by Sam Juliano
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was an African-American painter, who, faced with discrimination and segregation, taught himself the skills that brought him great renown and critical acclaim. Pippin served in World War I, sustaining a serious injury that cost him the use of his right arm. After the war he worked to rehabilitate it and began to draw. He didn’t actually complete his first oil painting until he was 40 years old, but from that point on he proceeded to make his mark as an artist, stating simply “I paint it…exactly the way I see it. After he was awarded the French Cross of War and the American Purple Heart he spent three years on his first painting, The End of the War: Starting Home, which provided therapy for his body and soul.
His life is the subject of a resplendent picture book by the duo that collaborated on the Caldecott Honor book A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams: Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet. As distinguished as that biography is, they have topped it with A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, a book of vibrant color blocks, with various motifs from Pippin’s actual compositions. The book is a veritable feast for the eyes – done in watercolor, gouache and mixed media – one that entices you to caress by hand some of Ms. Sweet’s painting accouterments and multi-panel tapestries. As the book’s title would imply, the color red is crucial in the visual scheme. It is used for emphasis and rich ornamentation, yet as the story progresses it’s also thematically relevant.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin opens with the birth of Pippin in West Chester, Pennsylvania late in the 19th century. When the future artist turned three the family moved to Goshen, New York. The author explains his youngest days as a domestic contributor:
Horace put his big hands to work. He fetched flour for his mother. He sorted laundry with his sisters. He played with his baby brother. He held the horse while the driver delivered milk.
At night young Horace piled wood for the stove and arranged dominoes so his grandmother could play. Most important to his artistic maturation he’d draw pictures of everything he’s see in a day, translating short-lived memories to paper by way of charcoal. Ms. Sweet’s exceedingly attractive pencil collages convey the budding artist’s perceptions: “Pictures just come to my mind…and I tell my heart to go ahead…” with beautifully-integrated images of a work-in-progress – the full color spectrum in round cylinders, paint brushes and color pencils all part of the sensory page design. In one striking collage Horace is seen in silhouettes stacking green sacks at a feed store, shoveling coal at a rail yard, mending fences on a farm, carrying luggage at a hotel, and making brakes in an iron factory. The superbly balanced use of red can be seen in falling leaves, flower bushes, the side of a rural house and a cardinal perched on a tree in the train yard.
Never conventional in her style and approach, Sweet engineers some arresting full page spreads to document the war years that forced Horace to serve and suspend his aspirations. Writes Bryant: “The Good old U.S.A. was in trouble in Germany” and “The war brought out all the art in me” in full Sweetian visual regalia- the trademark two-color blocks designed with patriotic flare. Horace returns home and marries Jennie Wade. Again Bryant and Sweet weave prose and illustrative magic:
I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunset. I came home with all of it in my mind.
Perhaps Sweet’s most ravishing tapestry in the book appears on the page that offers one of Bryant’s most poetic passages:
As he walked along the streets of West Chester, his fingers itched to draw all the colors and textures he saw: lacy white curtains billowing in the windows, a splash of red geraniums blooming on a step, a yellow cat sprinting down an alley, deep green vines spiraling up a wall.
The geranium “splash” is breathtaking and real eye candy as are other parts of this painterly equation Sublime block panels created with gorgeous pencil sketches adorn the borders. There’s an arresting, life-like collage of Pippin painting with the one injured hand that is guided by the other, with a side panel of paint dabs and brushes to enhance and embellish the book’s artistic theme and a dazzling spread of Pippin at his easel painting a warscape with the words “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for he must be true to himself.” Another exquisite full page design features Pippin contemplating his next work in the forefront with a boxed color spectrum, a wall picture and a vase of flowers, to be followed on the adjoining page with sumptuous paintings in miniature of a milkman and his wagon, women working in the kitchen, children playing games in the yard, cotton fields and log cabins, portraits in action of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, war scenes and Bible tales and men singing on the corner, all of which are seen in storefront windows, restaurants and barber shops.
Success followed and key figures helped to bring Pippin’s paintings to big-city galleries and museums and “people from all over the world came to see them.” The marvelous collaboration of author and illustrator on this master-class picture book could not have better framed than what Sweet conveys in her concluding illustrator’s note:
Typically, authors and illustrators stay fairly separate when making a picture book, but after Jen wrote this text, we bucked the tide by researching Horace Pippin together. Driving through the back roads of eastern Pennsylvania, we shared what we both knew and loved about art and Pippin. His story came to life as we talked to curators who knew his work, looked at Pippin’s paintings and his burnt-wood panels, and visited his home in West Chester.
Sweet, who is also well-known for her popular Balloons Over Broadway: The true story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, also illustrated another 2013 book, Brave Girl for Michelle Markel. The latter book, like all that showcase Sweet’s work is lovely, but A Splash of Red is in a class by itself, and deserves very serious consideration by the Caldecott committee, who’d be doing the picture book service a great service by gracing this fabulous team with one of this year’s medals.
Note: This is the eighth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association