by Sam Juliano
Javaka Steptoe’s biographical picture book about the life of the seminal Greenwich Village artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has gone the extra mile. Maybe the extra two miles. Make that three. A book that features replications of his work in the hands of an artist like Steptoe could well yield electrifying results but this son of another groundbreaking legend wanted to to convey the feeling, the textures, the materials and the environment that surrounded this unique American artist from his initially sheltered upbringing to his Bohemian lifestyle that began near the end of the baby boomer era. Perhaps the most important lessons to be gained from this astounding work are voiced by Steptoe himself in an afterward. The author-illustrator speaks about this story of parental influence, unlikely success and tragedy as a vassal for healing, and a coming to terms with internal problems like mental illness that have maligned family members in the artistic community and the world at large. Though every turn of this forty page book yields yet another magnificent tapestry Steptoe nonetheless tells his readers that “Basquiat’s artwork is more than just bright colors or interesting composition or text.” Steptoe equates artistic expression as a voice for which an artist can address complex social issues and politics that remain topical today. Yet, like Abraham Lincoln who famously said “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” Steptoe’s interpretative art in Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat will ultimately make it a transcendent work. Steptoe’s artistic decision in approaching Basquiat’s work was daringly audacious, adapting himself to the icon’s style but steadfastly avoiding pictorial facsimiles. As a result he paints a more complex and intricate portrait of the boy’s coming of age by examining the images, thoughts, tenacity, squalor, energy, clutter, healing, heartbreak, solitude, social immersion, street life, all negotiated in the fast lane by someone who created as much in his short life as the poet John Keats did in his own brief sojourn.
Radiant Child’s inside cover and dust jacket are near replications, though the latter displays the title, author and an extended blue banner across the top under Steptoe’s name. A drawing of Jean-Michel as a young dreamer appears on the front, while he is pictured as grown man on the back. Stunning collages feature a sepia tone photo of his Brooklyn apartment and adjoining buildings, lettered blocks he played with as a toddler, his earliest drawings with crayons, a box of baking soda from the kitchen, the cover of McCall’s, which Jean-Michel’s mother read, the Puerto Rican flag (representing where his mother hailed from), a section of a Brooklyn map where the Basquiats lived, the Haitian flag (the country of his father’s origin) and a drawing of a spleen from the near-fatal car accident Jean-Michel sustained. The more abstract canvas on the back cover is more thematic, and the message is love. The end papers project an arresting blue and chalky white stream of consciousness, from white the trademark crowns that are seen later in the narrative, which as Steptoe relates in a discuss of motifs and symbolism represents “power or strength” and often was afforded as a “sign of respect.” Basquiat’s color merged drawing of Basquiat and his unique hairstyle leads into the title page has a striking over-exposed look.
The first look at Brooklyn brownstones in an arid summer with ices, pizza and kids playing, one that compellingly recalls the Bed-Sty surroundings in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, though substantially tempered with the young Jean-Michel’s more colorful, dream laden palette. A powder blue colored Bel-Air, an older model black car and a sidewalk tree help to frame this steaming late 60’s tapestry. This opening spread and all that follow as per Steptoe’s announcement on the copyright page were etched on “richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. Pencils, drawings hanging on the walls, papers strew about and a Jean-Michel driven to complete a masterpiece at the expense of sleep define the beginnings of his eventual vocation. Steptoe conveys the inexplicable nature of Basquiat’s art, one that is also posed for some other abstract artists – that his drawings aren’t neat or clean and he colors outsides the lines creating what at first appears strange and ugly, yet as many found out in time still beautiful. It is a generally accepted fact that Jean-Michel’s love of and penchant for art was passed down to him from his mother Matilde, an ordered woman who kept house impressively and stylishly, but took the time to draw with her son. She taught him a very important aspect of art that too often is misunderstood, that art wasn’t exclusive to museums, exhibits or theaters. Neither was it restricted to the poetry he read. Art was part of everyday life, it was in the streets where cars sped by, and in the language and games played by the kids. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to conclude that art was a force of nature. Steptoe’s slanted depiction of a group of small stores, the people walking past them and the street were blurs of color and a more delineated milk truck race by superbly recreates the faster pace of the big city.
