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Christmas at the Van Allsburgs'

It should come as no surprise that in Chris Van Allsburg’s house in Providence, Rhode Island, it’s always Christmas. The man who wrote and illustrated the modern holiday classic The Polar Express strung twinkly white lights around his dining room one December and found them so appealing that he decided to keep them up year-round. “They create a lovely ambience for a dinner party,” Van Allsburg says, smiling shyly. With his salt-and-pepper hair, neatly trimmed beard, and that smile, he looks like everybody’s favorite uncle.

Stopping time is a theme he loves to explore. The living room of the house he shares with his wife, Lisa, their two daughters, Sophia and Anna, and a miniature schnauzer named Topsy is populated with sculptures he’s made in which he stops time again and again. Event at the Observatory, for instance, shows a flying saucer crashing into the building’s dome. On a nearby tabletop sits a bronze sculpture of a train wreck, watched over by Jack and Jill, who are “familiar with accidents,” Van Allsburg explains. “Anxiety is the motivating source of my life and my art.”

He points out the Titanic just beginning to sink and an obelisk starting to topple in a strong wind. What appeals to him about all of these is that the bad thing that’s happening in each of them hasn’t quite happened yet. “You see?” he adds. “The event has happened, but not quite. Nothing bad has actually occurred yet.”

The Van Allsburg home sits on a quiet street on Providence’s East Side, yet as I walk up the front path, it feels more suited to a fairytale cottage in the woods. Inside, it’s even more magical. The man who likes to stop time owns a clock that dominates the entry foyer. At over eight feet tall, it’s a replica of the Roycroft grandfather clock designed for the lobby of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, almost 100 years ago. Ironically, today the clock itself has stopped, though Van Allsburg can coax it into its small, scratchy chiming, laughing as he does so: the giant clock with the tiny voice.

Among still more sculptures in the early stages of disaster–a coffee cup mid-spill, Tintin with his coat blowing in the wind–nestle additional collections. On the mantel of the living-room fireplace, a gaggle of German grotesques from the 1930s stare out at Mission furniture, 150-pound live steam engines, and an early-20th-century model of a fishing vessel.

In December, though, the house is transformed to let the holidays take center stage. Lisa and Chris Van Allsburg met as art students at the University of Michigan. His wife of 36 years has taken to looking at her husband frequently and exclaiming, “I love that man!” Although Chris converted to Judaism eight months before they married, the kids hang Christmas stockings and the family puts up a tree. At Chanukah, Lisa lights two or three menorahs in the dining room, creating “a true Festival of Lights.” One of her favorites is a set of miniature chairs that can be arranged and rearranged.

Small white lights illuminate a tree covered with dozens of red papier-mache apples, the only ornaments the Van Allsburgs use. Why apples? “They’re so shiny and they reflect the white lights so beautifully,” Lisa says. With a strict color scheme of red, green, and white, the only other general guideline is no tinsel. One year, the girls strung popcorn, which fit the motif just fine. The aesthetics of the Van Allsburgs translate into both their everyday life and the way they celebrate their dual holidays.

This restless, creative energy led Van Allsburg to his next project, his first nonfiction book. Queen of the Falls is the story of Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old widowed charm-school teacher from Bay City, Michigan. In 1901, she became the first woman to go over Niagara Falls–in a barrel and, as Lisa likes to point out, wearing a skirt.

As Van Allsburg re-creates the drama of Taylor’s story, he explains that people had told her that the rapids would be the worst part–that she’d get tossed around and banged up like crazy. “But after that,” he says, his voice growing soft, “there would be nine or ten seconds of stillness and calm. And then … the plunge.”

There it is again: that yearning to stop time. In a way, The Polar Express ends by stopping time, too. The narrator tells us that at one time most of his friends could hear the bell that Santa had left for him, but as the years passed, it had grown silent: “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” That bell’s sweet sound, still ringing, reminds readers of the importance of faith and holds us in that beautiful time of childhood, when Christmas lights do indeed twinkle all year round and bad things do not yet happen.

Lisa Van Allsburg’s Web site offers an impressive selection of menorahs, mezuzahs, and other Jewish ceremonial objects handcrafted by Rhode Island artists (including her husband):

Updated Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
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