A man glanced sheepishly at the tile in the front entryway of his Foothills home before opening his mouth to speak.
He had a confession to make that he knew would not sit well with the folks crowded into his spacious living room. It involved beliefs he used to hold.
“I had the attitude that people who did children’s books couldn’t draw very well,” he said, cowering ever so slightly.
His guests gasped, and he reached for his door as if to make a getaway.
At this, his guests laughed, because after all, they’re big fans. He’s an accomplished children’s book illustrator, and they’d traveled all the way from the Midwest to see studios like his and celebrate his brand of art.
Guy Porfirio is maybe best known for illustrating actor Billy Crystal’s book “Grandpa’s Little One.” His visitors who graced his abode Thursday, June 19, have in common an affiliation with Mazza Museum in Findlay, Ohio, which touts itself as the first and largest teaching museum in the world devoted to literacy and the art of children’s picture books.
About 6,500 people tour the museum’s gallery each year to view some of its 4,000 original pieces of art and the books that go with them.
The museum’s message is that art aimed at children really matters.
“For most of my life, I have thought art in children’s books was equal to what the public calls fine art,” said Jerry Mallet, the museum’s founder. “We don’t use the term ‘fine art.’ We refer to book art and non-book art.”
Each June, about 50 people connected to the museum — docents, librarians and schoolteachers — travel to various parts of the United States to meet gifted illustrators and form connections with them.
As Porfirio’s visitors recovered from their feigned shock at his early-in-life attitudes, the artist rewarded them with an insider’s account of what it’s like to get a call from Billy Crystal.
The day he learned such a call was in his future, work hadn’t been particularly thrilling, he confided to his 50-some houseguests.
“There are times I think, ‘Why can’t I be an electrician?’” he said.
But then came the proposal — Would he consider illustrating a celebrity book? — and concrete plans for a phone conversation with the Hollywood great, himself.
At this point in Porfirio’s story, he mimed sweaty palms and heart-pounding rehearsals for just picking up his phone and saying “Hello.”
But the ordeal ended comfortably, he told his listeners. “It was like talking to a good friend. He sounded just like he did in the movies.”
That’s the kind of tidbit that Mazza Museum trip takers love to acquire. They enjoy pulling out such stories each time they pull out their signed picture books to read to youngsters. And when they have snapshots of the illustrators in their natural environments, that’s even better.
So far, they group had visited the homes of five illustrators, including two Foothills residents — Chris Gall, whose graphic design clients include Pepsi, Nike and the Washington Post, and Ron Himler, whose name graces more than 150 book covers. And they still had Flagstaff and Phoenix to go.
For some, that was nothing. Debra Deutemeyer, a fourth-grade teacher from Toledo, said her collection includes 1,500 children’s books with signatures.
“Maybe when I’m old and in a nursing home, I’ll sell one or two books to pay for my meds,” she joked.
Mary Wong, a Phoenix resident who set up the Arizona tour, has 5,000.
She said they remind her of the magic she experienced as a child looking at picture books.
Second on the agenda at Porfirio’s home was a tour of his studio.
Shutters clicked as the illustrator showed off his fun workspace, which featured glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling — the room used to be a nursery — and a plaster cast of a human head donning a real paper party hat.
An illustration of golf great Tiger Woods on the cover of Tucson Lifestyles magazine — Porfirio’s creation — elicited special oohs and aahs.
After the tour, the gatherers formed a line to get their books signed, and they cooed about all they had just seen.
“At each studio, you learn little insights about the authors and illustrators that add so much to the stories,” said Gail Schlenk, a first-grade teacher from Hamilton, Ohio.
She pulled out a postcard with one of Profirio’s pieces of art — a little boy gazing star-eyed into a crystal ball — and said she’d show it to children each time she read the illustrator’s book.
“He used his daughter’s cheeks on what is supposed to be a little boy,” she said. “He said she had plump chipmunk cheeks.”