Bryan Collier is one of the stellar artists featured in “From Caldecott to Coretta Scott,” an exhibition of Black children’s book illustrators at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Collier will speak with guest curator Rich Michelson on Tuesday, August 24, at 4 pm, and will conduct a collage workshop on Wednesday, August 25, at 10 am at Featherstone.
His works, which hang to the left as you walk just past the gallery passageway, are examples of Collier’s supreme craftsmanship in watercolor and collage.
Greeting us right away, perhaps appropriately for the Island, are two of the original images from “Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope,” which was published before he won the Democratic nomination for president, and the first picture book about him. The images are painted in rich shades of blue, purple, and black, and accented with bright highlights that convey the great power of his personality. There is one with Obama speaking, hands outstretched in his iconic stance and another, a private, intimate moment of prayer with a gorgeous butterfly that alights on his folded hands that touch his forehead.
By contrast, just down the wall hangs a picture of a cacophony of balloons with the bright, appealing face of a young Black boy beaming at us with a joyous smile. Looking carefully through the layers of watercolor-painted balloons — some carrying reflections of buildings and others translucent — we see the partial image of an adult peeking out. If you’re struck by the mysterious image, you can wander into the room next to the gallery to look at the finished children’s book, “Hey Black Child,” and find the corresponding page in the story. (This room, ostensibly for children, is a treasure trove of all the illustrated books represented in the exhibition, and a pleasure to visit to see how the original works translate into printed form.)
“One of the biggest takeaways is that what I’m painting is sound and voice. My theory is that when each of us go into a room, we never really walk alone,” Collier says. “We walk with everybody who came before us. All those voices hover around us as we walk through. That’s what I’m portraying when you see some of the images, different faces around the main character that you see. What I’m painting is everything that we never talk about. My purpose in making picture books is to tell the story but to talk about the edges … the voices and ancestry and all those things that aren’t commonly talked about.”
The additional images from this book on view are also close-ups of children’s jubilant faces. But Collier’s “Booker T. Washington Study” from “Fifty Cents and a Dream,” in contrast to these large-scale faces that fill the compositions, is filled with intricate detail of the important leader standing before his dense, impressive library. While Washington looks up, he gazes not into our eyes but off into the distance as if seeing the larger picture, which is fitting for this educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents.
Careful looking quickly reveals Collier’s masterful mixture of watercolor and collage to build his striking images. The layering is reminiscent of quilts, which Collier speaks about as related to his grandmother’s quilts when he was growing up: “We never had this aesthetic talk about the quilt. It was functional, but I bore witness to it, and it got into my system, and it grew. It was like a silent gift or a seed that was granted. A sort of visual gift that was a connection. I noticed the details that she had put in the quilt, and the sort of details I had put in these collages. It was not a conscious effort. It was just something that was ignited and bloomed through my work.” Collier’s use of collage is particularly apparent in the azure blue sky that helps frame the line of Black children proudly standing the length of a long picture frame in “High School,” from “Thurgood.”
There is also a selection of Collier’s non-illustration collages. His expert mixture of patterned, found, and painted elements creates a striking composition titled “Sisters,” in which two young girls, with their backs toward us, stand in front of an explosion of leaflike shapes against what appears to be black-and-white, floral wallpaper design that delights our eyes. Collier’s fully abstract “No Cross, No Crown,” in which he folds over some of the leaf-shaped paper, truly bursts off the picture plane and conjures up a fantasy shield with its own innate power.
We experience Collier’s art; we don’t just see it. As he says, “When you look at the work, I want you not only to feel something but to hear something … music and sound and to hear voices. Something that is totally connected to you as the viewer.”
“From Caldecott to Coretta Scott: Awardwinning Black Illustrators” runs through Sept. 8 at Featherstone Center for the Arts. For more information about Bryan Collier, visit bit.ly/CollierIllustrations. For more information about the exhibit, visit featherstoneart.org/gallery-shows.html.