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You've seen her murals around campus -- now she's rediscovered in new book

Jillian Piccirilli '08 formed a close relationship with a woman she'll never meet: Alison Mason Kingsbury, an accomplished artist, dedicated Ithacan and wife of Cornell historian and professor Morris Bishop.

Alison Jolly, the artist's daughter, began working with Piccirilli in 2008 to create a complete catalog of her mother's work. The catalog grew into a book, "The Art and Life of Alison Mason Kingsbury," published in 2010 by Cornell University Library.

Although Kingsbury (1898-1988) wasn't a Cornell graduate -- her father, who earned an engineering degree from Cornell, said he "didn't approve of the way the co-eds were treated during his day," Jolly noted -- she nevertheless was unquestionably a Cornellian. In addition to her long marriage to Bishop, Kingsbury created some of the most recognizable artwork on Cornell's campus, including murals at the Gannett Health Clinic, Willard Straight Hall and the World War I Memorial.

"Although her art on the Cornell campus is very public, she is really not recognized, and she is an extraordinary artist," Jolly said.

Kingsbury's work also includes illustrations and mixed-media collages and landscapes, often of Ithaca's downtown and landscape.

Piccirilli, who continued to live in Ithaca after graduating with a B.F.A. in painting from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the College of Arts and Sciences, conducted extensive research on Kingsbury. She flew to England to meet with Jolly, who commissioned the book, and she also traveled all over the United States to survey and catalog the artist's work.

"My thinking about A.M.K. definitely evolved," Piccirilli said. "She came from a very privileged, proper background that was rather different from the circumstances I came from, so at first she seemed like a foreign, distant figure I couldn't relate to.

"But as I got into reading things she'd written and heard people tell these wonderful stories about her, she became a lot less different and a lot more familiar. It was a really interesting two-year experience, full of trial and error, learning amazing new things and meeting interesting people."

Piccirilli wrote and designed the book, took most of the photographs and created a complete digital as well as physical survey of Kingsbury's work. The book contains about 80 illustrations and photographs, and the database has more than 500. Piccirilli estimates that Kingsbury's entire catalog would total about 1,500 items.

Much of it is still in Ithaca, including paintings at the Johnson Museum and the History Center in Tompkins County. The library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections holds a large collection of her work, including original sketches and illustrations of some of her husband's books and several Works Progress Administration projects during the Great Depression. She also created the original artwork for the 10th edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, published in 1959, which contained more than 80 of her illustrations.

"She was dedicated to commercial work and serious fine art during the 1930s and beyond, when that was exceedingly rare for a woman," said University Archivist Elaine Engst, who facilitated Piccirilli's work on the book. "She also maintained her identity as an artist -- even keeping her unmarried name -- at a time when 'faculty wife' was a full-time job."

Piccirilli noted that Kingsbury "looked, dressed, spoke and acted like a conforming Ithaca matron -- but she advised her granddaughters, 'You should dress conventionally. If you trick people into thinking you are conventional, then you can get away with doing anything you like,'" Jolly said.

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer and editor for Library Communications.

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Blaine Friedlander