When I saw there was another book by the team that produced “A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams” and “The Right Words: Roget and His Thesaurus” I knew I had to see it. It seems that author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet just can’t miss.
This book tells the story of Horace Pippin (1888-1946), the self-taught African American painter whose works have been featured in museums around the world including the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and Tate Gallery, in London.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, from the time he was little, Pippin loved to draw, using scraps of paper and charcoal. While still a young boy, he entered a drawing contest sponsored by an art supply company and won colored pencils, a pair of brushes, and a box of paints. When he was in eighth grade his father left and he had to quit school and work to support his family. Nevertheless, he still drew pictures whenever he could.
He joined the army during World War I, and there filled notebooks with pictures of what he saw (six of which survive). Then he was shot and his right arm was badly damaged, and he was unable to draw. Moreover, he had trouble finding a job because he couldn’t do any lifting. He took whatever employment he could find, and at night, he worked on moving his right arm.
With practice, his arm improved and his hand grew steadier, and he began to paint again, using an old brush, leftover house paint he found in alleys, and extra pieces of cloth. He hung his pictures in local stores, but no one responded to them until the famous painter N.C. Wyeth saw them and arranged an exhibition for him in West Chester. Suddenly, he became famous, and he was busy painting again.
He produced some 140 works including several self portraits, and paintings portraying American historical events.
As the author says in a note at the end of the book:
“He has been variously labeled a folk artist, a self-taught artist, and a primitive painter – but he is certainly and indisputably an American master.”
Melissa Sweet enhances Pippin’s story with her visual interpretation of his life. She adopts a folk-art approach in her own pictures, using watercolor, gouache, and collage in vivid colors, echoing Pippin’s love of deep, rich hues, and adding Pippin’s own words to her illustrations.
A map at the back of the book shows locations in the U.S. where you can find his paintings.
Evaluation: This excellent and inspirational story deserves the awards it has garnered, and furthermore performs the service of introducing new audiences to the heroic life of Horace Pippin.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Note: The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has some excellent educational guides to the paintings of Pippin, such as this one.
For a real treat, learn more about Pippin’s work through watching this montage of his art set to the unforgettable 1956 recording of “All the Things You Are” (by Jerome Kern), featuring the amazing talent of Art Tatum (piano) and Ben Webster (tenor saxophone) with Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums.