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  • Trish Kennedy-Howe

The Land of make believe

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

One day, not long ago, I walked into a dentist’s office waiting room and sat down on a very uncomfortable plastic chair. I opened my phone to play a game of Scrabble while I waited for the dentist, but then I glanced up and was startled by what I saw. Hanging on the wall across from me was a very large poster, about 3’ x 4’, of a colorful, beautifully painted depiction of a vast fairyland. I saw a panoramic layout of winding, somewhat treacherous roads, spectacular castles, steep curving cliffs, dangerous looking bridges and babbling waterfalls. There was a black “bottomless lake” or so it was titled, and other almost scary things like a sinister looking tower where "the little lame prince” was locked up. Throughout this fascinating landscape were scattered odd looking dwellings and ramshackle houses which apparently were the homes of Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the three bears, and Old Mother Hubbard, among others. I realized that this was a representation of many children’s stories, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. I saw the house that Jack built, the castle courtyard where a blackbird pecked off a maid’s nose, and another Jack climbing a gigantic beanstalk to confront a mean, thieving ogre. I saw Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet, whatever a tuffet is, with a terrifyingly large spider approaching her.

The painting really drew me in and I couldn’t stop studying it until I was finally summoned to the dentist’s chair. It was a fascinating work of art and somehow very familiar. I realized suddenly that I had had this very same poster as a child. This imaginary vision had been hanging on the wall next to my bed. I remembered standing on my bed to trace the winding roads with my finger, trying not to go too close to the edge of the craggy, crumbling cliff when the sign said not to, and not ever attempting to enter the black tunnel where “Don’t Go in There” was prominently posted.

When my teeth cleaning was finished, I went back to the waiting room to stare at the enchanting fairyland again. I wanted to know more about it. The title, written across an unravelling scroll at the bottom of the picture was “The Land of Make Believe”. At the bottom left, written across a smaller scroll was the name Jaro Hess. I had a lead and I was determined to track down the story behind “The Land of Make Believe”.

It took only a few clicks to discover that this vision of fairy tales and folklore was created in 1930 during the height of the Great Depression by Czech immigrant Jaro Hess, who was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the time. He was a painter and landscape designer who was forced to take whatever work was available in those troublesome times. He had many gigs, as we would call them today, such as making trout fishing flies and designing puppet stages and dioramas for the local museum. One day he was asked to create a vision of “The Land of Make Believe” by a local firm in Grand Rapids called “Child’s Wonderland Company”. His painting was wildly popular and sold very successfully. Children adored it and it was a much-needed escape from Depression woes.

Shortly after encountering “The Land of Make Believe”, I spent a week in Marietta, Ohio working at the RJF wallcovering design studio. My friend Susan, who grew up in Marietta, flew in from her home in Southampton, NY for a visit. We took a nostalgic walk through the beautiful small town. We saw the house she grew up in, visited the local museum, and she pointed out a pretty brick building that was the town library. “I used to love spending time at that library with my brother in the children's reading room" she said. "I remember there was a huge picture on the wall of a fairyland, with all the nursery rhyme people in it. I spent hours looking at that picture.” I told her, “I know that picture! It was hanging in my bedroom when I was eight years old.” My friend and I weren’t around during the Great Depression, of course. “The Land of Make Believe” was reissued a few times after the initial offering. Sometimes changes were made to make it timely, and some politically incorrect items were corrected. The magical print went on to delight children of many other generations.

I told my sisters how excited I was about rediscovering the Jaro Hess painting. They didn’t actually remember it, surprisingly. However, they were sweet enough to find it online and purchase a copy for me, which is pictured here. I still like to look at it.

There is so much more to know about the fascinating artist who created this enchanting picture. If you’re interested, you can read more about Jaro Hess online, and even purchase the print for your children, or for yourself.

P.S. A tuffet is a small, grassy mound, or low clump of grass upon which one can sit.

painting of the land of make believe

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