Our Voice: Eric Carle Museum showcases African American artists of children’s books

  • Laura Leonard, right, an assistant preparator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, makes haste while setting up the exhibit “Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.” The exhibit opened last weekend. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustration by Ekua Holmes for “Out of Wonder.” Holmes is a 2018 Coretta Scott King award winner. Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Javaka Steptoe for “Radiant Child.” Steptoe won a 2017 Coretta Scott King award for his collage-based art. Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration from “Ray Charles” by George Ford, who won the first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 1974. Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Bryan Collier from “Martin’s Big Words.” Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Jerry Pinkney from “The Moon Over Star.” Pinkney has won 10 Coretta Scott King Illustrator awards. Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Floyd Cooper from “The Blacker the Berry.” Cooper paints oil on illustration board and then erases sections of the paint to create his pictures. Image courtesy NCCIL/Eric Carle Museum

  • Rachel Eskridge, an assistant registrar at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, touches up a spot under an illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for the cover of "The People Could Fly" by Virginia Hamilton (watercolor and pastel on Bristol board), as the Carle crew prepares for a new exhibit in the east gallery, "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This illustration, "W", tempera and gouache, by Ashley Bryan for "Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry,” is one of a hundred pieces of art included in "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards,” a new exhibit in the east gallery of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mark Bodah, chief preparator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, installs a quilt, “Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold, for the exhibit. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, discusses the Gordon C. James illustration, left, created for the cover of “Crown: Ode to the Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes. It is one of a hundred pieces of art included in the exhibit “Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.” In background, assistant preparator Laura Leonard installs informational cards written by the artists. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This illustration, mixed media on paper, by Bryan Collier for the book "Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave" by Laban Carrick Hill, is one of a hundred pieces of art included in "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards,” a new exhibit in the east gallery of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, demonstrates an interactive display in the new exhibit, "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Coretta Scott King Book Awards seal was designed by artist Lev Mills in 1974. The emblem, with explanatory text, is part of "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards," a new exhibit in the east gallery of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Javaka Steptoe's mixed media work of acrylic and graphite with paper and vinyl collage on wood, for the book "Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow" by Gary Golio, is one of a hundred pieces of art included in "Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards,” a new exhibit in the east gallery of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2018 4:39:49 PM

Nearly 50 years ago, a year after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, as African Americans continued to struggle against ingrained prejudice in America, two librarians began talking about another part of that picture — that no black children’s authors or illustrators had ever won either of the two most prestigious awards in the field, the Newberry and Caldecott awards, which dated to the early 20th century.

Within a year, that initial discussion between Glyndon Flynt Greer and Mabel McKissick led to the creation of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards: a specific honor for African American children’s writers and illustrators, named after King’s widow for her continued efforts to advance civil rights and for her late husband’s historic legacy.

Today, staff at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art say those awards have become some of the most prestigious in children’s literature, given they honor writers and artists who demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and basic human values. And the museum is now recognizing many of those artists in its newest exhibit: “Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.” 

The show, which runs through Jan. 27, 2019, includes 100 works of art — a larger number than that of the typical Carle exhibit, according to museum curator Ellen Keiter — from 38 African American illustrators (and one writer/illustrator). It’s the largest and most comprehensive presentation of Coretta Scott King illustrator winners and honorees ever assembled since the illustrator award was established in 1974, Keiter notes.

“We’re literally reaching new heights,” Keiter said with a laugh as she gave a tour of the show late last week and pointed to some examples of the art from the book “Radiant Child,” for which Brooklyn illustrator Javaka Steptoe won the 2017 Coretta Scott Award. The panels were mounted about eight feet up the wall, above two other art samples set at eye level. 

“We needed all of our gallery space for this show,” said Keiter.

The exhibit touches on a wealth of subjects from African American history and culture: figures from the fight for equality such as King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Sojourner Truth; artistic giants like Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and Langston Hughes; the grim legacy of slavery; the talented players from the Negro Baseball Leagues of the early and mid 20th century; and day-to-day life, like the celebration of haircuts for young African American boys in “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.”

“Crown” is one of the 2018 Coretta Scott King winners, earning an Honor both for its illustrator, Gordon C. James, and its author, Derrick Barnes (the book is also a 2018 Newberry and Caldecott Honor winner). James, who lives in North Carolina, was one of a number of winning illustrators who came to the Carle Museum last weekend to see the new exhibit and talk about their work.

“I didn’t want to be an illustrator,” James, an oil painter, said during a panel discussion. “I wanted to make my art. But eventually I was drawn into this work. I liked the idea of reaching a lot of readers, and doing my art for children … children deserve real art.”

And Ekua Holmes, a Boston artist and director of an art program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said her collage-based work felt like it would also lend itself well to children’s books. Holmes won the Coretta Scott King illustrator award this year for the collages she designed for “Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets,” a collection of original poetry inspired by the work of poets such as Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and 17 others.

“I like shapes and cuts and ephemera,” said Holmes. “And I’ve always loved children’s books. I could never give away the books I got for my son.”

Different generations

The exhibition, organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) in Abilene, Texas, features artwork from 100 award-winning books and is presented chronologically, starting with the first book to win a Coretta Scott King illustrator award, a children’s biography of jazz great Ray Charles by Brooklyn artist George Ford, who’s now 92.

Keiter says presenting the art chronologically gives visitors the opportunity to see the work of different generations of black artists, as well as how the materials they used have changed over the years. Some early award-winning books relied more on pencil, charcoal and pen and ink drawings, for instance, as color printing was more expensive in the 1970s and 1980s, she noted.

“Our Voice” also showcases two pairs of father-and-son artists. Jerry Pinkney, who has won 10 Coretta Scott King awards for illustration, is the father of Brian Pinkney, also a Coretta Scott King award winner. Whereas the elder Pinkney (who was also at the Carle last weekend) mixes watercolor, colored pencil and other materials in his paintings, his son creates illustrations via scratchboard, a white board covered in ink from which he cuts out a design, then fills those gaps in with oil pastels.

Another father-son duo is John and Javaka Steptoe. For his 2017 award-winning book, “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,” and a 2011 profile of Jimi Hendrix, Javaka Steptoe used scrap wood he found in New York and Seattle, respectively, to create textured collages that he painted and silk-screened. In exhibit notes, Steptoe says he works with collage as a way of keeping in touch with his roots.

“For me, collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming them into art forms. I want my audience, no matter what their background, to be able to enter into my world and make connections with comparable experiences in their own lives.”

Steptoe’s notes, and those of the other artists in the exhibit, are drawn from audio clips of all the illustrators, which visitors can listen to at two iPads in the gallery. “I think being able to hear these artists talk directly about their work and the books they’ve worked on brings another dimension to the show,” said Keiter.

Given children’s literature, like much of U.S. society, was dominated for many years by whites, Keiter says the Carle Museum is thrilled to partner with the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee to present the work of African American artists in the new show. “Any time we can do something to promote diversity, we want to be involved,” she said.

For more information on “Our Voice” and other exhibits at the Eric Carle Museum, visit carlemuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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