Thursday, September 29, 2011

Layers in Nonfiction Illustration: Bryan Collier

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Elizabeth York Children’s Literature Festival at the Nicholson Library at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. This conference, in its 3rd year, helps celebrate an impressive collection of about 11,000 children’s books and poetry books—specializing in rare first editions and signed volumes. It would be a great spot for author and illustrator research.

Also speaking was Bryan Collier, an illustrator who has twice been the recipient of Coretta Scott King Awards, and three-times a recipient of Caldecott honors. As always, his process captured me. His in-depth research on Rosa Parks—visiting Alabama, soaking up the atmosphere, researching the community, the buses, the circumstances—is a tale you have to hear directly from him. It has every element of research one would expect from someone writing such a book. Yet to see it through an illustrator’s eyes brings an extra dimension.

Many nonfiction writers speak of their research journeys. Yet, so often, the task of creating a nonfiction image is overlooked. You have to know a thing to write about it. But to draw it—sometimes, you must know more. (When I interned at National Geographic, years ago, I created huge research packets of historical material for each and every object in a single illustration for a children’s book!)

Bryan, though, is looking for more than precision in his work. From what I gathered, he is not limited by the idea that a nonfiction illustration must be like a snapshot, all objects order and historically what they were. He’s creating a moment, truer to those feelings in the air than you can create with a crisp photograph. Although he works very hard to be true to life about climate/people/objects, he also goes for soul—not just the emotion of individuals, but the soul of a community and moment. He adds hidden symbols, words, essence of experience to his illustrations.

As a fine artist, collage artist, and speaker, Bryan added layer by layer to our understanding of his subjects. One of his newer books is connected to South Carolina, where I grew up. He spoke of the soil, the many colors of clay. Immediately, as a tactile person, I was hooked. This book is Dave the Potter. Dave created 40,000 pots in his lifetime and along the way wrote poetry on them and signed his name. He did all this as a slave, somehow learning to read and write in a time when it was illegal for slaves to be taught these skills. Extraordinary. I could imagine a dozen ways teachers could fit the book into their work.

Bryan stressed the book’s connection to word and literacy. Yes! Yet as I heard him reading the book and talking about the illustrations, I kept thinking about another home for this book: not in social studies, but in science. It’s all there. The dirt. The chemistry. The soil. The shaping. The changing. It would be a rich and evocative introduction to material objects, physical science. Of course, an art teacher would have a field day with it, as well. Once again, Bryan Collier has partnered to create a book with as many layers in content as layers of paper, pen, and paint.

He spoke of how an “ordinary day” can become a historical moment. I wonder what publishers, authors, and illustrators will take on the challenge of recent events of the Arab Spring, and how those stories will be told.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Once again, I am in awe of what illustrators do!

Susan Kuklin said...

So glad you featured Bryan Collier on your terrific blog today, April. Not only is he a fine artist - he's a wonderful person as well. We're lucky that he's a member of the children's literature community.