really capture what it's like to live on the prairie.
PETERS: It provides sort of that source of pride for the kids that are growing up in Iowa because most of our books are the city or, you know, other things, and it's just great to see something so wonderful about our place.
HERSHER: By late afternoon, the line of people waiting to get books signed is just a few stragglers. The day has been a success. In a town of 98 people, in the back of a bar, Arthur Geisert has sold more than 500 books. I ask him whether he thinks he's changed this town.
GEISERT: It hasn't changed. I've changed. I participate more and, well, I socialize more.
HERSHER: Geisert is 71 years old. And he tells me that for now, he won't be making any more books. But, he says, he'll continue to do his etchings and drawings here, in the old bank building in Bernard, Iowa. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.