Artists have secret lives. This is especially true of those who do commercial projects on deadline -- graphic artists, type designers and book illustrators, for example.

A new show, "Beyond the Book: The Fine Art of Book Illustrators," opening today at the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center, offers a peek at the private creativity of seven Midwestern book illustrators: Derek Anderson, Leslie Bowman, Nancy Carlson, Stephen Gammell, Beth Peck, Lauren Stringer and Mike Wohnoutka. The show includes one illustration by each artist, plus a dozen or more examples of their other work, which ranges from playful, cartoon-like images to abstractions, portraits and landscapes.

Art is art, of course, but there has long been a hierarchy in which illustration was considered less noble, grand or important than "fine art." Illustration was a job; fine art was a calling. Illustrators got published in books and magazines; artists got shows in galleries and museums.

Such stereotypes linger, but they are eroding, especially in Minnesota, which is a nationally known center of book illustration. Successful books by some of the show's artists have garnered national awards and sold millions of copies worldwide.

"When I was a fine art student in college, we thought illustrators were sellouts. Now we don't know what the future will hold," said Carlson, who has produced dozens of colorful kids' books starring animals with very human personalities.

Carlson, who teaches children's literature illustration at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, organized the show with St. Paul artist Stephen Gammell, the dean of Twin Cities book illustrators.

Gammell, who is self-taught, glides into abstraction when not turning out the wispy, sometimes spooky looking illustrations for which he is best known. His more than 50 books include "Song and Dance Man," for which he won a 1988 Caldecott Medal, the Nobel Prize of children's lit. The Bloomington exhibit is the first at which he has ever shown his abstract work.

"Once you're known for a certain look or style, you get stuck with that public image," said Gammell, a reluctant talker who prefers to let his drawings speak for him. "We artists make art; some of it goes for books, some of it for other things. I don't like to categorize. It's just different branches from the same vine."

Pictures without stories

Derek Anderson of Minneapolis also refuses to label his styles.

"The only difference between illustration and art is that illustration usually serves a story in some way," said Anderson. His drawings of a perky duck named "Little Quack" have been translated into myriad languages -- most recently Korean -- and sold "in the millions worldwide," he said. Little Quack even leapt off the page and became a plush toy not long ago. Anderson's other books feature a purple gorilla, a clever rabbit, hamsters, bears, penguins and other critters overstuffed with personality.

Anderson brings the same vivid colors, energetic lines and animation to his personal paintings. In them a pig suffers from swine flu, an empty suit races gleefully down hill, a girl meets an octopus in a puddle, and a wizened tree sprouts a long nose and drives a car made of grass. Instead of weaving such fantasies into a sequential narrative, Anderson lets them stand alone in his paintings. The paintings allow mysteries that hint at "something deeper and leave room for interpretation," he said.

"As a kid, I really believed in the magic of the world and I've never really forgotten that," Anderson said. "It's everything from muses to monsters, and I love those things. ... I still have that 6-year-old boy inside me, and I know if I can make him happy, I know other kids will be, too."

Private vs. public imagery

There's more distance between the public and private work of some of the show's other artists. Leslie Bowman, for instance, has virtually given up illustration in favor of the portraits and landscapes she will show at Bloomington. After about 15 years during which she produced several successful "chapter books" for the preteen set, Bowman realized her heart lay elsewhere. A perfectionist by temperament, she hated the deadlines of commercial work and agonized about inventing images to fit someone else's stories. By contrast, portraits -- which intimidate many artists with their demand for personality and verisimilitude -- come easily to her.

"The books were a success, but it was torture for me," she said. As for portraiture, "I love looking at people's faces and reproducing them; every little nuance is interesting to me."

With more than a half-dozen award-winning books to her credit, Lauren Stringer is well ensconced in the illustration business and has a new book, "The Princess and Her Panther," in production. Trained as a painter and sculptor, she is a crossover talent who will be showing a series of psychologically darker "Crow Paintings," at Bloomington. They include a childlike figure, but don't have the narrative thread of a kids' book.

"They're very influenced by early paintings of Titian and Tintoretto, so there's a kind of honoring of my art history background, as well," she said. "Making children's books has opened up my connections to my own children and all the light and dark that comes with childhood. These paintings let me really explore that."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431