Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chuck Close for Children

     It is somewhat difficult to find children's books about contemporary artists, and the reasons can be varied, although appeal and appropriate subject matter for children can certainly add to the difficulty. Most books for the younger age group are about picture book illustrators. Last year's publication of Face Book by Chuck Close has certainly made a difference in this category, and I hope more artists will follow his lead. I was able to find three books that can be used at home or in classrooms, and that includes Face Book. I've noted them below in order of succeeding complexity.
     Bob Raczka's Here's Looking at Me: How Artists See Themselves has an entry for Close, and I found it to be a very useful introduction.  A two-page spread, one side gives concise information about Close's work and mentions his illness. The other side reproduces Close's "Self-Portrait, 2000." The text could be used (with some explanation of certain words) for children in all grades at the elementary school level. In addition, the rest of this book is excellent, the selection of works is wide-ranging and has excellent appeal for children as well as adults.
     Chuck Close's Face Book deserves every accolade it received: it contains all the elements that make a successful art book for children, including the question-and-answer format, handled here with a light touch that is never pedantic or condescending. This book has something more: one section of the heavy card-stock pages reproduces some of Close's work. Each page is split into three, enabling the reader to move the pages back and forth and experiment with the images of Close's self-portraits over time and in different mediums. While Close's work is daunting for anyone thinking of attempting to work in his manner, my children could not resist the book itself, moving the pages back and forth, amazed at how Close makes his art. This is a wonderful, honest book, and I highly recommend it for readers of any age.
     Chuck Close, Up Close by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan was published in 1998. This is a biography for older children and while the explanatory text is clearly written, and it contains numerous anecdotes from interviews with Close, it does not have the appeal of Close's own book. It would be most useful for older children looking for information for a report, or for adults seeking a more conventional format for instruction. Many of the illustrations are also in Face Book, but I did appreciate the end matter which includes a three-page essay for children explaining what a portrait is, a glossary, a detailed list of figures, a bibliography, and a list of some of the museums in which Close's work can be viewed, although the last two would need to be checked given the age of this text.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Picasso Biographies and Picture Books for Children

     In many regards, Picasso is probably much more accessible to young children today than he was to previous generations. His work often reflects a fractured world, a world that is readily recognizable to all of us now that we are conditioned to accept images that reveal a personal perspective that is also universal. That being said, I have found that incorporating Picasso into art instruction (at home) was made easier by an introduction through an I Spy book. In Lucy Micklethwaite's Spot the Dog, she included a reproduction of one of Picasso's Three Musicians paintings, "the one with the dog," as my kids now say. This painting is in MoMA; the other, without the dog, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The dog made all the difference.  It was as if this one painting was the door through which Picasso's world could be entered.
     As for biographies and picture books, there are not that many recently published and readily available. It quickly became apparent to me that Picasso lived a very adult life, one that will not be easily translated into works for children. I found two picture books about Picasso that are nicely done: Jonah Winter's Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! and Picasso and the Girl With a Ponytail by Laurence Anholt. In Winter's book, the bright, bold illustrations match the simple text as the author relates Picasso's struggles against the art establishment to produce work he believed in. I found this book to be most useful for introducing the idea of periods in the artist's life. A short, single-page essay at the end of the book details Picasso's artistic battles, and a list of the works reproduced by the illustrator references the collections in which these work reside.
     Anholt's book is about Sylvette David (who became an artist) and the summer she sat for Picasso. The storyline is that of the young girl's growing friendship with Picasso, the revelation of why she appears to be so sad, and the gift that makes for her eventual happiness. This picture book can be used for its story alone as the main character is Sylvette, not the artist. I found this book to be very accessible for young children, but of value to anyone looking for a simple treatment in story form of Picasso's creative process. A few paragraphs at the end of the book, along with a photograph of one of the sittings (which I particularly liked) details the history behind this gentle and appealing story.
     Biographies for older children include Mike Venezia's Picasso from the "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" series.  This clear and simple treatment of Picasso's life (for any age, except the youngest) includes comics along with pages of photographs from Picasso's life and art, interjecting humorous notes that make the text more appealing for younger readers.  Kate Scarborough's Pablo Picasso (in the series, "Artists in Their Time"), a biography for older children, includes a timeline that runs along the bottom of the pages of text and photographs and reproductions of artworks.  This is a great book to use on its own for anyone, including an adult, who is seeking a well-written, detailed chronicle of Picasso's life and work.
     And finally, I include a book that is more difficult to classify, Antony Penrose's The Boy Who Bit Picasso.  This is more of an illustrated essay than a biography, and the emphasis is upon Penrose's own relationship, as a child, with Picasso.  The son of Lee Miller (whose photographs illustrate the book) and Roland Penrose, Penrose was in a unique position, getting to know Picasso as a friend of his parents.  The biting story is only a small part of this book and is not really the focus of the narration.  The text is charming (although I think older children might not care for it), and I particularly enjoyed the way Penrose incorporated discussion of some of Picasso's work into it.  This would be a nice addition to more linear looks at Picasso's life.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Leonardo Da Vinci

     Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the best known artists in the world, and introducing him to small children is vital to their understanding of art history. The books I examined, several of which can be used with younger children, range from simple to more complex biography, along with picture books about the story of the theft of "Mona Lisa" from the Louvre in 1911.
     Two picture books concentrate on the theft of the painting, rather than the artist and his body of work. Who Stole Mona Lisa? by Ruthie Knapp and The Mona Lisa Caper by Rick Jacobson both employ the device of having the painting tell the story in the first person. Both books are somewhat sympathetic to the thief who claimed to have stolen the painting in order to restore it to Italy, believing it to have been stolen from that country many years before. Who Stole Mona Lisa? can be read to the youngest children and The Mona Lisa Caper can either be read aloud or given to children older than eight to read on their own.
     A short biography of Da Vinci that can be used as a bridge from the picture books to the longer works is Da Vinci by Mike Venezia, part of the series, "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists." Clear, simple text works well with reproductions of Da Vinci's art and a few comic strip illustrations.
     For upper elementary and middle grades, I found the Golden Kite Award winner Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd (who did the wonderful illustrations for the Newbery winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz) to be very interesting and most successful with young readers. (A nine year old boy I know liked it very much.) The illustrations call to mind early Renaissance art, and the details of Da Vinci's life that are included work very well with information about his pursuits. While I am not always a fan of sidebars and busy pages, I thought that in this book they added to, rather than detracted from, the overall impact of the book. This book does not concentrate on either the art or the science, but provides a larger, more intricate picture of the man and his amazing mind. "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa" are appropriately featured and do not overwhelm the rest of the book.
    If you seek biographies for older children, I would highly recommend Diane Stanley's Leonardo Da Vinci. This ALA Notable provides the best biographical information as well as gorgeous illustrations, a pronunciation guide, historical context, and a bibliography as well as suggestions for further reading for children.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Picture Book Biographies of Georgia O'Keefe

     There are several picture books featuring Georgia O'Keefe, but I found that the best of all as a pure stand-alone was Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O'Keefe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Novesky's tight focus on one episode in O'Keefe's life is illustrative of all of the artist's life, her determination to do as she pleased, her spirit of generosity and empathy. In this book, O'Keefe is hired by the company that will become Dole to paint a pineapple for commercial use and given a ten-day visit to Hawaii for that purpose.  Unable to make herself comply with the company at first, O'Keefe finds Hawaii filled with natural objects she prefers to paint and gives the company two paintings with other subjects, although she does finally find it in her heart to paint a pineapple for them. I loved the artwork by Morales which made even the human figures she depicts seem part of the natural environment of Hawaii, although my one disappointment was that the final picture of the pineapple is not very clearly shown in the book. Morales painted in acrylic on paper and then assembled the illustrations digitally and the book is lush and gorgeous.
      The other books are broader overviews of O'Keefe's life. Through Georgia's Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez, illustrated by Julie Paschkis, presents a biography of the artist that can be used with young children, and the cut-paper collages are so interesting (she painted paper with gradating color and cut out the shapes and glued them down) that I want to use this method as an art project for my children this summer. The text is clear and lovely, poetic without being sentimental. Georgia's Bones written by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Bethanne Andersen is a more conventionally illustrated picture book using gouache, pastel and colored pencil on paper. In this, the text is somewhat uninspired biography with awkward transitions between phases in the artist's life, and I thought it would have been better had the focus been tighter on what the title proclaims.
     Two other books are My Name is Georgia: A Portrait by Jeanette Winter and Georgia O'Keefe by Linda Lowery, with illustrations by Rochelle Draper. In Winter's book, matte acrylic paints convey a simplicity that is echoed by the text which sometimes quotes directly from O'Keefe. I loved the emphasis on O'Keefe's "the faraway" and the images of the artist sleeping on her roof in New Mexico, looking up at the stars, both of which called to mind the work of Faith Ringgold. This is another picture book biography that can be used with young children. Lowery's book, on the other hand, is a more conventional easy reader biography, the illustrations are unfortunately all sketches and overly serious, but I recommend it for the text as accessible for younger children looking for more biographical information prior to being able to conquer a longer text like Mike Venezia's Georgia O'Keefe, which is not so very long or difficult but, of course, not an easy reader.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Art 123

