DEER ISLE — “Bio (degradable).”
That’s the self-deprecating heading for former “Sesame Street” illustrator Tom Leigh’s work history on his curriculum vitae.
It’s that dry wit, along with artistic ability and a degree from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. that landed the Little Deer Isle artist his first gig as an illustrator for the greeting card giant Hallmark in its contemporary division (the Shoebox line of cards)
A chance to illustrate a children’s book being published by Holt Rinehart & Winston led Leigh to leave Hallmark to embark on a career as a freelance illustrator.
At the time, Jim Henson the puppeteer and creator of PBS’s pioneering children’s show “Sesame Street,” had hired a friend of Leigh’s from Ringling College to be art director. So, the friend recruited Leigh in the mid-70s to work as a freelance illustrator for the Children’s Television Workshop.
Leigh began working almost exclusively for the Jim Henson Company and the Workshop “illustrating Kermit, Miss Piggy, Bert, Ernie and Elmo and all the rest of “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” characters.
“These professional relationships, which would span the next 20-plus years, allowed me to create artwork for pretty much anything on which a licensed character could be placed,” said Leigh. That ranged from in-store signage to underwear, including work for numerous toy, clothing and publishing companies.
Decades later, the semi-retired illustrator is still fully engaged with lovable creatures. There’s his own beloved border collie Asia. There’s also all the dogs and cats, in need of a loving home, at The Ark Animal Shelter in Cherryfield. He heads the no-kill shelter’s board of directors.
Passionate about these animals and their future, Leigh and The Ark’s executive director Vincent Ewald recently collaborated to produce a children’s book “Hope for Someday.” The book tells the story of two homeless puppies and forms the core of the shelter’s education and outreach program PippY (Postively inspiring pet programs for Youths). The program educates and inspires youngsters to lead and teach others about the importance of animal welfare.
“When a child learns that ‘pets are people too,’ experiencing the same feelings we do — including hunger, pain, fear and loneliness,” the program’s description reads, “it strengthens their compassion for both animals and humans.”
Growing up in Princeton, N.J., Leigh’s own love for animals started early. He had a black Labrador as a child as well as a cat. So it was natural for him to get involved in The Ark when he and his late wife Susanna moved to Maine in 1996. They bought a property overlooking the Penobscot Bay between Bristow and Swains coves.
While Leigh loves all animals, border collies captivate him. He was fascinated to watch a rescue border collie he adopted switch to its work mode when it encountered a trainer.
“This whole border collie thing is a different animal,” Leigh said. “I got one as a rescue purely as a pet. It turned out she had herding training.”
Bred to herd, these dogs gather sheep off a mountainside and do things no human would be able to do. Herding is predator behavior “without the kill,” Leigh said.
Leigh underwent training to work with his border collie. That dog has since passed away but Asia is quite the herder herself. When she isn’t competing at the Blue Hill Fair, she herds the household cats. When the cats are loose and they shouldn’t be, the sheep dog will go out and herd them back into the house one by one.
Over the years, Leigh has continued to do illustration projects from time to time for clients including Nickelodeon, the educational toy maker LeapFrog, Disney’s children’s TV series “Bear in the Big Blue House” and another TV children’s series “Between the Lions.”
Did you know there’s an illustrator’s guide for creating the characters?
Leigh still has his copy.
For example, Muppet Ernie’s head is described as a “plump American football shape.”
And, Oscar of “Sesame Street” is intended to be “grouchy, not evil. To avoid making Oscar look mean, keep eyeballs round on the sides.”
Leigh also collaborated with his friend and Newbery Award- winning author Cynthia Voight on a children’s book called “Angus and Sadie” for Harper Collins.
The artist’s current pet project is The Ark’s “Hope for Someday.” All proceeds benefit The Ark.
“It’s our hope that it will continue to be a source of income for the shelter,” Leigh said.
The book can be purchased at The Ark Thrift Shop at 282 Ellsworth Road in Blue Hill. The shop is across the street from the Blue Hill Fairgrounds, where Leigh and Asia are a familiar sight during the fair’s sheep dog trials.
To purchase the book elsewhere, and to learn more about the shelter’s PippY program, call 546-3484 and visit www.thearkpets.org.