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The celebrated illustrator discusses her most recent project, a biography of Black environmentalist MaVynee Betsch, and its place in her body of work.
Ekua Holmes illustrated her first children’s book (Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer; The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford) in 2015. It became a Caldecott Honor Book and a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book and brought her the John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award. Her subsequent titles have gone on to win ever-expanding audiences and additional acclaim, including back-to-back Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards, first for Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth in 2017, then for The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer in 2018. Her most recent collaborations include Black Is a Rainbow Color, by Angela Joy, which came out in 2020, and the just-released Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch, by Heidi Tyline King.
Recently, we caught up with Holmes to discuss this latest endeavor and how it fits into her career at large.
McBroom: You started illustrating children’s books relatively recently, in the midst of an established, very successful career—you were already known for your unique art collages and your involvement in community art initiatives, many in collaboration with your alma mater, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. How did you come to illustrate children’s books? Holmes: As a community arts advocate and gallerist, I have always encouraged artists to take every opportunity to show their work. If no one sees it, your work isn’t doing its important job. Some artists balk at the idea of showing in restaurants or cafés, but I contend that art directors eat, museum curators eat, and collectors eat. To that end, I was “showing my work” at a local ice cream store. Someone from Candlewick came in with her daughter for an ice cream cone and saw the work. She contacted me to ask if I might be interested in illustrating children’s literature. I said I might. Then she sent me the manuscript for Voice of Freedom, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, and I knew destiny was calling.
McBroom: It’s been said that your art reflects “contemporary Black art traditions.” Do you agree? What do you think this means?Holmes: I think someone said this in a short bio blurb. But if I had to explain it, I would say that my work is about my life and community. It is seated on a foundation of Black art traditions, through a colored lens that may include quilt making, gardening, cooking, interior design, fashion, the healing arts, and spirituality. I draw from both real and imaginative stories to present narratives of devotion, determination, self-awareness, gratitude, and remembrance. By using the personal and the particular, I find that I am able to express a larger, universal story.
McBroom: How would you describe your creative process? Holmes: I work primarily in collage and mixed media using lost-and-found papers, objects, and stories. Lately I’ve been inspired by the profound and timeless writings of James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simone. During the pandemic, I’ve discovered audiobooks, which allow me to listen while working. An idea may begin very simply as a scribble on a napkin, but in that scribble I can see an entire tableau.
McBroom: Your next book, Saving American Beach, by Heidi Tyline King, releases this month. Did you know the story of MaVynee Betsch’s life before this project? Can you tell us a little bit about the content and how you approached the artwork? Holmes: I did not know MaVynee Betsch’s story before the project, but like other wonderful moments of serendipity, once I signed on, I ended up taking a trip to American Beach with a friend. I actually went twice. I found it to be one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen. I could feel the spirit of the Black community that developed it and held it for their future generations. I could feel the struggle they endured trying to ward off development and loss. I could feel the love. I approached the project by acknowledging the ocean, the sky, and the great dune, NaNa, as main characters in the story right alongside the incredible MaVynee Betsch.
McBroom: School librarians talk about illustrations during book talks and read-alouds. Can you offer any advice on how to introduce your art to students—especially kids who may not have any art in their lives—either specifically for Saving American Beach or for your work in general?Holmes: I think the story is the most important thing. Kids (and adults) love stories. The art—its colors, characters, form, and style—should serve the story. To the extent that we can imagine ourselves in a story, we can embody and explore its values and lessons.
McBroom: Decades ago, you founded The Great Black Art Collection to introduce Black art and artists to new audiences. Do you have any suggestions for making art accessible for kids? Might you have suggestions for school librarians on how to encourage awareness of and appreciation for Black artists? Holmes: I would encourage displays of books about artists (not just Black artists) and making available tools and activities that encourage choice and creativity. The library is a place for browsing and learning what we are visually attracted to, what we are curious about. Great librarians are always paying attention and helping us with our interests. Artist visits and presentations add a dimensionality to reading about any particular topic.
