Cameron Brooks: Thanks for talking with me today. Right after graduating from college, my sister moved to New York, and quickly found herself in some precarious situations. How did the move from a small town in New Jersey to New York influence your work?
Gregory Christie: The beginning year of going from Scotch Plains (New Jersey) to New York, in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, was more about my development as a person. As far as the artwork, I've done paintings since I was thirteen, and I've been drawing since a very early age, but I was really shy as a kid. So going to New York helped me to deal with different types of personalities. I like New York for the sense of you got that all the people that might have been not so popular at a certain time of their life, or maybe thought about things in a different way, they all kind of migrated to New York. They had a sense that this was the place to be. Getting there was more about the development of being able to talk to people and to speak about my work, and to also really develop as a person going from being introverted to an extroverted person.
CB: Like jazz, your work feels very improvisational. Who has influenced your style throughout the years?
GC: Early on it was Jean Michel Basquiat. I think almost every art student can appreciate his work, or at least appreciate his life, how he lived. Becoming an art superstar, I think everybody has that hope. In an art career, you might believe that, at some point, you might end up on the cover of Time Magazine, or you might have people value you and your artwork. I really like his work, and in some of my early children's books you can see me drawing on top of the painting, and it's something that I really appreciated about his work. I also like Pablo Picasso, and I like Diego Rivera, and I like artists like Ben Shahn. It's mainly artists who take the human figure and alter it in some way, and also many painters that will make the figure sculptural. Any kind of painter that does that had an influence on the work I do.
CB: Describe the scene as if I were a fly on the wall watching you work.
GC: You would see me sitting in my bathrobe maybe (laughing), and I usually have the radio on, or some kind of noise in the background. The mood is nice. I like mood lighting. I have a duo lamp, and duo means it gives you hot light and cool light. I will spend hours painting sometimes when I really get into it. I tend to lay out all my paints just kind of in a row so I can see all the colors, and I paint out of a bed pan. Well, it's really a bedpan. It looks like a butcher's pan, I guess, is more correct. The other thing that's interesting is that that's always how I paint. I usually have the pan, I have a light, and I have my paints laid out, but I'm also nomadic. I've been in Georgia for quite some time. Before that, I would just sit up in hotel rooms. I painted in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco; Stockholm, Sweden; Oslo, Norway. I went to a place called Kaucsuk, in Thailand. Even if the road changes, I always like to have a radio on. I listen to the BBC, or I'll basically have just the kind of light where I can get the colors right.
CB: Your art illuminates so many events and personalities often resigned to nonfiction and textbooks. Can you share with us some of the choices you've made in terms of subject matter?
GC: The very first book, The Palm of My Heart, was a book that was done by children. It was a book of poetry. I decided when I was going to do that book that I would try to do something that was different: elongated necks and large hands and small hands. I wanted to do just something that was more interesting to me as a painter. As I moved forward into other historical books, I had to decide whether I was going to make it more abstract, like what you'd see in Only Passing Through, The Story of Sojourner Truth, or it would be something like the recent book on Bass Reeves, where I stuck to doing things more realistic. I really chose to do books about people of color and historical books because, when I was a kid, I didn't know about any of these people. I didn't know about Toussaint L'Ouverture. I didn't know about Langston Hughes, and his impact on the world of poetry. I never really knew about Bass Reeves. I only was familiar with John Wayne, and Maverick and things like that, so it's really important I think to have balance in the curriculum, and to expose kids to different types of people. That's how I choose my books. I really like to find something that deals with history or culture.
CB: One of my favorite quotes from The Palm of My Heart is by Shawnta' Ya Jones: "...differences are good because no one else says the same things as you." Painting is your voice, and with each book, your style seems to say something different. So how do you tailor your aesthetic?
GC: I guess the first painting I do for each book is a doorway open to the room, and the whole kind of way that I choose to do the whole book. This one painting decides the next eighteen that are going to come after it. It really depends. I think I start to tailor the book based on the text. The text is really harsh, like what you see in Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I almost made those figures puppet-like. It also brought the landscapes that you see in Ethiopia, and also in Sudan. I made them alive. I really didn't want to close them up with flat plains of color, so I had a lot of washes and brush strokes because I want the landscape to dance across the page, and I want you to see a kind of life to the landscape as much as you would see in the paintings of the people. Sometimes I decide whether the land is important, like in Sojourner Truth. If you look at the land and a lot of the color, it's red. I was thinking about something I heard about the Civil War, that it was one of the bloodiest wars ever. I just thought I'd do kind of a maroon color and pull the whole book together, and also, I didn't want to do a very realistic series of paintings about Sojourner Truth because that's also kind of a harsh story. The artwork needs to balance out the text the authors give to me. Sometimes I choose to be very realistic, like again with Bass Reeves. I started out with a photograph of Bass Reeves taken in the late 1800's, a photograph of him in a suit and his mustache. He just looked so regal, and I wanted to capture that throughout the book. I didn't want to alter it too much with abstract painting, so that's pushed more toward realism. To think about it, I'd say it's more based on the text, that's one aspect. The other thing is going to be the actual historical figure, like what kind of photographs and what did the person look like? That's going to alter the decision of whether it's going to be realistic, or it's going to be paintings that are really abstract. It's really those factors.
CB: I first read about the Lost Boys of Sudan in Dave Eggars' book, What is the What, and I was haunted by the events. One of your latest books, which you just mentioned, Brothers in Hope testifies to the power of love and determination. Will you talk about how you conveyed that hope amid tragedy, with color and composition? I feel like the illustrations really fit with that text.
