Leo Dillon, legendary science fiction artist, dead at 79

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Dec 17, 2012

Leo Dillon, the legendary Hugo Award and Caldecott Medal-winning sci-fi and fantasy artist who created hundreds of iconic images for sci-fi book covers and picture books alongside his wife Diane, passed away over the weekend at the age of 79.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Dillon met his future wife, a California native, while they were both studying at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. They were married in 1957 and launched one of sci-fi's great collaborations, which would continue for the next five and a half decades.

In 1959, the Dillons met sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, a fellow future icon who recruited them to illustrate a number of his works with either cover or interior illustrations, or both. In 1967, they provided interior art for Dangerous Visions, the now-legendary science fiction anthology edited by Ellison and featuring Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven, R.A. Lafferty, Norman Spinrad, Philip K. Dick and a Nebula Award-winning story by Samuel R. Delany.

The work helped put them on the map, but according to Dillon the book was originally supposed to be without art.

"Harlan Ellison edited Dangerous Visions—and I don't know if too many people know about this, but there were not supposed to be illustrations in that book," Dillon told Locus Magazine in 2000. "Harlan, with the power of only Harlan, said 'I want illustrations.' And the publisher said, 'Okay, if you can do it over the weekend, you can have it. We're going to press on Monday, and if you don't have any drawings, that's it.' They thought they had him. [laughs]. So Harlan called us and said, 'There's this impossible task. I want each story illustrated. We've only got two days to do it.' That's Harlan. We had gone down some very odd roads with him already. [laughs] So we said, 'Well, yeah, we can try. Come on over.''

Through Ellison the Dillons were introduced to sci-fi editor Terry Carr, who hired them to produce covers for his influential Ace Science Fiction Specials series. Between 1968 and 1971 they produced more than 30 covers for the series for works including Lafferty's Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Michael Moorcock's The Black Corridor and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. They also continued to collaborate with Ellison, producing art for books including The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, Deathbird Stories and The Glass Teat. In 1971, their work earned them the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, the first time an artistic team had been given the honor.

The Dillons also grew into prolific picture-book illustrators, winning back-to-back Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association for their work on Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears in 1976 and Ashanti to Zulu in 1977. They also wrote two picture books of their own, Rap a Tap Tap: Here's Bojangles, Think of That! and Jazz on a Saturday Night.

Among the pair's numerous other honors are the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, the Grand Master Award from the contemporary fantastic art anthology Spectrum, induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame and the World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement Award.

When asked about the couple's iconic style in 2000, Leo Dillon said it was built more on the collaboration than on either's individual gifts. They were a team, and they made art that way.

"People often comment on the 'Dillon style.' I think that someplace, the two of us made a pact with each other. We both decided that we would give up the essence of ourselves, that part that made the art each of us did our own. And I think that in doing that we opened the door to everything."

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