a list of…five inventive artists who inspire and delight us

Chuck Close: Face Book, based on an interview by Chuck Close, created by Joan Sommers and Amanda Freymann, with Ascha Drake

Chuck Close is an incredibly influential contemporary artist who works on just one subject:  the human face.  Whether he’s painting a massive, abstract, oil portrait, or squeezing pulp-paper into a collage, etching, silkscreening, or using his own fingerprints — Chuck Close focuses on faces, on which he loves to read “a road map of a life.” 

Glue + Paper Workshop has created this incredibly unusual biography of Close.  It’s a fascinating read; it’s chock-full of reproductions of his work;  AND… it includes a way-cool, mix-and-match-the-faces section — awesomely inventive!

The book is based on an interview between Close and a group of 5th graders from Brooklyn.  Their questions steer the book in directions we are all curious about:  What made you start to draw?  Why do you only paint faces? Why doesn’t anyone in your art smile?  And, referring to the accident at age 48 which caused paralysis from his chest down:  When you were paralyzed, were you afraid you wouldn’t be able to paint again?  Close answers beautifully.  Without talking down, he articulates his thoughts in language elementary students can grasp, honestly revealing many technical, philosophical, and emotional elements which undergird his art.  

Meanwhile, about one-third of the book is printed on sturdy cardboard pages, sliced in thirds, each of which has a full-page self-portrait done in a number of styles and mediums.  Foreheads generally take up the upper third, mouths and chins rest on the bottom, eyes and nose take up the middle.  Flip the pieces back and forth to compile brand new Chuck Close self-portraits!  Brilliant!

The book is rounded out with a graphic timeline of Close’s life (he’s still living, mind you), a list of some of the museums where you can view his work, (For those of you in Minneapolis, the book does not mention that we have the mindboggling “Frank” hanging in the MIA, and a number of gorgeous portraits at the Walker Art Center, so do go see them after you read this book!), along with other resources, a nice glossary of art terms, and more.  It’s like a triple-scoop ice cream cone:  the yumminess just keeps going and going and going… Highly recommended for ages 8 and up.  

Sandy’s Circus: A Story about Alexander Calder, by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Have you ever seen a mobile?  Thank Alexander Calder, the playful, inventive artist from Connecticut who experimented with dancing, whimsical, wire.

The child of artists, Calder began dabbling with wood, leather, and wire as a child, creating clever toys that entertained and delighted.  Moving from engineering to art as an adult, Calder took a job sketching scenes from the circus, which prompted him to return to the wire he loved and create an elaborate, ingenuous miniature circus.  Flying trapezes and high wire walkers, curly-maned lions and prancing ponies — Calder’s circus could pack up in a crate, then be set up to entertain audiences for hours.

Calder is most known for his mobiles, of course –his colorful, geometric pieces, suspended on thin, sweeping arms, elegantly hanging, gently bobbing, in air.  They are a joy to see.  Mobiles belong to the list of ideas that, when once brought to life, seem so essential to the world, so obvious almost, we cannot imagine that for millennia they did not exist.  Yet that bright, cheerful mobile suspended over your baby’s crib is a descendant of Calder’s genius.

This is a short, accessible story, focusing on Calder’s wire circus, that will introduce children as young as 4 to this brilliant artist.  Kulikov’s bright, sunny illustrations fill the pages with enthusiasm and optimism and liveliness.  I love the Muse who gads along, inspiring Calder here and there on his life-journey!    Read, then look for Calder’s mobiles in a museum near you, including, Minneapolis-dwellers, the MIA and the Walker.

The Wonderful Towers of Watts, by Patricia Zelver, with pictures by Frané Lessac

Simon Rodia was an Italian-born immigrant who settled in Los Angeles in 1921, purchasing a small lot in the Watts neighborhood.  Known as Old Sam, Rodia was a bit of a quirky fellow, who worked in a tile factory by day. 

And by night?  Outside of his work hours, Old Sam was a collector…and an artist.  His collection included shards of colorful tiles, fragments of cobalt blue and emerald green glass bottles, bits of bright pottery and shimmering mirrors, quaint knobs and funky faucets.  Sam purchased cement and steel.  Then, without any fancy machinery, without any help, Old Sam began to build. 

Crazy towers, towering spires, eccentric spiraling sculptures began to rise from behind Old Sam’s walled yard.  On the surfaces of these steel structures, Sam affixed the gewgaws and doodads he’d been collecting, until a fanciful, fantastical, mosaic-adorned monument glinted against the blue-blue California sky.

The Watts Towers still stand, now on the National Register of Historic Places.  They are a grand spectacle of folk art, built by a man with a singular vision who just kept carrying on until he succeeded.  I’m looking forward to seeing them for myself when I visit L.A.  later this year.  This simply-told story grabs our attention, giving just enough details for kids ages 4 and up.  Just be prepared for some backyard construction projects in consequence!  Brilliant, sun-baked, jewel-colored gouache paintings by Lessac mimic the rustic and whimsical nature of Rodia’s artistry.

Vincent’s Colors, words and pictures by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh wrote often to his brother, describing his paintings, telling a few of his thoughts about them.  In this beautiful book, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has paired sixteen of his paintings,with a short, evocative phrase of van Gogh’s to describe each one.  Using translations of the Dutch or French van Gogh wrote in, and setting them in pleasant rhyming patterns, the book calls our attention particularly to the colors he chose and his descriptions of them.

Chairs the color of “fresh butter,” and cypress trees “of a bottle-green hue.”  So satisfying to hear what he had to say about his own color choices, and then to have our eyes drawn to the other colors and brushstrokes he used in his dancing skies, undulating hills, and radiant stars.  

The book is beautifully arranged with a full-page, gorgeous reproduction set opposite a white page with just a short phrase walking across the middle of it; simple, undistracting, thought-provoking.  Children as young as toddlers can feast their eyes on these paintings, surely some of the loveliest in the world; can revel in van Gogh’s colors and textures; can be prompted to see and name the glorious colors in their own worlds.  Really lovely.

Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories, by Jan Greenberg

Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent his artistic life in New York City before he died in 1988.  He was an African-American man who experimented with collage, focusing his art on the nitty-gritty of ordinary life and particularly on the history and culture of his people.

Bearden’s life was anchored in a childhood spent in places like  Harlem, whose streets were bursting with new immigrants trying to become those who truly belonged in America, and Pittsburgh, where the steel factories dominated the cityscape.  He stocked his memories with jazz singers and folk musicians, neighbors and friends rejoicing, mourning, dancing, working.  These bits and pieces of his life emerged in his complex, vibrant collages later in life.

Bearden experimented a great deal, cutting, painting, mounting, contrasting images and colors and placements until he achieved the style and rhythm and force he is famous for.  His massive collage “The Block” at the Met in New York, stretches 18 feet long by 4 feet high — an incredible representation of interiors and exteriors of an urban, black neighborhood.

This extensive biography by Jan Greenberg explores the influence of Bearden’s life and his artistic choices which culminated in his unique voice.  Lavishly illustrated with reproductions of Bearden’s works, Greenberg also often quotes from Bearden, seeking to help us understand the artist from his own point of view, rather than describing him from afar.  It’s a solid introduction to this thoroughly American artist which will help children ages 9 and up appreciate his work all the more when they see it.  

Here are Amazon links for these artistic biographies:
Chuck Close: Face Book

Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder

The Wonderful Towers of Watts (Reading Rainbow Books)

Vincent’s Colors

Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories