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Drawing Dogs With Ashley Wolff

The San Francisco artist has illustrated over sixty books.

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Few of us ever actually become what we vowed as children we would be when we grew up.

Ashley Wolff did. Growing up in rural Vermont, she loved to draw. She loved animals. So she loved to draw animals. "Every spring, a pair of robins built their nest on the ledge right outside and, if we leaned out far enough, we could see the babies when they hatched," she said. On local barns, Wolff painted murals depicting "cows, horses, sheep, and children."

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and moving to the Bay Area with her journalist husband, Wolf spent a long sunny summer painting "more horses, wagons, dogs, geese, and landscapes."

Yearning to become an illustrator, "I knew I needed to go to New York to meet editors and show my work. ... I spent two weeks in New York, hauling my big leather portfolio around to different appointments. It rained every day and I came home to my friend's apartment every night, tired and wet."

One day when this dispiriting jaunt was nearly over, an editor at Dodd, Mead and Company "stopped at a linoleum block print of a girl in a red coat, kneeling in the snow, feeding the birds," Wolff remembered.

Enchanted by this image, the editor suggested that Wolff create a whole book based on the red-coated girl. The result was her first picture book, A Year of Birds, published in 1984 when Wolff was 27. It quickly became an American Library Association Notable Book. Since then, Wolff has written or illustrated more than sixty books for children — "all of them full of animals, children, color, and love." These include Baby Beluga, I Love My Mommy Because, I Love My Daddy Because, and When Lucy Goes Out Walking.

At Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, March 5, the San Francisco artist presents her latest book, Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe. Canadian author Mary McKenna Siddals wrote this rhymed part-paean, part-instruction manual about enriching backyard gardens with "Grass clippings/Hair snippings/And an insect or two." Wolff illustrated it in a bold, colorful collage style, but her chief illustration style is the linoleum block print, not so different from the ones her parents created every Christmas.

First she draws a picture on tracing paper, then traces this onto a linoleum sheet mounted on a block, which she then carves "using very sharp, U-shaped metal gouges. I carve everything away that I do not want to print. This leaves me with a design formed of raised ridges that will be covered with ink when I print this giant rubber stamp," Wolff said.

After using a wooden spoon to press the inked linoleum onto paper, she peels away the paper to find it printed in black and white. Then she uses watercolors to complete the image. "If I make a mistake, I can always throw it away and try again." 11 a.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com

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