by Jan Miller Burkins
photograph by Shadra Strickland
She saw it and then painted it, offering us a place to meet Adrienne, Michael, Keesha, and Tommy, whom she gathered beneath the spread of its branches. She saw the tree while visiting New Orleans in preparation for illustrating Renée Watson's book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, and she said she knew it was "the place" to introduce us to the story's four characters.
from A Place Where Hurricanes Happen
The tree image fills the opening pages of the book Shadra affectionately refers to as "Hurricanes." And in the pages that follow, Shadra captures the essential moments of childhood, her art making tangible the intangible magic of best-friendness: bicycles ridden without time for sitting down, a jump rope hanging around a neck, a community where neighbors wave from their porches, and Adrienne's secure and satisfied smile. Adrienne tells us of her friends, "We play together all day... Until we are called to come inside... And I can't wait 'til tomorrow, when I can come outside and play again."
from A Place Where Hurricanes Happen
Perhaps the knowing that shows up in Shadra's illustrations in "Hurricanes" comes from her personal experiences of community and friendship. As a graduate student in illustration at the School for Visual Art (SVA) in New York, Shadra spent the last two years in a community of artists; Taeeun, Jonathan, Lauren, and Paul became her home. Like those sweet childhood days to which we cannot return, some of us have been fortunate enough to spend time among a collective of grown-ups who connect with us on creative, intellectual, and emotional levels. Such encounters, married with the generous time afforded those whose vocation for a spell is only to learn, provide us the peaks in our personal timelines. For two years, this group of five SVA students in illustration spent much of their days together practicing, exploring, and discussing art, and they couldn't wait to "come outside and play again."
Profoundly defining times in our lives, such as those with childhood's hide-and-seek friends and graduate school's companions in higher learning of all sorts, don't last forever. Life changes and so do we. Hurricanes come and separate children, tear down houses, and rearrange the people who once were familiar. Families need us and newly graduated students of illustration leave their creative wellsprings and bosom companions to bring comfort to a family in the wake of loss. So Shadra Strickland finds herself in Stone Mountain, Georgia, her first home, enjoying her mother, her first friend. But she is lonely for her artistic counterparts.
Despite her change in creative environment, Shadra is relentless in her work. Shadra won the Ezra Jack Keats New-Illustrator Award in 2009 for her illustrations in Bird, written by Zetta Elliott, which is also a Coretta Scott King Award winner. Shadra's honors are well deserved. Her studio, which I visited as an interviewer, is oozing with art, and she is working on three new books for three different publishers.
Bookshelf in Shadra's Studio
I watched as Shadra pulled image after stunning image from drawers and cabinets. But even in an interview about her, she is giddy to tell me about the books her friends have just published and the awards they are winning. During the morning I spent with her in her studio, I was most inspired by her generosity of spirit as she talked about her friends, their talent, and brilliance. And just talking about them caused her to miss them. "We should talk to Taeeun right now," she suggested, gesturing toward the computer with a smile.
So Shadra and Jonathan and Paul and Lauren and Taeeun, now all established children's illustrators, sustain their community through webcams and e-mail and other virtual streets where they ride their cyber-bikes together without time for sitting down. "We can still be best friends, right? Even though we're not living on the same block," Keesha writes from the rubble of the hurricane to Adrienne, who is staying with family.
At the end of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, Adrienne, Michael, Keesha, and Tommy gather again under the tree that Shadra saw in New Orleans. The children return, they are at once changed and the same. Michael draws a picture of the people on their block who won't return, and he hangs it on the tree, so they will know they are not forgotten. The tree, the drawing, their intent, all serve as tributes to who they all were before Hurricane Katrina happened.
The Crew: Paul Hoppe, Lauren Castillo, Jonathan Bean, Shadra Strickland,
and Taeeun Yoo
Shadra is still far away from her friends, but there is probably some watering hole in New York City that is their "tree," and they are likely to reunite there in grand St. Elmo's Fire fashion. In the meantime, we at Literacyhead asked Shadra's friends if they wanted to contribute the supporting art for this issue, as a tribute to Shadra. Not surprisingly, they agreed, seeming genuinely grateful for the opportunity to translate their affection for Shadra into action.
I'm not surprised by their devotion. One should be so lucky as to spend two years in graduate school with Shadra Strickland, or even just a morning in her studio conducting an interview. She teaches of balance, relentlessness, passion, excellence, loyalty, and joy all with unchoreographed and unscripted grace.
Shadra Strickland in her studio