The Shelburne Museum offers a peek into Walter Wick’s wonderful world

Walter Wick
Walter Wick

By Sadie Williams

Although the opening of the Shelburne Museum’s newest exhibit, “Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic,” was supposed to be on Saturday, March 28, the museum opted a soft opening the day before as “a nice surprise for visitors who had come to see Kodachrome.” It was a cold and blustery March afternoon, and although the weather was discouraging, a handful of brave visitors found respite from the dreary grounds in the vibrant and artfully curated interior of the new exhibit.

Wick is primarily known as the photographic illustrator of the “I SPY” books, authored by Jean Marzollo and published by Scholastic Press. The elaborately arranged photographs and accompanying rhyming text in each book invite kids to search for hidden objects, solve riddles, and revel in Wick’s beautifully intricate world.

However the photographer didn’t stop there, and within the decade began pursuing projects on his own. In 1998, Wick published “Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks,” a book of mind boggling photographs that illustrates optical illusions so real, it’s hard to believe they aren’t computer generated. Wick went on to publish and author another series, “Can You See What I See?” in 2012. The exhibit at the museum features large scale prints from his various projects as well as an assortment of sets which appear as photographs in some of the books.

This model created by Walter Wick is just one of many currently on view in the Shelburne Museum.
This model created by Walter Wick is just one of many currently on view in the Shelburne Museum.

While the detailed models depicting Puss N’ Boots leaping gleefully through majestic gates toward a castle on a hill, a cobblestone street lined with eerie, fantastical houses, and more are endlessly fascinating and sure to please both adults and kids alike, one of the most interesting and understated parts of the exhibit lies in the back right corner. There hang two photographs taken in 1973, one a simple black and white landscape, the other the stark white outline of a rectangle created by the frame of a soccer goal and its reflection in a large puddle. These were some of the first photographs Wick took after he graduated from the Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn.

Granbrook Park, 1973 and Goal Posts, 1974. Pigment Inkjet Prints, from the collection of the artist.
Granbrook Park, 1973 and Goal Posts, 1974. Pigment Inkjet Prints, from the collection of the artist.

“[After I graduated] I went back to places I played as a child and saw them differently through my camera,” Wick said of the early photographs. And while both were taken in the same area, and depict similar subject matter, the disparity between the two represents a marked shift in Wick’s interests. He recounted, “When I saw… this illusion, the happenstance of this flooded soccer field, I realized that I was interested in not just what was out there in the world, externally, but what was in the head, and how we reconstruct things in our brain.”

But simply happening upon optical illusions in nature wasn’t enough for Wick. “I didn’t want to depend on having to discover this somewhere, so I created it.  I make the uncanny, deliberate.”

Soon after this discovery, Wick moved to New York City to start his own studio and began producing photographs for magazines such as “Psychology Today” and “Discover,” and photographic puzzles for “Games” magazine. His work caught the eye of Jean Marzollo, editor of Scholastic’s kindergarten magazine “Let’s Find Out,” and she asked him to make a photograph of fasteners for a poster.  It was that poster that caught the attention of the Scholastic book division, and soon after in 1991, “I SPY” was born.

The Shelburne Museum’s incarnation of this long travelling show is a wonder for both children and adults alike. Wick himself professed that it may be his favorite incarnation of the exhibit to date. With educational videos detailing the production of different models, buttons that light up tiny chandeliers and shop windows, and large scale photographs that lose none of their mystery in their new dimensions, “Walter Wick: Games Gizmos and Toys in the Attic” is sure to bring back the same sense of wonder and excitement felt by anyone who held Wick’s books in her lap as a kid, losing herself in the dazzling photographic wonders presented on each colorful page.