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Children & YouthContemporary Art

J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch

Nov 20, 2014–Mar 8, 2015

J. Otto Seibold is one of America’s most beloved and influential authors of children’s books, yet remains somewhat of a hidden treasure here in the Bay Area. Born and raised in the East Bay, where he still resides, his Mr. Lunch books (written with Vivian Walsh) are the first children’s books designed using computer software. His Olive the Other Reindeer is a holiday classic.

In conjunction with the twentieth anniversary of the Mr. Lunch books, the exhibition explores Mr. Lunch’s history and Seibold’s artistic process. Along with original artwork, the exhibition includes interactive areas for children designed by Seibold with new content relating to Mr. Lunch.

gallery photos
the books

The J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch exhibition is based on three books by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh: Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, Free Lunch, and Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride.

In the books, Mr. Lunch, a professional bird-chaser, maintains an office for himself and the birds. After morning bird-chasing practice, the afternoon is spent at their desks reading mail and placing bird seed orders. The exhibition includes a recreation of Mr. Lunch’s office with stacks of bird seed boxes and desks of varying sizes for Mr. Lunch and the birds. Children can sit at these to complete suggested gallery activities. A larger desk is reserved for Seibold who will hold ‘office hours’ on select days to chat with visitors and conduct drawing demonstrations. On other days, visitors can view projected footage of these live demonstrations in this area.

The experience of Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride begins at the gallery entrance where visitors go through an airport security gate and children receive a free take home activity passport for use during their visit. The passport includes scavenger hunts, drawing activities, and more.

In Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, Mr. Lunch is invited by a talk show host to demonstrate his bird-chasing skills on television. He is thrilled since this will be his first plane trip, but soon discovers that dogs must ride below with the baggage. He and his bird companion Ambrose (the designated chasee) amuse themselves by opening suitcases and playing with what they find inside (cellos, scientific equipment for experiments, and more). As the plane lands, they hastily repack the luggage without remembering what goes where, leading to some awkward but ultimately opportune mix ups that come to light on the TV show. Inside the exhibition gallery, children can board an airplane and play with the contents of several wooden suitcases.

Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe recounts Mr. Lunch’s furious paddle to Venice after an autograph-seeking bear frightens him. In Venice, he encounters the biggest bird-chasing challenge of his career, but soon clears the plaza of pigeons for which he is celebrated with a civic ceremony and presented the traditional gift of gratitude, the Golden Outboard Motor. Children can climb into a life-sized canoe in the exhibition complete with paddles and a golden motor.

In Free Lunch, Mr. Lunch finds himself in jail after the evil new owner of the Elephant Brand Bird Seed Company posts a sign requiring that dogs must remain on leashes. He escapes with the help of his bird friend Ambrose. Mr. Lunch’s jail cell is also recreated for the exhibition.

In addition, the gallery features a reading nook where families can find copies of the Mr. Lunch books and other titles by Seibold including his holiday classic, Olive the Other Reindeer.

image gallery
about j. otto seibold

J. Otto Seibold (b. 1960) is a self-taught artist who was born in Oakland, California, and grew up an apricots-throw away from the John Muir home in Martinez, CA. He was able to sneak into the art world during the “outsider artist” craze of the 1990s and is the first person to use digital software to create children’s books with Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride (1993). Seibold has continued publishing for the past twenty years and is best known for the Mr. Lunch series, as well as Olive the Other Reindeer (Chronicle Books, 1997), and Vunce Upon a Time (Chronicle Books, 2008).

Also a widely exhibited artist, he has shown work in galleries and museums including Deitch Projects, New York; Paule Anglim, San Francisco; Grass Hut, Portland, OR; MASS MoCA, Adams, MA; and Creative Time’s 42nd Street Art Project. In 2000, Seibold had a solo museum exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Seibold’s bio on the dust jacket of Free Lunch, however, is perhaps simpler: J. Otto draws all the time. It’s his job. He is a professional.


Seibold created the Mr. Lunch books in the 1990s on an Apple Macintosh computer using Adobe software. He was a pioneer in digital illustration and is considered one of the greatest artists in the field of vector design, a method of illustration that uses geometrical formulas to represent images, as opposed to pixel patterning. Many reviewers have noted that while the images have their origins in technology, they have an appealing retro-hip, 1950s feel. Seibold’s zest for zaniness results in pages that are frenetically filled with characters, objects, vehicles, buildings, labels, and silly signs galore.

J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch offers visitors of all ages the opportunity to understand Seibold’s artistic process through the display of images in various states of completion. It includes eighteen color prints of original illustrations from the three Mr. Lunch titles, as well as a sampling of original pen drawings including storyboards, early versions of illustrations, and designs for covers. A wall-sized enlargement of the preliminary digital skeleton of one of Seibold’s drawings sheds light on the vector design process. The exhibition also includes dummy books, various pieces of Mr. Lunch ephemera including designs for a Mr. Lunch skateboard, and objects selected by the artist that served as inspiration for his stories and designs.

At the heart of the exhibition are the adventures of Mr. Lunch, based on the Seibold family’s real life pet dog at the time, Dexter Lunch. Children and families can experience these stories through several interactive play areas that recreate elements of the books in fanciful, kid-sized, immersive settings.


In Seibold Serial #1, the illustrator talks about entering the world of children's books from a background of editorial illustration.

The CJM went serial with J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch, with seven video interviews with the artist on everything from his favorite object in the exhibition, to that special exhibition introduction by Matt Groening. 


J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and is based on three books by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh: Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, Free Lunch, and Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride. Supporting sponsorship is provided by the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund.

Additional support of this exhibition and education programs at The CJM is provided with thanks to proceeds from the Sixth Annual Family Gala: Mr. Lunch Throws a Party. Major sponsors include Anonymous, Yamileé Bermingham and Douglas Winthrop, the Felson Family, Sam Hamilton and Jen Chaiken and Donald and Carole Chaiken Foundation, Debbie and Scott Kay, Nellie and Max Levchin, Shana Nelson Middler and David Middler, Alison Gelb Pincus and Mark Pincus, Leesa and Martin Romo, Christine Russell and Mark Schlesinger, Roselyne Chroman Swig, and Wendy and Richard Yanowitch.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Image credit

Header image: Detail from the cover of Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, 1994. Vector illustration, dimensions variable. © J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh. Gallery photos: Installation details from J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch, 2014. Photos by JKA Photography.