Teaching kids about outsider art feels like a no-brainer to me. Which is to say, why doesn’t it happen more often? Perhaps there’s a feeling that educating kids on the self-taught is ultimately self-defeating. Can’t say as I agree, of course. Seems to me that learning about the great outsider artists could give a kid a kind of hope. This is particularly true in the case of Bill Traylor. Here you have a guy who lived a whole life, discovered an artistic calling near the end, and remains remembered where before he might have been forgotten. It makes for an interesting lesson and, to my relief, and even more interesting book. In It Jes’ Happened Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie pair up for the first time ever to present the life and art of an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary times.
He was born a slave, Bill Traylor was. Around 1854 or so Bill was born on a cotton plantation in Alabama. After the Civil War his parents stayed on as sharecroppers. After he grew up Bill ran a farm of his own with his wife and kids, but when Bill turned eighty-one he was alone on the farm by himself. With cane in hand he headed for Montgomery. It was there that he started drawing, for no immediately apparent reason. He’d draw on cardboard or discarded paper. After a time, a young artist took an interest in Bill, ultimately showing off his work in a gallery show. Bill enjoyed it but for him the drawing was the most important thing. An Afterword discusses Bill’s life and shows a photograph of him and a piece of his art.
When you’re writing a picture book biography of any artist the first problem you need to address is how to portray that person’s art in the book. If you’re the illustrator do you try to replicate the original artist’s work? Do you draw or paint in your own style and include small images of the artist’s original work? Or do you show absolutely none of the original art, trusting your readership to do that homework on their own? There is a fourth option, but I don’t know that I was aware of it before I read this book. You can hire an illustrator whose style is similar enough to the original artist that when the time comes to reference the original art they make their own version and then show the artist’s work at the end.
Now I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I’ve never really been a huge fan of R. Gregory Christie’s style before. It’s one of those things I can appreciate on an aesthetic level but never really personally enjoy. Yet in this book I felt that Christie was really the only person who could do Traylor’s tale justice. I had initially wondered why he had been chosen (before reading the book, I might add) since author Don Tate is an artist in his own right. If he wrote this story why didn’t he just go ahead and illustrate it too? The answer is that while Don’s style works for bios like She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story or Say Hey: A Song of Willie Mays, Traylor’s tale demanded an illustrator that could replicate his near two-dimensional style. Christie delivers. In this book the characters in Traylor’s memories walk and dance and pray in ways similar to those found in his art. Christie simultaneously creates something lively and fun while paying a kind of homage to the book’s subject.
Not to say the text is anything to scoff at either. Though I was initially put off by the design of the book with it’s blocks of text just dropped into the images without so much as a by-your-leave, the wordplay here more than made up for it. Tate had a challenge of his own when writing this book. Little is known about Traylor’s youth aside from some broad facts gleaned when he was in his eighties. So how do you write a book when you don’t have many specifics to work with? In Tate’s case the answer was to use Traylor’s art as a starting point. He begins the book by showing Traylor sitting down to make his art. Then we flash back to the past and see some of the moments of the man’s youth. Many of the sections there end with the sentence, “Bill saved up memories of these times deep inside himself.” It becomes a kind of mantra, culminating in a scene later where we see Traylor drawing in earnest, his creations flitting about his head like there are so many they can’t all fit in his brain or even on the page. Tate’s focus is on the memories, whether they are glimpses of the past or drawings on a page. I dare say Traylor would have appreciated that kind of a focus.
This is not the first children’s biography of Traylor made, of course. In 1995 Mary E. Lyons wrote Deep Blues: Bill Traylor Self-Taught Artist to great acclaim. That book had the advantage of showing Traylor’s art itself in several black and white and full-color reproductions. Mention of her book is in the front of this one on page two, in case you missed it. My sole grudge might be that seeing a little tiny image of Traylor’s art only made me crave seeing more. Fortunately it’s that kind of feeling that will lead kids to discover more about the artist himself.
The book serves as a kind of natural companion to the Caldecott Award winning book of nonfiction Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill. Both books examine men who experienced slavery firsthand but rather than be forgotten they live on through their art. Dave never escaped his situation and, in a sense, neither did Bill. But they both pursued what they loved and their picture books give kids a sense of how a person can have power while being effectively invisible to the greater world. Kids themselves are often invisible to others. Maybe Bill will help some of them see that art lets you be heard, albeit silently sometimes. A great book, a great subject, and a great use of two notable author/illustrator talents.
On shelves April 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter by Kathy Whitehead, ill. Shane Evans
- Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, ill. Bryan Collier
- Deep Blues: Bill Traylor the Self-Taught Artist by Mary E. Lyons
- Don Tate with Paula Yoo
- Take a sneak peek inside the book with Jules at 7-Imp.
One book trailer ah-coming up!