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Madland: The life and art of David McLimans

McLimans was a beloved illustrator.
Credit:Joseph Blough
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Madison lost a great artist and illustrator recently. David McLimans, whose artistic talent and humor were nonpareil, will be sorely missed in Madison and around the world.

McLimans died on March 20 of a sudden heart attack. I've worked in the publishing field for more than 20 years and have appreciated his art for longer than that. His gorgeous and edgy illustrations graced The Progressive magazine when I worked there in the late 1990s, and when I served as managing editor of Rethinking Schools, McLimans was one of our favorite illustrators.

As an editor, I always felt that McLimans "got it." Whatever magic existed between him and our then-art director Patrick JB Flynn (who was a close friend to McLimans) meant we rarely had to send him back to the drawing board. We were a hard bunch to please, but McLimans never failed to capture what we were seeking in the art. He was gentle and kind, and easy to work with.

Flynn, who is currently the art director at The Baffler (a delightful publication that McLimans designed the latest cover for), had this to say about his longtime collaborator: “David remains one of my most dear friends. I love him. Although the man has passed, he lives on through his art. Ours was a unique friendship, shared locally with a few other cohorts through the deliberate crime of making art."

Flynn emphasized McLimans' outlook on life: "Our unstated intention was always to make play of work and work of play. I learned much from David over the past thirty years,and those lessons live on through his art, his books, and most importantly, a long collaboration of creating images which will forever be imprinted on my soul."

According to his obituary, McLimans was born in Beaver Dam and went to high school in Green Bay. He studied art and design in Minneapolis, got a master of fine arts degree from Boston University, and traveled the world. In addition to Wisconsin-based publications, The Progressive and Rethinking Schools, he gained national acclaim. His editorial illustrations graced The New York Times, Washington Post, Harper's, The Atlantic and more. McLimans received prestigious awards, receiving a Caldecott Honor Medal in 2007 for his Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet, which also was recognized as a New York Times Illustrated Book of the Year.

In an email, David's partner, Eva Hagenhofer, shared the following: "With his art -- in which light and dark oppose each other, share space, sometimes disturb, sometimes amuse -- David wished to express his concern for the world beyond his drawing table, his hope that we humans can find ways to live in balance with each other and with the natural world."

She continued: "However, I believe, he would want to be remembered not for what he did with his artistic talents and sensibilities (which everyone agrees is amazing), but for who he was. He trusted imperfection and despised ambition. He walked softly into the lives of others, was a steadfast and compassionate father and friend, tended his part of the earth (our garden and his land in Richland County) with care and respect, and cherished each moment, each seed pod, each meal, each sunset. His gentle hands made huge impressions on all whom he loved."

As noted in his obituary, contributions in honor of David McLimans' commitment to preserving nature and sense of justice can be made to the Linda and Jean Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, 2299 Spring Rose Rd., Verona, WI 53593.

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