While there are more counting and alphabet and "I Spy" books out there than I could ever possibly come to the end of, I do find that some of these books are deceptively simple and extremely effective to use with children of varying ages. These types of books do not need to be as comprehensive as some of the more ambitious alphabet books, and here I'm think of the series put out by Sleeping Bear Press about the states (and other subjects), but those that can work on different levels for young readers. What works best are books that push beyond the most well-known works and introduce less well-known works while still offering great artists' best achievements. Your fourth-grader certainly knows how to count to twelve, but books that encourage focused looking are always great additions to any undertaking of art appreciation.

An example of this is Stefano Zuffi's Art 123 in which Zuffi presents reproductions of works by artists as diverse as Botticelli ("Primavera") and Hopper ("Nighthawks") and Renoir ("The Luncheon of the Boating Party"), but goes well beyond these three overexposed works. Included in this book is Magritte's "Golconda," an extra page for counting men in hats coming down from the sky (although I question the "coming down" part), and Roy Lichtenstein's "Sunrise," in which the reader is asked to count the rays of the sun. The reproductions are excellent, as anyone might expect from a book put out by Abrams and I found it amusing to look at the way the illustrated hands held up the correct number of fingers on the page facing the reproduction (in the European manner, as you will see), adding just a little more whimsy to the overall design of the book.  I was also happy to see sculpture included (Henry Moore's "King and Queen") since, so often in books of this sort, one only finds paintings. Moore, far more than another famous sculptor such as Rodin, truly has great appeal for children.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Biographies of Seurat and Cezanne for Children

Seurat and La Grande Jatte and Paul Cezanne: A Painter's Journey, both by Robert Burleigh, are two excellent additions to works for children on famous painters. The first of these, about Seurat and his most famous painting, begins with an examination of the work itself, asking the reader to seek out details in the painting that might be cursorily overlooked. From there, Burleigh begins to explain these details, account for Seurat's influences, and inform the reader about certain aspects of the painting that I found fascinating. This is a book that invites repeated reading. I particularly liked the way Burleigh folded in small details of Seurat's short life and chose illustrations that coordinated extremely well with the text. The belief that Seurat took his main influence from the painting from ancient Egyptian sculpture with its straight lines of stiff figures in profile makes a huge difference to the viewer. I also liked the way Burleigh included a photograph of the same park from 1999, completely empty of people. In my search for books to use with children, it was rare to come across a book that focused on one work, and I was happy to find this one.
The second book, about Cezanne, is less focused, and therefore I found it slightly disappointing when comparing the two, but only in the comparison. As a very nicely illustrated book, this biography of Cezanne includes a wealth of information presented in a highly readable manner. In this, Burleigh writes a more conventional children's biography of Cezanne, with an emphasis on the artist's struggle to create even though he received no encouragement to do so. In fact, even his best friend from childhood, Emile Zola, based a failed artist character on him in his novel, The Masterpiece, with the artist in the book committing suicide when confronted with his ultimate failure. Cezanne was, according to Burleigh, deeply hurt by this portrayal. Determined until the very end of his life to improve and become a better artist, painting every day, Cezanne would have considered admitting failure alien to his very nature.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Whether one is homeschooling or not, when looking for books that will encourage art appreciation in young children, I have found that most, if not all, will encourage active looking.  Many are inquiry-based, meaning they ask questions of the reader rather than simply giving information. Some series, like "Come Look With Me," will present a work of art on one page, and a set of questions on the other, followed on that same page by a short description with facts about the work. Depending on the work selected and the audience level of the questions, one can find a huge range in the presentation in this series, appealing to the very young to the upper grade child. These are short books and each covers no more than twelve works.

Other series, like Gillian Wolfe's "Look!," are specifically designed for younger children, in the six-to-ten-year range, with art work selections that appeal both visually and thematically, and which are shown in large, clear reproductions. One entry in this series, Body Language in Art, breaks down its subject into faces, hands, body pose and message. Wolfe presents a work, describes it in one or two sentences, asks questions and explains (very briefly) what the artist has done. Each work comes with a suggestion for further study or an activity. I was impressed with the way the first three chapters led naturally into the message chapter, encouraging readers to apply what they had just learned. The works selected vary from Georges Le Tour's "The Fortune Teller," the work selected for the cover, to Norman Rockwell's "Going and Coming," and include an excellent introduction to Grant Wood's "American Gothic" in the message chapter. A concluding section gives more information about the seventeen works and where they can be found.