NO LONGER TORMENTED BY TWEETY BIRD

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Freelance illustrator and painter Wendy Born Hollander reached a career breaking point about six years ago, thanks to a little yellow cartoon bird with a speech impediment that all the world just loves to love.

At the time, she’d been doing work that required her to put trademarked cartoon characters onto kids’ clothing—t-shirts, Barbie swimsuits, jumpers, that sort of thing. Lest anyone think this kind of job is just perfect for a free spirit, there’s not a lot of room for creativity. Rather, there’s usually a strict style guide that has to be followed; what color, how big, doing what. Hollander realized she’d had enough after about 10 years, when she found herself thinking, “If I have to figure out how to put Tweety Bird in a design with a flower one more time, I’m going to cry

Since 1997, Hollander has lived on Leighton Avenue at the corner of Catherine Street with her husband, Dave—software guy by day, jazz saxophonist by night—and their three dogs and three cats. It’s the longest she’s ever lived in one place, having made stops growing up in Cleveland, Buffalo, Kentucky, Massachussetts, Brooklyn and Jersey City. She wanted to settle down. So she and Dave chose Red Bank both for its nearness to New York and for its own distinct vibe. “We just got a sense that there was a nice arts community here, and it had a nice little downtown,” says Hollander.

She’s been freelancing for 17 years, specializing (since her Tweety-inspired epiphany) in children’s book publishing—specifically, educational publishing. Hollander has now illustrated five children’s books, including “The Goat and the Rock,” about allegations of a theft in Tibet, and “Catch of the Day,” an African folk tale by Angela Shelf Medearis.

The story of the goat was a particular challenge. “I had to research the history of Tibet in seven days,” Hollander says, but the search proved thrilling, as she found herself immersed in the Tibet collection at the Newark Museum. The result, like much of her work, was a series of vibrant little vignettes that capture the place and feel of exotic, vaguely magical landscapes.

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Hollander says she enjoys the assignments, but the educational side of the business is strictly work-for-hire stuff, meaning no royalties are paid. “So now I’m trying to figure out where, in illustration, the money is,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s like anything—nice work, if you can get it.”

Outside the book assignments, she’s done jobs big and small, from illustrations for Progressive magazine and other periodicals to a label for a friend’s clothing line to a series of paintings that hang at Down to Earth on Broad Street. Hollander has shown her work at the Red Bank Library, No Joe’s and the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center.

Her style? “Representational without being realistic; whimsical, maybe a little surreal,” she says. “Organic.” The titles of her paintings are in sync with that ethos, with names like “The Best Way to Make Your Dreams Come True is to Wake Up,” a phrase Hollander heard on the radio, and “Fragment Fragrant Forest,” inspired by a song by the dub poet and singer Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Readers who live on the West Side or spend any time there may recognize Wendy as the tall blonde who’s often walking a dog or two (she can’t handle all three alone.) Eddie, Artie and Bix are all mutts with hardscrabble stories. Two were found in a basement in the Bronx, weren’t housebroken and wouldn’t walk on leash. The other guy was found as a pup in Jersey City. (Artie and Wendy, by the way, are both recovering from an attack by two dogs that got loose from a homeowner’s property near the firehouse on Leighton last Friday. The dogs went after Artie, a female. Both Artie and Hollander, who was bitten on a thumb, required stitches and antibiotic treatments.)

Despite that incident, Hollander still finds the West Side a rich collection of neighborhoods from which she draws inspiration for the children’s books she hopes to begin writing and illustrating under her own name. “I take note of who’s who and what they look like,” as well as some of the poetic names the kids have, she says. So Ru’Quan, Rameek and Jaynara (those last two are phonetic guesses as to the spelling) should stay in touch, because they may someday find themselves immortalized in a tale of the West Side.