Hodges Soileau thought he was just an illustrator doing his job.
And while admits he has never read a book in “The Baby-Sitters Club” series, he has come to realize the major role his cover artwork played in how a generation of readers experienced the books.
After the 80-year-old artist, a Venice resident and former part-time Ringling College of Art and Design instructor of 16 years, began placing the covers on sale, he was greeted with an enthusiastic response.
Women who had grown up with the books as girls, and who were now professionals, were eager to claim the oil paintings for their own.
“What I started getting were comments, very nice comments, that would say they related to the covers because they fit the copy, and they created memories for them,” he said. “The covers meant a lot to the readers.”
In honor of his work, Palm Avenue Fine Art will be welcoming Soileau during an opening reception for its new exhibition on Dec. 1 and 2.
Titled “Lifetime Journey: Three Artists,” the event will also welcome Morgan Samuel Price, a former Hallmark Card illustrator and a plein air painter from Seminole County, Florida, and Joseph Melancon, a Sarasota artist whose work includes watercolor, acrylic and oil painting as well as collage and sculpture.
A lucky career
Whenever customers step into Palm Avenue Fine Art and see Soileau's illustration for the cover of Volume No. 92, "Mallory's Christmas Wish," their faces light up, said staff member Chelsea Daniels.
For Daniels, who is 33 and grew up reading the books, the significance of Soileau's work is the rarity of oil paintings on book covers in the modern age, with digital artwork now taking precedence over other mediums.
The difference is especially apparent when it comes to figures produced through AI-generated art, she said.
"They don't have that human element, and when you are painting in oil for a book cover, … you're capturing the spirit of the characters," she said.
But what did it demand from an artist to bring the characters to life across a total of 131 volumes, as well as the franchise's mystery books, super special books, calendars and game box covers, over a period of 12 years?
According to Soileau, the answer was lots of hard work.
Although he says he looks back with gratitude today, the work did not feel glamorous at the time he took up the role with the series' third installment, “The Truth About Stacey,” published in 1986, while living in Connecticut.
Soileau was constantly producing artwork for multiple books — not just "The Baby-Sitters Club" series — under tight deadlines.
“It was not easy; it was hard. I look back on it now, and it's lovely. My illustration career was very good. I was very lucky," he said.
Each cover for "The Baby-Sitters Club" had to be completed in about three days, based on his schedule. However, for the various images, which ranged among everything from Christmas scenes, to a roller coaster ride, Soileau always had a simple process.
“I tried to paint them as honestly as I could,” he said.
In creating the covers, there was no need for Soileau to read the books, nor did he have time. He would work from a concept sheet provided by Scholastic, who would cover the cost of working with photographer Robert Osonitsch and various models to provide the basis of the painting.
Each painting would begin with Soileau creating a sketch from dark, medium and light versions of the same 16 x 20 photo. Yet there was an element of creativity involved as well.
As the backgrounds of the photographs were left blank, Soileau was allowed to implement props and features of his own choosing. He said blending the characters and backgrounds seamlessly was the most challenging aspect of each piece.
As the photographs were in black and white, he would also decide what colors to include.
Soileau said working on covers that readers identified with the books was a process that required unyielding care.
This was especially true when it came to the timespan of the work, which meant many models would age out of their roles and another model similar in appearance would need to be sought out.
With any book series, this could potentially result in readers taking notice.
“If you didn’t do it convincingly, the readers would send letters to the publisher — the same thing with the clothes and the fashions of the period. If you got it wrong, they would call you on it,” he said.
Fortunately, this did not happen with "The Baby-Sitters Club."
“I was lucky we were able to find models that were so so close; the transition was pretty easy,” he said. “You didn't have to really cheat or change them or anything like that.”
An enduring legacy
At first, Soileau hadn’t necessarily expected the role to continue for as long as it did, but at some point, it became apparent the series had taken off in popularity.
It's a popularity that continues today, including through a 2020 adaptation of the series which ran for two seasons on Netflix.
Before long, Soileau was attending a celebration of 101 million copies sold attended by the series’ author, Ann Martin, and went on to serve as the illustrator for all but the first two volumes.
Soileau spent his entire career in illustration, except for a time when he had joined the Air Force and served form 1962 to 1966.
While his career was not limited to artwork for "The Baby-Sitters Club" — some of his other work included covers for Harlequin Romance novels and some volumes of "The Boxcar Children" — he calls the covers for the former one of his favorites because of their variety of scenes.
Soileau acknowledged he has received many comments comparing the images to the work of Norman Rockwell, comments Soileau attributes to the nature of the work, which requires the visibility of the characters’ personalities.
“In my estimation, that's a huge compliment to even mention my name with Norman Rockwell, who was a great, great, great illustrator,” he said.
However, for Daniels, who also invokes a Rockwell comparison, assessing the artwork as significant isn't hard.
"Art is supposed to make you feel something, or take you back to a memory," Daniels said. "And when you look at his artwork, doesn't it just make you feel good looking at it?"
Daniels said the covers were just as important as the text of the books, and helped readers to understand the contents, including their surprisingly diverse cast of characters.
One example was the cover of the 77th volume in the series, "Dawn and Whitney, Friends Forever," which featured one of the characters, Dawn, befriending Whitney, a girl with Down Syndrome.
"At that time, where you really don't have that much access to a computer, and you're reading the book, you're looking at the cover and it helps your mind visualize what the story is about," Daniels said.
By 1999, the landscape of illustration was changing, with digital artwork overtaking the scene.
"Some people embraced it and just jumped right into it," Soileau said. "I was pretty much an old school oil painter, and I decided to just move on."
After moving to Venice, Florida in 1996, he joined the illustration department at Ringling College as a part-time figure drawing instructor, teaching for 16 years, until about a year ago.
At 80 years old, he said, some people might be eager to retire — but he has no plans to do so anytime soon. Now, he’s creating more art, wherever his desires take him. Today, his focus includes birds, landscapes and portraits.
Over the years, he gave many of "The Baby-Sitters Club" paintings away, some to friends and their children and others to libraries, and now has 35 left in his possession which he has been holding onto, calling them particularly special.
“I’m just happy that I had a small part in all that,” he said.
However, he has chosen to put seven of those images up for sale at the upcoming exhibition.
Of course, selling work isn't the primary purpose of the exhibition, said Daniels. It's also about offering the artists a special opportunity for their lives to be celebrated.
Daniels said all three of the artists have a unique contribution to offer to the exhibition. Morgan Samuel Price, an attendee of Ringling College in the 1960's, has been called "Florida's Painter" and serves as a strong female painter in a male-dominated field, Daniels said.
Sarasota's Joseph Melancon brings vivid colors to his impressionistic paintings, but is also known for his sculpture as well, she said, having created items similar to those produced by 3-D printers, before the technology arrived on the scene.
Soileau has said he is eager to be involved.
“I’m very happy to be in that gallery,” he said, calling its selection “phenomenal.”
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.