This week the American Library Association announced that Boston artist Ekua Holmes had again won its Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, honoring African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults. This time she was celebrated for her illustrations for her 2018 book “The Stuff of Stars,” authored by Marion Dane Bauer.
The 63-year-old has been on an amazing run. She only got into children’s book illustration because her art was discovered a few years back by someone from Somerville publisher Candlewick Press while on exhibit at J.P. Licks ice cream shop in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The publisher contacted her out of the blue with an invitation to work with them.
Holmes’s first children’s book, “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement,” written by Carole Boston Weatherford, won a Caldecott Honor in 2016, as a runner up to the Caldecott Medal, the top prize for children’s picture books in the country. Her art for “Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets,” written by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, won a 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
These successes, Holmes says, “It’s all been really shocking.”
Then a Candlewick editor invited her to make art for “The Stuff of Stars,” Bauer’s story of the big bang and the birth of the earth. The book begins in a vastly empty “deep, deep dark. … And then/the beginning/of the beginning/of all beginnings/went/BANG!//And in a trillionith/of a second…/our universe was born.”
Holmes was stymied by the idea of illustrating a “giant, formless universe,” she says.
“I didn’t see the connection to what I do. No people, no buildings. … I didn’t see why it this was a good book for me.”
But the editor continued to urge her to take on the manuscript.
“When I got to work on it, it was torture. How do you describe something that is not yet formed?” Holmes says. “My mother had this thing: When you’re stuck don’t try to overwhelm yourself with the future, just do the next thing.” So Holmes took a break to clean her studio. Picking up things, she found a scrap of marbleized paper. “All of a sudden I was in deep space. I thought, oh, that’s what I can do. … That sense of space and timelessness and the universe, it’s all in there.”
Holmes says, “All of a sudden I could see a path into doing this story.”
So she enrolled in a class to learn how to marbleize paper. “You take water and you add a chemical that makes it sort of heavier than it usually is. Then you drip pigment on it. The pigment spreads out and it swirls.” And then you dip specially-treated paper into the fluid to capture the patterns. Holmes created vivid swirls of color layered with drips and starbursts to symphonic effect.
And Holmes cut out silhouettes of birds, butterflies, dinosaur bones, galloping horses, swimming dolphins, and people. She layered and collaged them by hand and digitally. Holmes says, “It is so vast and so grand. Then how do we bring that back into a single life?” The book poetically surveys all of evolution leading up to this moment: “You,/and me/loving you./All of us/the stuff of stars.”
Holmes says she has another children’s book in the works. She continues to run Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Sparc! artmobile, which offers roving community art workshops, as she has done since 2011. Since that year, she has also served on the Boston Art Commission, which oversees city public art projects.
This coming summer she’s hoping to do a second year of her “Roxbury Sunflower Project.” Developed with the independent Boston public art curators Now + There, she organized people to plant thousands of sun flowers across Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood last summer.
“I thought that this sunflower because of its special attributes would make a great symbol or emblem for Roxbury,” Holmes said last June. “Life is a struggle. That sunflower is so resilient that it will survive the struggle.”
And Holmes is packing up her studio of 23 years at the Piano Factory in Boston’s South End. Like other artists who have long rented space in the building, Holmes says, “I’m being pushed out in service of luxury apartments. … It’s another great loss. We always say we want communities of diversity and we want artists. Well, that’s what we had. But somebody wants money more.”
Still, Holmes says, “I insist on hope. You can have some healthy cynicism. But hope is the pillar of the world. That’s an African proverb. If you remove hope, you have nothing. So I insist on it.”
June 12, 2018: What Happens If You Plant 10,000 Sunflowers At The Heart Of Boston’s Black Community?
Sept. 9, 2018: Checking In On Ekua Holmes’s Blossoming ‘Roxbury Sunflowers Project’
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