Provensen was born on August 14, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up enjoying drawing. While in sixth grade she drew purple irises in a vase for a class assignment. The teacher, impressed by her work, sent the picture to a committee who chose Provensen and gave her a scholarship to study with other students at the Art Institute of Chicago. This success encouraged Provensen to dream of becoming an artist.
After taking classes through the spring and summer, Provensen's drawing time dwindled. Being involved in ballet, piano, and painting lessons took up much of her free time. Provensen lacked formal training, and as the years passed, she incorporated artistic knowledge into her repertoire of abilities through hands-on work. She made sketches of dresses, drew designs for bar stools for home decor, and attached fabric swatches to drawings of draperies. Also Provensen cleaned up the studio for an artist, and in return he gave her lessons.
One experience after another helped Provensen along her path to becoming an illustrator and author for children. She drew shipyard inventory parts and safety posters during World War II before taking a position with the Walter Lantz Studio, drawing animated cartoons. It was there that Provensen met her future husband, Martin. Recalled by the navy to Washington, D.C., Martin left and Provensen followed. They married in 1944, lived for a time in New York City, and decided against returning to cartooning. Instead, they turned to book illustrations. For their first book called The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, the Provensens drew over 500 illustrations.
Travel abroad enabled the couple to see and record sights and material they would utilize throughout their career. After returning to the United States, they then bought Maple Hill Farm in Dutchess County, New York. Along with raising a daughter, the Provensens enjoyed the serenity of the countryside and drew the farm animals. An amazing pair, the Provensens worked as a team, but the end result seemed to have come from one artist. Gifted and in tune with each other, the Provensens produced artwork in which one couldn't tell who had started or left off drawing.
Their ability to portray warmth in their characters, realistic details, soft tones, and a distinctive perspective awarded the Provensens with success. Over the following years, they earned seven awards from the New York Times for their books that had won a place on the Ten Best Illustrated of the Year list. For A Visit to William Blake's Inn, the Provensen's won a Caldecott Honor, and the author, Nancy Willard, earned a Newbery Medal Award. Only a couple years later, in 1984, they won the Caldecott Medal for a book they had also written entitled The Glorious Flight Across the Channel.
Provensen lived and worked closely with Martin, loving him and their life on the farm. In 1987, Martin died from a heart attack, leaving Provensen bereft and lonely. She considered selling their farm and giving up illustrating and writing. With encouragement and support from her daughter and an editor friend, Provensen recovered and, with diligent research, produced several more award-winning books, including The Buck Stops Here and Punch in New York. Provensen continues to live at Maple Hill Farm in New York.
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