Roots & Blues, Part 2! It’s been a long time coming, but I guarantee you this interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie is worth the wait! If you missed Part 1 of this series, do take time to read poet Arnold Adoff’s thoughtful responses regarding the inspiration for his latest book of poetry.
ZE: It has been argued that “trauma resists representation.” How did you approach the illustrations depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage? As a children’s book illustrator are you expected to make every subject “beautiful”?
It’s all about nuances and the experience a painter has gained in order to shout things softly to his audience. The metaphorical poems in Roots and Blues masterfully intermixed historical names and events into a continuous flow. I feel that the words have a similar sentiment to Blues music, by the way the atrocities and triumphs are a continuous poetic flow. To paraphrase Tom Feelings, any subject matter can be presented to people of all ages, one has only to hear the blues to know something horrible can be told in a beautiful way.
I also believe that if you present a trauma with a melody, metaphorical words, or with attractively arranged pigments you can at least get the public’s attention, but it’s the artist’s experience and ability to use nuance that will get people to care. If done carefully, I believe that the art will be embraced as something beautiful, at least for some of the people. The poems from Roots and Blues mimicked the essence of the Blues and the history of brown folks’ “American” journey. So I, in turn, mimicked Arnold’s words in a visual form, which I suppose is the purpose of an illustration.
The visuals are muted grays and blues that I hope are in tandem with the dull pain to those words that were intermixed with pockets of joy. This is the first time I used a glazing technique for an entire book. I chose to knock the colors down a bit, kind of a bluish gray pallor cast over what was once vibrant colors. I was able to wipe away and rebuild certain places in the painting so that the glaze would in fact brighten certain areas within the images. This was done to have pockets of vibrant colors in cool and distant images.
Yes, I’m often expected to make my art beautiful (if not cute) but I tip the balance towards images that will challenge our children. Foremost I paint for myself and do this with the hope that other people will “get it.” I keep it fun and interesting but also honor myself as an artist.
ZE: In the blues tradition there’s a fine line between ecstasy and agony; talk about your strategies for capturing both emotions in your illustrations.
I am all about balance, in my life and in my art. The artwork for this book was my best attempt to capture Arnold’s flow of opposites, colorful moments as a contrast within a long, painful journey.
He has an ability to give historical facts, capture the emotion of the times, and barrage my mind with a stream of visuals. Nothing was sugarcoated in the writing; perhaps that would be a disservice to the people that went through that pain and to the young people that need to be prepared for the world’s realities. It seems to me that Arnold danced between these two conflicting emotions all the time (ecstasy and agony) while not being too nostalgic. The poems and the times they comment upon are raw. He put himself out there as an artist and I wanted to keep up with him visually.
But Poetry is one of the most difficult things to illustrate for me, because you have to be decisive when interpreting the meaning of a series of meanings. I always think that such a work can be read so many different ways and too quick of a decision towards the meaning can kill the audience’s growth. On the other hand, indecision in the illustrator can often produce a visual incongruity. In illustration I think the major point is to be able to process the mix into an interesting visual summation. Poetry seems to be a mix within a mix, an art form capable of having many tentacles. I think that it takes a delicate heart and advanced mind to embrace something that can be so mercurial, definitively stated and so personal to the reader. I feel as though such a listener wants to create his own relationship to those words, so being told what’s definitive as the meaning (visually) can come off as a killjoy.
I respected his art by approaching the series of poems as one steam of ideas. In some cases I focused on the idea of something literal…a piano player or image of a jook joint etc., and other times I attempted to comment on the spiritual side of things. One of the first pieces shows three figures connecting with land and water; eyes are closed and bodies contorted. On one hand, it would have been easy to define the words near it as a piano player image, but I took the harder road and commented on the metaphorical aspect. I wanted to introduce the reader to the origins of it all: the respect for the land and the process of life, it’s circular direction between death and life. We come from the earth only to go back within it, so this first painting is about impossibilities and how something that doesn’t make sense sometimes has an order to it. Time must pass in order to sometimes understand that disorder. The land, people and gestures are my way of introducing the readers to what they might expect for the other parts of this book. To expect that the impossible will make sense and to take the subject matter with solemnity and inspiration. I had to pace myself and pace the imagery for the book. At times you will see the agony in the lack of facial expressions—simply eyes closed or the gesture of the hands and body—and other times the figures will be directly looking at you, engaging you as the viewer. It’s art that shows itself but invites you to find your own meaning based upon your own life experiences and whatever you can project into the historical and artistic experience.
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