Children love to make art–it’s messy, colorful and one of the few realms in which rule-breaking is encouraged. For kids lucky enough to still have an art program in their schools, they are likely to learn about the life and artistic techniques of Picasso and Van Gogh. But there is also a rich history of African-American artistic expression and achievement, so in celebration of Black History Month, I’d like to share several excellent picture book bios you can read to your own little artist to inspire and get the creative juices flowing. (And some places and upcoming events in the Bronx where they can put that creativity to paper!)
Clementine Hunter grew up in the late 1800s working on a Louisiana plantation. Amazingly, she began painting in her fifties. This beautiful book depicts the memories that inspired her art in deep blues and shocks of golden yellow. She “didn’t wait for the perfect set of paints and canvas” and used whatever she could find–“window shades, glass bottles, black iron skillets, and old boards”–instead of a canvas. This is a common theme in many of these artist’s stories–resourcefulness fueled by the drive to create and to put one’s experience into visual form. When her art began to be shown in galleries and museums, Jim Crow laws deprived her of the dignity of enjoying her own art on display until after hours. But this bio reminds us that “the laws that kept her out would soon be gone like feed thrown to the chickens.”
The illustrations of this book are so lovely. They have a child-like quality–perhaps like the drawings that young Horace Pippin made as a small child. If your child is always doodling, filling the margins of their schoolwork with designs and creatures, they will love reading about Horace. Though he drew from early childhood, much of his young adult life was spent serving as a soldier and working to make ends meet for his young family. His return to art is depicted beautifully in this book as he uses his good arm to assist the arm injured in war to attempt to draw again. Like Clementine Hunter, he begins to paint scenes of his memories and every day life. Eventually “discovered” and recognized by the art world, Horace’s art makes its way into museums, galleries and homes around the country. But this books stays focused on how deeply personal Horace’s art was, describing on theist page how, even after receiving recognition, you could still see him “leaning toward his easel, his left hand holding up his right, painting the pictures in his mind.”
Written by Alan Schroeder; Illustrated by Jaelle Bereal
Augusta Savage was driven to make shapes from the muddy clay in her backyard from as young as she can remember. Her father does not approve and tries to snuff out her sculpting. But Augusta continues to make little figures, and eventually her mother sticks up for her, insisting in her own way that this not be taken from Augusta. After receiving small encouragements, at school and in a county fair art contest, Augusta makes the bold courageous choice to leave Florida to attempt to get into art school in New York City. Despite lacking art world savvy, Augusta’s raw and undeniable talent earn her a place in the Cooper Union School of Art. She went on to become an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Illustrated in Christopher Myers’ vibrant and recognizable style, this bio’s briefer text, present-tense tone and relatable depiction of young Jake make it a great read for younger children. It shows Jake trying out different artistic styles and materials. Jake’s story feels so current. As the book describes how he paints a face and his teacher then shows him the resemblance to a traditional African mask; as he carefully puts together an intricate diorama of Harlem in a shoebox–you can imagine a child in an after-school program discovering art in this same way today. And, as is a common theme in these bios, Jake depicts the world, people and experiences he knows in his art. He shows Harlem’s songs and noises as colors, “dancing, they are rhythms, they are light.” Like Clementine Hunter, Horace Pippin, Augusta Savage and many more African-American artists before him, he puts his and his community’s experiences into visual form for all to see.
This bio is also a good one for younger children, thanks to the amount of text and the focus on Jean-Michel’s beautiful relationship with his mother. Javaka Steptoe’s illustrations echo Basquiat’s own style, covering a raw wooden “canvas” with a busy graffiti-influenced collage of abstract and pop images.
Through loss and pain, Jean-Michel keeps making art and never lets go of his dream to become a famous artist. While Steptoe’s telling ends with Jean-Michel’s achieving his dream of fame and recognition s an artist, it does not avoid the tragedies of Basquiat’s life altogether–a horrible childhood car accident, his mother’s mental illness, his years spent “sleeping on couches and floors.” But while this telling of Basquiat’s story is not an overly idealized one, it focuses on the dream that young Jean-Michel had and the way in which he pursued it without giving up.
This is just a small sampling of the picture book bios that share the stories of African-American artists. Some that I have not yet got hold of but are next on my “to-read” list are:
- My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey
- Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art
- Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist
And if you have a young artist on your hands (or perhaps have created one by reading these inspiring stories!), there are many events in the Bronx you can take them to try out different mediums of art. Check out these upcoming kids’ art-making events:
- “Building Bash” at the Bronx Museum of Art (TODAY! At 1:00pm)
…Sorry for the short notice on this one. But if you can’t make it, they have these “Family Affairs” regularly, so keep an eye on the website for future events.