Jean-Michel learned as much as he could from museum trips with his mother. He didn’t just look at the paintings but learned about their creation and about the artists of each. Another Steptoe gem envisions the family living room. Younger sister in in crib, father prepares to play a jazz record, mother affectionately looks in from kitchen where it is stated she is cooking arroz con pollo, calling out to her son Mi Amor. Meanwhile Jean-Michel is becoming more adept at projection the energy of city life in developing art, which can be seen all over the house walls and refrigerator. A bad car accident forces Jean-Michel to recover in bed, and the “Grey’s Anatomy” canvas powerfully evokes the psychological toll and the healing of this mishap, and of his mother’s nurturing hand in bringing his back by understanding how the body works and the parts presented again with the visual conscription of stream of consciousness. Then, the mom begins to exhibit mental illness, as she sings to the birds, so while his own body has almost completely healed his heart breaks and the family is torn asunder. Steptoe visualizes this terrible turn with an eerie canvas dominated by eyes blinded by the sad escort to commitment.
Jean-Michel’s life will never be the same states Steptoe, but he moves on though continuing to visit his feeble mother in her new home as much as possible. He confidently tells her that one day his own work will be in a museum when he becomes famous. He makes the same boasts to his father as he departs Brooklyn for the rough and tumble Lower East Side, where street musicians, hoods, hustlers, prostitutes and drug dealers line the streets. Steptoe refers to this urban blight as a concrete jungle and his pictorial depiction as Basquiat would see it is unruly, jolting and oddly exhilarating. His Bohemian stage has begun as moves in with friends, wears a green jumpsuit with paint stains and leaves his creativity with every step he takes. Then he begins to identify himself as “Samo” with copyright insignia as he spray paints walls with poems and drawings. But this is how he is discovered. Steptoe’s mass of black and white figures is brilliantly contrasted with the real world color. Powerful; color composition and line, his emblematic collages and oddly alluring paintings move from street corners to art galleries. Basquiat’s wildy unconventional but exquisite art is seen work-in-progress in one of Steptoe’s most astounding tapestries. Basquiat attends to a number of creations simultaneously while the radio blasts in a melting pot of brushes, paint cans piles of books, and magazines in a classic scene of the true nature of creative energy, one never governed by order. Even the suits Jean-Michel wears have been splattered by paint. His engagement here was complete sensory overload. He reveres negro athletes who have finally crossed the barrier once impenetrable because of ignorance and bigotry, and jazz figures like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday inspire him further.
The final panels showcase Basquiat at the top of the world emboldened by his success, one well documented by the newspaper stories and public adulation. He envisions himself with boxing gloves, a crown (one he embraces and shares with those he admirers) but still adores his mother whom he believes to be a queen on a throne. Steptoe’s last collage includes several readily identifiable artists of all colors and many fans and critics he held dear. This was the pinnacle of Jean-Michel’s life, which is after all the inspiration it is anticipated readers will derive. That is did lose his life at the exceedingly young age due to drug addiction while serving as cautionary should not impede on either his meteoric fame nor his long run of defeating adversity.
Radiant Child is a powerful statement, one that would undoubtedly flounder without someone who can both relate to what his subject went through and can through his own enormous talent recreate this cultural phenomenon through the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. Steptoe’s father was a groundbreaking artist who was awarded a Caldecott Honor for his gorgeous art in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. Now his son Javaka has turned to one of America’s most celebrated figures for his own flirtation with greatness. It seems a forgone conclusion the committee wll be all over this in the same late night sessions their subject was known for back in the day.
Note: This is the forty-second entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.