Susanna is going to give us a series of blogs over the next week or so, telling about her process in creating Painting the Wild Frontier
Putting the Subject to the Test
When my husband suggested the 19th-century American painter George Catlin as a subject for a biography, I vaguely recalled having seen Catlin’s heroic images of Native Americans. I liked the work–but knew nothing of the man. Before committing myself to several years of research and writing, I had to answer a few crucial questions. What kind of research resources were available, both primary and secondary? Could I get permission from museums to use images of his work in a children’s book? How much would permissions cost? For what age group was the subject most appropriate? And, most importantly, would kids find George Catlin interesting?
The artist passed the test with flying colors.
I quickly learned that Catlin didn’t just sit in his studio. His life was full of the kind of dramatic challenges that a novelist would labor hard to invent. A bold and daring artist-adventurer who wielded paintbrush and hunting rifle in equal measure, he spent years criss-crossing the American West, visiting with and painting scores of Indian tribes. He exhibited his "Indian Gallery" throughout the United States and Europe to great acclaim, yet struggled to make ends meet. At the apex of his career, he lost his wife and young son to illness. Then he went bankrupt and was thrown into debtor’s prison. Nearly sixty, he managed to reinvent himself, creating a second body of work based on travels in South America and along the Pacific Coast of North America. And in the end he died penniless and nearly forgotten.
Eureka! It was a life worthy of grand opera–or a book for kids.
How did I know all this about Catlin? Because he chronicled his adventures in letters and books published throughout his life–a gold mine of primary source material, available through interlibrary loan. I decided to write a story for upper elementary and middle school kids. Taking a simple chronological approach, I would weave quotes from Catlin’s writings into the narrative. Art historians would provide plenty of secondary source material. As for illustrations, it turned out that two museums–the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art, both in Washington D.C.–owned most of Catlin’s work. I could see the paintings in person and interview curators who’d spent years studying him. I’d be able to get the permissions I needed to reproduce his art. I’d use other visual materials to provide a larger historical context, and captions that would function like mini-sidebars, giving me a place to discuss everything from painting techniques to grizzly bears.
I bought the major scholarly books on Catlin, filled out a pile of interlibrary loan forms for background reading in American history and art history, and began my research.