HOW DID THE 20TH CENTURY’S most important African American artists discover their crafts? These beautifully illustrated books reveal how each got their start. For Jacob Lawrence, it was his childhood in Harlem where the hustle and colors of the neighborhood inspired his interest in art. His compelling story and those of Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, and Bill Traylor appeal to children and adults alike. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is the youngest of the group. His counterparts came of age in the post-emancipation and pre-civil rights eras. Race is a factor in their lives, but does not curb their determination. When Clementine Hunter’s paintings were finally shown in a gallery, she had to wait until after hours to view the display of her own work. Among the earliest expatriate artists, Henry O. Tanner went to Paris to shed the burden of American prejudice.
“Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews,” by Kathleen Benson, Illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews (Clarion Books, 32 pages; Ages 4-7). | Published Jan. 6, 2015
1. BENNY ANDREWS | “Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews”
Benny Andrews drew what he saw. An artist and activist, he was born in Plainview, Ga., where black people worked in cotton fields for white bosses. He began drawing at age 3, images of the land, church lady hats and Bible stories. Planting and harvest seasons determined when children could go to school. When most teens went to work full-time in the fields, Andrews’s mother arranged for him to attend high school. Education opened up his world. He joined the Air Force, attended art school in Chicago and then moved to New York, where he became a working artist. There he protested museums and galleries that didn’t show the work of women and people of color and organized exhibitions. He taught art at the college level and in a prison, encouraging everyone to use art to tell their stories.
“Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,” by Javaka Steptoe (Little, Brown & Co., 40 pages; Ages 6-9). | Published Oct. 25, 2016
2. JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT | “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat”
Arguably one of the most successful artists in American history, growing up in Brooklyn, Jean-Michel Basquiat dedicated himself early to making art, which he learned about from his mother. He worked from morning to night surrounded by colored pencils and countless works in progress—masterpieces in the making drawn on his father’s old work papers. The typical eccentric, struggling artist, he moved downtown to pursue his dreams. Expressing complex ideas about race and culture, his abstract paintings featured text, figures, and symbols such as crowns, and paid tribute to negro athletes, Charlie Parker and Muhammad Ali. “People describe him as radiant, wild, a genius child, but in his heart he is king, so he draws crowns for himself and others he admires,” author Javaka Steptoe writes.
“My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey,” by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Two Lions, 40 pages; Ages 6-8). | Published Sept. 1, 2011
3. ROMARE BEARDEN | “My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey”
Inspired by his 1964 collage “Watching the Good Trains Go By” this lyrical tale recounts Romare Bearden’s 1914 move from Charlotte, N.C., to Harlem. Fleeing discriminatory Jim Crow laws, his college-educated parents participated in the Great Migration north by train seeking better opportunities. Bearden longed for Mecklenburg County where his great-grandmother regaled him with stories of their Cherokee heritage and fed him warm tomato slices, but he embraced the city. “That’s where I am right now, painting what’s inside me, sharing stories of my past and the joys and fears inside me,” Jeanne Walker Harvey writes in this first-person account.
“Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter,” by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 32 pages; Ages 6-8). | Published Sept. 18, 2008
4. CLEMENTINE HUNTER | “Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter”
A descendant of slaves, Clementine Hunter was a laborer in Natchitoches Parish, La., near the Cane River. She is considered the first self-taught African American woman artist to capture national attention. Hunter lived and worked on Melrose Plantation, a haven for writers and artists. She cooked and cleaned for them and noting her passion for painting on whatever she could find—window shades, bottles—they gave her leftover supplies. Married with grandchildren, Hunter was already in her 50s. Proud of her work, she hung paintings for sale on a clothes line and they sold. Gallery and museum shows later followed.
“Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, a Young Artist in Harlem,” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Museum of Modern Art, 44 pages; Ages 4-8). | Published June 30, 2015
5. JACOB LAWRENCE | “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, a Young Artist in Harlem”
What inspired Jacob Lawrence to “make a world” celebrating African American life and documenting American history? According to this poetic account, everything around him. The artist moved to Harlem when he was 13 to live with his mother, and the color of the blue carpet, men playing chess outside his building, and fast pace of mothers walking to work captured his imagination, and eventually appeared in his paintings.
“Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America,” by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (Albert Whitman & Co., 32 pages; Ages 5-8). | Published Feb. 1, 2015
6. GORDON PARKS | “Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America”
Gordon Parks was the definition of a self starter. Born in Fort Scott, Kan., he nearly died at birth. His white teacher told his all-black class they were all destined to be porters and waiters. He was 15 when his mother died and he went to live with his sister in Minnesota. In short order he was on his own, working odd jobs as a piano player, porter and waiter. Inspired to buy a camera, picture taking took him to Chicago and Washington, D.C., where his famous “American Gothic” portrait of an African American cleaning lady synthesized for Parks and the nation the unfairness of segregation. He became the first black photographer at Vogue and Life magazines. Despite his teacher’s low expectations, Parks is among the most famous photographers in the world.
“A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin,” written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Knopf, 40 pages; Ages 5-8). | Published Jan. 8, 2013
7. HORACE PIPPIN | “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin”
Growing up, Horace Pippin helped out around the house—bringing flour to his mother, stacking wood for the stove, holding the horse while milk was delivered. In the evenings, he used charcoal on scraps of paper to draw what happened each day. He was talented and everyone at school recognized it, always asking him to “Make a Picture for us, Horace!” He later joined the Army, went to France and filled notebooks with what he saw there. Shot in his right arm, he struggled to draw when he returned home, marrying and settling in his hometown of West Chester, Pa. Eventually he was able to steady his hand and create his first oil painting. Soon his scenes of everyday life were featured locally in a celebrated solo exhibition.
“Henry Ossawa Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True,” written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold (Bunker Hill Publishing, 32 pages; Ages 6-7). | Published Nov. 16, 2011
8. HENRY O. TANNER | “Henry Ossawa Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True”
From artist Faith Ringgold comes the story of Henry O. Tanner. Born in Philadelphia, two years before the Civil War, he was determined to become an artist at age 13 after seeing a man painting in the local park. After delivering the valedictory address at his secondary school, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, painting zoo animals, landscapes and ocean scenes. Tanner taught at Clark College in Atlanta and with the help of a patron went to Paris, where his paintings were exhibited annually in the Paris Salon. Celebrated in the United States and abroad, Tanner’s painting “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (circa 1885) was the first work of art by an African American artist to be brought into the White House permanent collection.
“It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw,” by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, 32 pages; Ages 6-11). | Published April 1, 2012
9. BILL TRAYLOR | “It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw”
Bill Traylor began drawing at the age of 85. The folk artist was a fixture in downtown Montgomery, Ala., where he sat on a wooden crate and eventually made 1,200 to 1,500 drawings and paintings. Born a slave, in the wake of emancipation, Traylor became a sharecropper. Decades later, after his children and wife died, he went to the city. There, in the author’s telling, he expressed in his art all the memories he had saved up throughout his life.
“Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!,” by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books). | Forthcoming May 15, 2017
10. JAMES VANDERZEE | “Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!”
Known today as the photography who documented the Harlem Renaissance and its figures, from the ordinary to the legendary, James VanDerZee was a precocious child. Growing up in Lenox, Mass., VanDerZee saved his own money to buy his first camera and by fifth grade was his school’s official photographer, eventually becoming the town photographer. VanDerZee moved to New York City and when he was told white people wouldn’t want a black man to take their picture, he opened his own studio in Harlem. His famous black-and-white portraits include images of political leader Marcus Garvey, performers Florence Mills and Bill Cosby, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, families, wedding couples and community swim teams. CT
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