AMHERST - Alix Kennedy is walking down a corridor at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where she is the executive director, when a staffer utters the code phrase. “The caterpillar is in the house,’’ he tells her, and Kennedy knows that the man himself has arrived: children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle, whose books have sold more than 110 million copies worldwide. His presence at the museum, when publicly known, runs the risk of causing a commotion.
And there he is in the museum’s bookstore, browsing the Tomi Ungerer titles, an amiable-looking, white-bearded man of 82 who seems to mind not at all when visitors’ heads turn as he is introduced to a reporter. Atop his own head is one of the museum’s signature caps, embroidered with the title character from Carle’s most famous book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’’ published in 1969.
He ambles out of the shop, into the light-filled great hall, where a bronze sculpture by author and illustrator Leo Lionni is displayed near floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the Holyoke Range. On the vast white walls are enormous Carle paintings, blocks of bright and patterned color applied to Tyvek, the material used to wrap houses under construction.
“I don’t call these art, but these are panels,’’ Carle says, dismissing them in the soft, rounded accent he retains from his childhood in Germany, where his family moved from the United States in 1935, when he was 6.
He is more interested in noting the fine points of the museum’s design, like the way the granite floor tiles indoors align perfectly with those on the other side of the windows, much as a picture in a well-bound book can stretch across two pages, seemingly uninterrupted.
Opened in 2002, the museum was designed by local architect Earl Pope, who, Carle explains, shares his Bauhaus-influenced aesthetic. A Carle friend for more than 30 years, Pope is with the Northampton firm Juster Pope Frazier - the “Juster’’ signifying Norton Juster, the architect who is also the author of the classic children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth.’’
“I’m very much into design,’’ Carle says, “and I’m very much interested in textures.’’
Also, he is vigilant about the functionality of visual detail, perhaps a legacy of his education in applied arts at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. Still, he can be playful about it.
“I want to show you something,’’ he says, pulling gently on the reporter’s arm. “I’ll take you to the men’s room, but don’t worry. I know we just met.’’
He opens the door to the restroom, whose white tiles are decorated with animals from his books, and walks over to the urinals. On each of them, above the drain and slightly to the right, is painted a small blue insect.
“You see the little flies? Those are Eric Carle flies,’’ he says, explaining that he got the idea from the Amsterdam airport. “There is 80 percent less spillage, because the guys aim at it. So it has a practical purpose.’’
The museum, the first of its kind in this country, was founded by Carle and his wife, Barbara, longtime Northampton residents who have since retired to the Florida Keys and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. One of the three galleries is always dedicated to Carle’s work. The current exhibition is pegged to his new book, “The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.’’ Its illustrations are made, in Carle’s highly recognizable style, from tissue paper that he’s painted and cut.
The other two galleries show artists from around the world. In one gallery right now is the work of Barbara McClintock, on view through Nov. 27. Opening in the other on Oct. 25 is a Jules Feiffer show.
The exhibitions are intended in part to demystify art, encompassing not only finished work but the tools and processes that the artists use to make it, errors and repetitions included.
In the museum’s reading library, visitors can sit down and open up some picture books. A studio gives them a chance to make art of their own.
“We want children to leave this museum and be able to go into other art museums and feel like it’s for them,’’ says Kennedy, the executive director.
But while many of the 45,000 people who come to the museum each year are parents with young children, its target demographic is wider than that.
“This museum is really not just for children,’’ Carle says. “We want here teachers and artists and librarians and future teachers and lovers of books and lovers of art.’’
That they’ve succeeded in attracting that audience, Kennedy says, proves that there should be other museums of picture book art in the United States.
“To me, it’d be a great fantasy if somebody decided in California to build a picture book art museum, ’cause all it says to me is that there’s even more need for it,’’ she says, adding that other museums have begun showing picture book art, and drawing a young audience with it.
But the Eric Carle Museum has a head start. Its permanent collection now includes 10,000 pieces that not so long ago might have been preserved in academic archives, if at all.
“A generation ago, the originals were not important,’’ says Carle, who has about 2,000 of his at the museum but estimates that 1,000 have been lost - some because when a book was published, he forgot about them. “Very often, the publisher kept them or lost them, or the printer threw them out, or the artist threw them away.’’
That attitude, obviously, has changed, yet traces of it linger in Carle’s reticence about using the word “art’’ in relation to his own picture book work. He notes, too, that a German friend, who worked as an assistant to Paul Klee, told him the word was never used at the Bauhaus.
“Michelangelo is an artist and I’m an artist, but there’s a big gap between the two of us,’’ he laughs, then admits that he does make art when his regular work on the books is done. He calls it “art art’’ - “to take the heaviness out of the word,’’ he says.
An exhibition to mark the museum’s 10th anniversary next year will focus on that side of his creative output: his painting, sculpture, metalwork, glasswork, and costume design. The show’s working title is “The Other Eric Carle.’’
Carle’s first idea for the catalog cover was an image of the famous caterpillar, crossed out.
“It’s not gonna work, I know,’’ he says. “Everybody wants to talk about the caterpillar. No, I do other stuff.’’Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.