GC: I guess it was more being very graphic with the imagery, because the colors, they're muted, earthy tones. It's a children's book, but I didn't want bright colors and everything to come off as puppets. There's a book I've done called Yesterday I Had the Blues, and those were very vibrant colors, but the actual shape of the heads, the necks, and the body frames are similar to what you'd see in Brothers in Hope. By making the colors earth tones, again, it brings you back to the land because I was thinking that these boys were going against nature. They were going against the elements, so the land and those particular countries that they were in, are just as important as their story. I wanted to create a world in that sense too, so I decided to go stylized with it, you know?
CB: I don't think I'll ever forget the woman's expression in the painting, Black Hands. How were you able to capture such visceral emotion?
GC: I think I was thinking about my mother when I was painting that image, and my grandmother used to wear her hair that way too. In both cases, I think about how the different things they went through in life, and I guess it came out in the painting. That painting is one that people have offered to buy from me, but it's one of the paintings I'll never sell because that particular painting is the first one I'd ever done for a children's book, and also, it reminds me of my mother and grandmother. Some of the clothing, they're taken from pieces of my past. I think that's a specialty of mine. I love doing faces, and I think I'm able to get emotions in them. Usually the face is something that I paint first. The whole painting might be white paper, but I'll do the face first, and then I'll continue with the painting. For me - I guess all painters do this - you have to kind of actually think ahead of yourself. You realize you put down something. You can have an eye to see if it's really going to work the way to go further or not. Once I started to have that face develop, and I had those browns and sepias, and had the umbers, I just knew that I had a good painting and I just continued further with it.
CB: I'm going to shift now to schools and education. Many people in education are talking about a creativity crisis in schools. Do you believe that it exists, and if so, how do you suggest we address it?
GC: I think kids are naturally creative, and they just need to be exposed to the different tools, meaning materials. They need to be exposed to different materials that will help them tap into their creativity. There's a way they could actually take artwork and painting, and they could put that as part of the curriculum. Most paintings are historical, especially like paintings from the 1800s. There were different events that went on, and you could build the whole curriculum around different works of art, from different cultures. You can get into having them think, like why in western Africa most of the artifacts made, and works of art, are made from wood. You can realize that's the environment they worked from. And in Europe, there were certain ways they would paint. I mean, there's just so much they could learn, and I think it's just a matter of not everything so separate. Bringing simple things like contour drawing -- it's one of the easiest things to draw, and to learn scale, and to learn how to look at things. If you can do a stick figure, you can do a contour drawing. Everything could be linked to a book. You could even bring in some kind of ephemera, like maybe bring in some kind of a cowboy hat, and put that in front of the kids, and have them draw that. Then you could get into a book like Bass Reeves, and it gets into the Old West. It's gets into Oklahoma history. It gets into land runs. It gets into the origin of the word "Sooner." There's American history, and it doesn't have to be so segmented into Black History Month. It doesn't have to be segmented into a particular curriculum or subject. It all could be more together, and that appreciation will come from being creative, learning history, and also learning to tap into your creative edge.
Gregory Christie as Bass Reeves
CB: I teach third grade in a very diverse public school, and as my pedagogy evolves, civil rights play a greater and greater role within our classroom. What do you think is the status of the Civil Rights Movement today, and how does it influence your work?
GC: My opinion is that the country has actually gone backward in some respects. I think people need to be more open with each other and learn to be around each other, and realize that it's getting to a point where it's between rich and poor people, the haves and have-nots. Times have changed. It's not the same as segregation, but I think people, even if they don't intentionally want to do it, sometimes they end up separating themselves. That sends a message to your children that everyone in your neighborhood, and everyone your child comes into contact with, looks like them. I don't think that helps them grow as a person, to really understand the world, and to prepare them for a career. If they move to a city like New York, they're going to meet all kinds of people with all kinds of points of view, and all kinds of life experiences. If you want to use a civil rights term, it only helps to integrate people so that they actually learn to tolerate each other, and understand each other's point of view. I think we've gone backwards because of all the things we see on the media about people just screaming out at the president. It's just a blame game in some ways, and I think sometimes ethnicity comes into play, and is some people's foundation for all of it.
CB: Can you talk about what you are currently working on, and where you see your art taking you in the future?
GC: Getting back to the civil rights question, to do my part, I like to do books about culture or history. So if I go to a school that's in a suburb that's predominately white kids, they'll see books that deal with historical figures from different cultures. Almost every project I've taken, that choice was made because I'm trying to make a difference. The recent projects - one is called Jubah. It's a West African fable, and it's about this girl who has the power of creativity in her mind and hands. It's going to be a big challenge for me because I'm pretty well versed in just painting historical figures and environments. But when you're doing something that's very fantastical, it's a different type of painting, and a different way of thinking about the paints. Juba's one, and another one is based on Martin Luther King Jr. It's being written by his niece, so it's a book about his life. Another book that's different for me is called Country Mouse, City Mouse, and I'm going to try and put my twist on it. There's always a few projects on my art table. I'm doing all of the books to try and make a difference.
CB: I have to say, my students have really enjoyed your books, and I can't wait to share future titles with them.
GC: That's great.
CB: My last question is what advice would you give to my students?
GC: My advice is this. They're probably going to be the last generation to take care of tangible things. I know that we have technology that's neat and electronic, communication through email, and things like that. But they should really value their libraries, and they should really value books that they can actually hold and read because it helps with their brain development. It's not something that can be easily altered or censored, so I think they should really love and respect the library, and go to it as much as they can. And make sure that when they get older and have kids, to pass it along to them, because it's good for our survival as human beings.