When Deborah Nourse Lattimore was four years old, she drew so often she frequently ran out of paper. So she drew on the wall behind a large Mexican tapestry. But when she became a teenager, drawing on the walls was no longer acceptable, and she was forced to figure out ways to earn money for her art supplies. At the age of 14 she took her first job as a switchboard operator for the Beverly Hills Hotel. Then she moved into modeling for I. Magnin. Whenever possible, Lattimore used her art to earn money, like making flower pots from recycled coffee cans. She covered each can with paper maché and painted it with bright colors. Local flower shops purchased her creations for $5 apiece. Another time she found a job sketching chandeliers for a catalogue company. If she could sketch one chandelier in 20 minutes, she’d get $2. Lattimore sketched three chandeliers per hour— earning $6 hourly at a time when minimum wage was only $1.45 per hour.
Sometimes she bartered her art for merchandise. “They’d look at my stuff and say, ‘Okay, kid.’” Once she traded away an original oil painting (for which she won the ACLU Award in high school) to an optician for a pair of gold-framed sunglasses. Before turning eighteen, Lattimore had won 50 contests—drawing, painting, and writing her way to blue ribbons. Once she even designed a bar of soap for the Sweetheart soap company.
To understand Lattimore’s art, one must travel back to her childhood. As a little girl, Lattimore made almost weekly trips to the Los Angeles County Museum with her grandmother. “I got to know those paintings really well. . .by name.” Together Lattimore and her grandmother sketched their versions of the masters, losing themselves in the culture and history of the paintings.
Once, as they stared at the “big dresses” of the 18th century, Lattimore’s grandmother asked, “I wonder what’s under there?” So they sketched what they thought 18th century underwear looked like. Years later, Lattimore elaborated on this experience in her book, I Wonder What’s Under There?!–A Brief History of Underwear (Harcourt Brace, 1998). After Lattimore had heard the story of Cinderella many times, she couldn’t figure out why Cinderella didn’t wise up. When the step-sisters left for the ball, Lattimore used to ask, “Isn’t that when Cinderella locks the doors? It’s her house.” Lattimore remembers her frustration with Cinderella very clearly, and with her off-beat humor, protests Cinderella’s passiveness in Cinderhazel (Scholastic, 1997). According to Lattimore, Cinderhazel is “a dumpy, blonde witch with a big butt who doesn’t want to go to the palace to meet Prince Alarming.”
In addition to the traditional tales, Lattimore best remembers the tales of ancient people that her grandmother read. These became her first love. In college, she was fascinated by Aztec and Mayan mythology, history and architecture. The Flame of Peace (HarperCollins, 1987) is a re-creation of ancient Aztec codices, or 15th and 16th century books made by the Aztecs. With her trademark attention to detail, the endpapers show pictographs of Aztec clothes, incense bags, pipes, and turtle shells. Even Lattimore’s pages numbers are in Aztec.
As a graduate student, Lattimore expanded her expertise of ancient civilizations to include Greece, Rome and Egypt. In The Winged Cat (Harper Trophy, 1995) she translated hieroglyphics, painted the pages of the books to look like ancient papyrus, and designed her book to resemble the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Each of Lattimore’s books is an education in art history. When she sets out to create a book, she relishes the research—focusing on the fun of discovery, rather than the hard work. When readers open Lattimore’s current illustration project, Tasha’s Matrioska Dollsby Jana Dillon, they will be transported to Russia. As Dillon’s story unfolds, Lattimore’s art will take them on a tour of the art of old Russia: interiors from 150 years ago, folk art, clothing, and clay figurines.
Lattimore sketches seven days a week in the third floor studio of her Los Angeles home. She’s created 30 books since 1986, and has enough ideas for 30 more. For one of her future books, she’s collaborating with her dog, Molly, a Scottish terrier. “Molly complains how every other culture gets a lot of attention, but Scots tend to be ignored. . .so she and I are working on a book together called Molly’s Scottish ABCs.”