International illustrator pours childhood soul into books

August 20, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Local bookstores will soon have copies of a mysterious and wonderful children's book called ''A Day in September'' written and illustrated by sometimes Davis resident Yan Nascimbene. The book is published by Creative Editions /Harcourt Brace.

Nascimbene lives in a large white house close to downtown Davis. The house is big enough so that he and his wife, Joan, a ceramicist, have separate studios.

We met at his home one morning last week and sat in the living room where one dog curled at his feet, the other sat in his lap.

''I was born in France,'' he said in still-accented English ``and divided my childhood between Italy and France.'' His mother was French, his father Italian. His memories of these early years are not happy. He and his brother were sent to boarding schools and group homes for rich kids.

When his formal schooling ended, his father urged him to go to business school.

''I hated it. I just didn't even know what they were talking about,'' Nascimbene said.

Instead, he became a photographer's assistant at a fashion and advertising agency in Paris. He thought he wanted to become a professional photographer but his boss urged him to develop his skills as an illustrator.

''I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York for one year in 1969-70,'' Nascimbene said. ``When I was in New York I couldn't understand English. I was very shy and introverted. It's too bad. People at the school were very warm toward me but I rejected them.''

At the time, with the help of family connections, Nascimbene was living in a plush apartment on 57th Street in New York. His wealthy surroundings embarrassed him and he never asked any of his friends from art school to come over.

The experience reminded him of his isolated, lonely days at boarding school. He was ready to call his trip to the United States a failure when his older brother, an agronomy student, invited him out to UC Davis. That changed Nascimbene's life.

He came out to Davis, began taking art classes, and met and married another student, Joan Parazette, in 1972.

Nascimbene said he knew by this time that he wanted to focus on drawing and painting.

He and Joan moved back to Europe and lived like they thought painters should. ``I was naive, immature and lucky,'' he says now, recalling those happy years.

``I didn't have to work, I got money from my grandmother. I painted and got some interest from galleries in New York and didn't follow up because I didn't need to. And then the money stopped when I was a grown man with kids. There I was in Paris with no job, a family, not a cent. Luckily, we had a place to live.

''At 35 years old, with no experience, I was looking for a job. I thought I could be a translator but everyone in Paris is a translator. A friend of mine suggested I draw so I put a portfolio together and took it around and did what every illustrator does at a much younger age. I was lucky that quite quickly things clicked.'' A prestigious French publishing company, Gallimard, hired Nascimbene to do covers for a young adult fiction collection.

``They took a huge chance on me,'' he said. But now Nascimbene has completed more than 150 book covers. And in 1992 Gallimard published a book of his childhood memories called ''Antibes, Claviere et Autres Couleurs.'' Nascimbene is writing and illustrating a sequel called ``Rome-Davis Roundtrip,'' which will be published next year.

Nascimbene said it was ''purely a romantic decision'' that prompted him and his family to come back to Davis six years ago.

``I look back on the pattern of my life and see that I always try to go back in life. Of course, you never find your past,'' he said.

``Rome, Paris, Davis, Northern Italy -- my life consists of endless returns,'' he added. Nascimbene's quest to understand his childhood is beautifully portrayed in his work.

''A Day in September'' is the story of two children: Raphael, a rich boy who lives in Paris; and Estella, a poor girl who lives in the Mojave Desert. The two children represent Yan and Joan. Raphael and Estella are whimsically brought together at a Giants baseball game in San Francisco. Later, when they are grown, they connect through a personal ad recalling the day at the baseball park. They marry and live happily ever after.

The illustrations are unusual, compelling and bittersweet. Somehow, Nascimbene manages to evoke loneliness but not sadness. His illustrations are notable for being slightly off-frame, looking as if the action just ended or hasn't quite begun.

His reality was a little different.

``Isolation colored my childhood,'' he said. ``I felt abandoned. Years later I contacted the woman who was my nanny and asked her: ``Was it really that bad? Was I really that sad?''

''Yes,'' she said. ``You cried everyday.''

Book Cover  Picture Yan Nascimbene is the
author-illustrator of "DAY IN SEPTEMBER" published
by Harcourt Brace,
1995/32 pp/$17.00

Elisabeth Sherwin's interview
with Mr. Nascimbene can
be found in "International
illustrator pours childhood soul
into books," the August 20,

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