McBroom: There’s finally been widespread acknowledgement in schools and libraries of how crucial it is to give kids books with characters who look like them and to make sure that there is more equal representation of all members of society in fiction, nonfiction, and history books. Do you remember seeing any characters who looked like you when you were growing up? How about during your art studies?Holmes: Absolutely not. If I saw a brown face it was because I colored it in myself. Even at my church, in our bible stories, not one face was tan, brown, or black. In college there were two or three Black artists included in my courses. However, a Black professor opened up my world by helping to arrange a trip to the National Conference of Artists, a Black artists’ organization that had, as members, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, and a host of other artists from around the country. It was like water to a thirsty child.
McBroom: In the past, you’ve illustrated books about prejudice, inequality, civil rights, representation, inclusion, poets, and even outer space. Now you’ve just finished a book about an amazing multitalented, multilayered woman, MaVynee Betsch. How do you create illustrations that help young audiences understand these abstract, wide-ranging concepts? Holmes: I try to work in harmony with the author’s words and concepts. Most biographies are a slice of a great, grand life. There is always so much more than we can fit poetically in a children’s book. So where has the author placed the emphasis? What key concepts are they exploring? How can the art complement or expand on that? If I feel that something important has been left out, I mention it to the publishing team.
McBroom: In a previous interview you mentioned how much research you do before starting a new book so that you can create your own images and interpretations (you were talking about The Stuff of Stars at the time). You also indicated that you find it useful not to talk to the author. Why is this so important to you? How did this affect your work on Saving American Beach?Holmes: I think what I meant was that I now understand why the industry does not encourage communications between the author and artist while the book is being illustrated. I can see that it may impede the artist from working freely and expressively. However, there are successful exceptions.
McBroom: You’ve also illustrated a very simple, very sweet book for younger readers, Black Is a Rainbow Color, by Angela Joy. Your use of heavy black outlining throughout your illustrations emphasizes the power and beauty of the color black and brings to mind stained glass windows. Holmes: This was a new way of working for me. I was aiming for the look of coloring books where children have the ultimate choice of what colors to employ. I wish I could remember what colors I used as a child in coloring people and what I thought about my choices.
McBroom: When you work on your illustrations for children’s books, are you conscious of thinking or creating in a different way because you know your main audience will be kids? Does working on children’s books affect your creative process in different ways from when you work on projects intended for all ages? Holmes: Yes, I do think about that. Many books are age specific, and I want to honor where the kids might be in their understanding of the world. In all of my work, I like to leave some things to the imagination and some questions to ponder. I like to think that I am making works of art that illustrate a story.
McBroom: In 2019, in Washington, DC, during your ALA Coretta Scott King Illustrator acceptance speech, you told a story about how your inspiration for the galaxy illustrations in The Stuff of Stars came from a small scrap of marbleized paper you found while sweeping out your studio. Forgive me, but this sounds suspiciously serendipitous. My guess is that you’re always creating, always looking for new ways of seeing and sharing marvelous images. What can we look forward to next?Holmes: Serendipity has been a powerful part of my life. I could tell you stories you wouldn’t believe.
Sampling Holmes Black Is a Rainbow Color. By Angela Joy. 2020. 40p. Roaring Brook (9781626726314). K–Gr. 3. Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets. By Kwame Alexander and others. 2017. 56p. Candlewick (9780763680947). Gr. 4–7. 811.Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. By Heidi Tyline King. 2021. 40p. Putnam (9781101996294). K–Gr. 3. 333.72092.The Stuff of Stars. By Marion Dane Bauer. 2018. 40p. Candlewick (9780763678838). PreS–Gr. 3. Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer; Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. By Carole Boston Weatherford. 2015. 56p. Candlewick, (9780763665319). Gr. 4–7. 973.What Do You Do with a Voice like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. By Chris Barton. 2018. 48p. Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane (9781481465625). Gr. 2–4. 328.73.
Kathleen McBroom is the school library media practicum coordinator for the Wayne State University School of Information Sciences.
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