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Artist draws on real life for illustrations

On Christmas Eve, spruces and pines linger on the cold New York City street corners, abandoned by vendors who have gone home to their own yuletide celebrations.

Although unwanted by customers who could afford to be choosy, these trees will star in other festivities, more humble but merry nonetheless. The city’s poor can select their own free, holiday tree from these castoff evergreens.

Frederick Jillson ’59 first learned of this Christmas tradition as a choir boy in a boarding school in Manhattan. Years later, as a starving seminary student, he hung his own ornaments on a discarded tree.

These holiday memories came back to Jillson as he considered illustrating Tom McCann’s semi-autobiographical tale, The Tree Nobody Wanted: A Christmas Story, published by Exeter Press. Set in Brooklyn, the book tells of Thomas, an 11-year-old orphan living with his grandmother in a tiny apartment. On Christmas Eve 1946, Thomas sets out to find the best tree among the castoffs.

“By the time I was halfway through the book, I already had images in my mind,” says Jillson, an artist living in Gloucester, Mass.

A common background

Both Jillson and McCann live in Cape Ann, Mass., but they did not meet until one Sunday afternoon earlier this year. McCann had completed his book, but was searching for an illustrator. His neighbor, Nancy Strisik, the wife of the late artist Paul Strisik, recommended Jillson and showed McCann some of his work in the Rockport Art Association. McCann was taken with Jillson’s conte crayon and watercolor drawings and thought he could be one to depict his story.

Jillson and his wife were preparing for a late Sunday lunch when McCann called. Although pleased with the prospect, Jillson approached McCann’s offer with caution. He had recently been burned by a project that spanned four years and 400 watercolor paintings, but eventually fizzled into nothing.

However, he agreed to meet McCann and his wife at a nearby restaurant for their Sunday supper. “We hit it off right away,” Jillson says.

The camaraderie between the author and illustrator grew as they met weekly after a figure drawing class Jillson oversees. McCann’s wife, Joan, made many suggestions and worked with Jillson to design the book’s cover, a small embossed tree within a larger one.

Most of the illustrations are pen-and-ink, which Jillson uses to accentuate central elements against a softly blurred charcoal background. Jillson needed little research to do his work; he knew what a poor 11-year-old boy wore in 1946, because he had worn them.

Jillson, like the story’s hero and author, had been a poor boy living in New York City during the years following World War II. His father, a World War I veteran, passed away a little before Jillson’s fourth birthday, leaving his wife and son practically destitute.

Because Jillson’s mother could not afford to keep him at home, Jillson received a scholarship for Saint Thomas Choir School, where he lived, studied and sang until the eighth grade, when puberty hit and his voice changed, bringing an abrupt end to his boys’ choir days.

In the book illustrations, Thomas wears some of his and McCann’s old clothing.

“The coat and overshoes were mine,” Jillson says. “The hat was Tom’s.”

Within eight weeks, the illustrations were complete, and the book entered stores in October.

The already popular book received an additional boost from Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. After he included it in his Christmas reading list and mentioned the book in his newsletter, it sold out every day for a week at Amazon.com, according to the Gloucester Daily Times.

Apparently, many people wanted the book about a tree nobody wanted.

A Renaissance man

Although this book contains Jillson’s first published illustrations, he began drawing in pen-in-ink as a child after a visit to the Frick Museum with his mother. Inspired by the “marvelous” Renaissance drawings, a young Jillson made his own dip-pen and inkwell and embarked on what would become a lifelong passion.

Like the artists he admired, Jillson is a bit of a Renaissance man.

In addition to his bachelors degree in the classics from Lehigh, Jillson has three master’s degrees: a master of divinity degree from General Theological Seminary and two master of arts degrees from the University of Massachusetts—one in English and the other in Fine Arts. He has been a truck driver, a marriage counselor, a tutor of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and a professional musician.

He also is an avid sportsman. When he’s not hunting or fishing, Jillson can be found studying Arabic or tending his garden.

Jillson and his wife, Shelia, raise Angor rabbits and bees on the small farm they call “Honey Bunny Farm.” After the rabbits have been sheared, Shelia Jillson, also an artist, spins their fur into yarn, which she knits or weaves into cloth.

“Farming goes well with intellectual pursuit,” he says, mentioning that many farmers know as much lore, philosophy and science as any university scholar.

When Jillson first entered Lehigh, Richard Crum was the head of the classics department. Like a sage, Crum sat with his eyes closed as the students translated the Aeneid from Latin to English. Without opening a book or even his eyes, the “wise, old owl” would correct students’ mistakes from memory.

Between reading Virgil and Euclid, Jillson wrestled for Lehigh (“I was on the farthest back bench,” he jokes) and took a few visual art classes to complete his distribution requirements. He was also a member of one of Lehigh’s in-house fraternities.

Jillson remembers one fraternity rite-of-passage that required him and three other freshmen to measure in “end-over-end” hot dog lengths the distance from the Cathedral Church of the Nativity on Bethlehem’s South Side to the Central Moravian Church Old Chapel on the North side.

“Those were funny days,” he says, remembering the laughter he enjoyed between studying for exams.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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