The sun is fixed along the horizon, half-set and resting as a semicircle. Soft lilacs and deep mauves illuminate Kennedy Plaza, while tiny city dwellers sell balloons in the square and snack on burgers from Haven Brothers Diner as a horse-drawn carriage rides down Dorrance. Downtown is alive, yet completely still - a bird’s eye view frozen in vivid color. “I love the way they light the buildings,” explains Peter J. Thornton, the illustrator behind this energetic city scene. “It’s just beautiful.”
From the back corner of Seven Stars on Hope, Peter flips through images portraying Providence icons of architecture; one shows a father and son hand in hand outside of the Alex and Ani City Center, a warm, seemingly occupied Superman building glowing in the background. Another depicts Weybosset Street, just outside of PPAC, as a bright cultural space teeming with life; as the artist imagines it, our own miniature Times Square. An image of WaterFire at dusk especially catches my eye.
Peter grew up in Providence and comes from a family of creatives. His father was a painter who also worked as RISD’s museum photographer for 35 years, and his mother studied fashion and illustration. “It’s kind of what I grew up doing,” explains the native Rhode Islander. “Not throwing a football with dad, but drawing.” Naturally, Peter matriculated at RISD for illustration and has worked on a number of children’s books over the years, a whole series of which are obviously set in Providence, according to his drawings.
“Ah yes, the Everybody Serves series,” reminisces Peter. The four books - Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Serves Soup and Everybody Brings Noodles follows a young girl and her little brother while they interact with culturally diverse neighbors, learning how similar types of food are prepared differently around the world. While the story itself is engaging and illuminating for young readers, it is the bright, beaming images that bring the tale to life, and the influence of Providence jumps off the page.
During our caffeine-laced conversation, Peter and I discuss the importance of reading to infants rather than plopping them in front of screens. One of his latest projects - a collaboration with an expert on child literacy -focuses on this idea and tells the true story of how the author adopted a child from China and describes her experiences teaching the child to read. On the opposite page of each illustration are scientific facts about child literacy and how it affects brain development. “This book about reading is so important because of the science behind it,” expresses Peter. “So often, kids get caught up in screens and the research [shows] that the lessons [and] word stimulation that kids get from TV is not effective - or not nearly as effective - as human contact.” The books are being given to new moms at Women and Infants and other hospitals throughout the state, and the hope is to expand distribution to institutions of health across the country.
Reading aloud and telling tales to a young audience, relying on his illustration work as a visual aid, is one of many ventures Peter is currently undertaking. A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry is one of Peter’s first books and recently celebrated a successful re-publishing in paperback. The chapter book includes 15 black and white illustrations and retells the folktale of John Henry, a freed slave who goes to work for the railway but is challenged by a new machine that can supposedly manage the task much faster than is humanly possible.
Sadly, Peter recently received news that the author passed away, so he decided to take the storytelling responsibility on himself. “I’ve memorized the book and it takes me half an hour to tell it,” explains Peter. “The idea is to put the art on a PowerPoint and go into schools and to do a little curriculum around the story. It’s such a rich tale and lends itself to talking about the Civil War and Reconstruction - it’s a nice entree for a class of kids who are studying [that time period].”
Among his myriad enterprises - illustrating books, putting pastel to sandpaper for his expanding Providence prints collection - Peter also teaches spin at the Hope Street YMCA, sings in the seasonal choral group The Voices of Christmas and whacks paddles in an East Side ping pong league. A showing of his work - specifically of the city prints - will take place sometime in early 2016 at City Hall. Keep your eyes on PM for updates.