It was June 14th, 2011, pretty much a workday like any other at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. An art director’s job consists of juggling e-mails, meetings, art notes, book designs, and the like. I knew one highlight that day would be Bryan Collier
bringing in his first finished piece of art for I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, the picture book we were in the middle of creating.
Now, all this time later, I have no memories of that particular day or week except for one. I’ll always remember Bryan unveiling that piece of art.
I first met Bryan in 2004 when I worked at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. At the time he was creating the illustrations for Rosa, written by Nikki Giovanni, and was in the office for a meeting. I wasn’t involved, but loved watching the process from the sidelines. When I was introduced to Bryan, I was a bit surprised. Feeling like I already knew him from his passionate and energetic books, such as Uptown and Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (written by Doreen Rappaport), I was prepared to meet a man with a grand presence and a booming voice. Instead, I met a quiet, unassuming, gracious, soft-spoken man with a warm smile. The passion and energy are certainly there, but much of it is reserved for the creation of his stories.
When in front of a group, speaking at events or in classrooms, Bryan can indeed have a grand presence, filled with energy and intense emotion. But no matter what the setting, the one word that best describes Bryan is respect. Respect for others, for himself, for his heritage, for children, and, especially, for illustration.
So…back to the wondrous June day when Bryan shared that first art piece for I, Too, Am America. I knew he wanted to incorporate the story of the Pullman porters into the book. More specifically, he wanted to show how they would gather newspapers, magazines, and blues and jazz albums left behind by the train passengers, then, by tossing these items into the air from the caboose of the moving train, spread knowledge and culture to African Americans who lived and worked along the tracks. Bryan said he had created an image that might center the whole book. He didn’t want to describe it, though; he had to show me in person.
He brought out what looked, at first, like a simple close-up portrait. It was the face of an African American man wearing a uniform with a hat and tie: a Pullman porter. The man was shown in front of wood paneling, and there was a golden circle around his head, almost like a halo. As I looked closer I saw the halo was actually a window behind him, looking into a kitchen, with another African American man in a cook’s uniform working inside. Then, looking even closer, I saw it. Over the porter’s face, like a veil but incorporated into the painting so it’s a part of him, was the American flag. Stunning. I, too, am America. And then there was the porter’s expression, his eyes looking right into ours. He had a quiet power, a calm yet potent presence that said, See me.
That piece did, in fact, center the book so distinctly that it provided the inspiration for the striking cover art.
Unlike Bryan, I’m not always so quiet and reserved. After expressing my excitement for the piece, as well as the overall direction it presented for the book, I picked up the art, grabbed Bryan’s arm, and practically dragged him all around the office to show everyone this incredible illustration. As you can imagine, I was not alone in my enthusiasm. This art, unchanged from that moment, is one of the most powerful spreads in the final book.
When original art is around, I make sure there are no cups of coffee or liquids of any kind within five hundred feet (or more). It’s precious. Bryan feels the same, but watching him handle his collages is enlightening. He shuffles them around on the table, seemingly unconcerned about hurting them. For him, his art is always a work in progress. It’s not about perfection or preciousness. It’s about the story, the emotions, the moment. It’s also about progression. Often, Bryan would bring by a few superb and seemingly finished pieces. But after some discussion, he would reveal that he wasn’t yet satisfied, he still felt the need to shape them. So he would take them away and bring back reworked art that was sublime.
For Bryan, his collages are like clay — he sculpts them.
Bryan’s artistic inspirations are well known at this point. How his favorite childhood books, such as Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, made him aware that art in literature can make a profound impression. How his time at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn helped him explore and discover new media and ways of creating art while finding his unique visual voice. How his years of involvement with Harlem Hospital’s Harlem Horizon Art Studio has shown him the healing power of creatively expressing one’s self.
But what isn’t as well known is another hugely important influence on Bryan’s art: movies. To some it may be evident, as his books are quite cinematic in point of view, action, and storytelling. But he uses these techniques in such a seamless way that he’s made them his own. Like a master director, he takes a manuscript and walks around it, studies it, lives with it, until the visual point of view becomes clear. He establishes his perspectives, designs the backgrounds, researches the costumes, and sets the mood with light and shadow, texture, and movement. He even creates a sense of rhythm, like an underlying musical score. One page flows to the next, the action moving like the frames of a filmstrip.
But, even more than the visual influences of film, the emotional soul of movies has opened Bryan’s eyes to the power of storytelling. Specifically, the films of Spike Lee. As a freshman at Pratt, Bryan saw She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and, in his words, it hit him “like a ton of bricks.” What impressed him most was the artistry of how Spike Lee presented being African American in that moment. What Bryan took away from the film was, as he says, “It’s all doable. You can do it.” Later, while still at Pratt, he noticed the crew for Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) filming in Brooklyn. Right away, he saw an opportunity to act on the very emotions the director had inspired in him. He says, “I was bold. I thought, I’m taking this over.” And he did. He walked right up to a production person and said he was an artist and wanted to show Spike Lee his work. Ultimately, his work did get noticed by Mr. Lee, and a piece of Bryan’s art is in the film. Bryan jokes that you have to pause it at just the right moment to see his art, but that event changed his creative life.
Because Langston Hughes’s “I, Too, Am America” is so spare, without a clear character’s journey or story line, Bryan was free to interpret it in his own way. At the first creative meeting for the book with editor Courtney Bongiolatti, and me, Bryan brought his initial ideas in the form of many loose and rough sketches. But how to shape the story of Pullman porters and trains in general around Hughes’s poem in a coherent way? How could we make this relevant to children today, to show how being African American in our society has profoundly changed due to the actions of ordinary people? And while Bryan’s idea of somehow incorporating the Pullman porters was wonderful, the pieces weren’t quite fitting together yet.
With the ideas we had discussed and explored, Bryan left to ponder and live with it all some more. Then, pulling from a lifetime of personal influences, experiences, and growth, he found ways to divide the book into past and present, using the train as a metaphor for progress, the tracks as a historic divide between class and race. He did it. He brought together, in both broad and subtle ways, a very personal expression of how life has progressed not only for African Americans but for us all.
Bryan has a keen and deep understanding of how we see art, no matter what age we may be. When he brought in all the final, finished art pieces for the book, he took them out of the carrying case and, at first, didn’t say a word. The art should speak for itself. He let Courtney and me soak it up — and gasp and exclaim and jump for joy — before discussing it. He let us interpret it in our own ways, just as a child might do while reading the book, before sharing his thoughts and motivations for each piece.
With I, Too, Am America, all of Bryan’s influences have culminated into what I feel is his most expressive and personal work. Just like the Pullman porters of the past, Bryan takes his collected knowledge and experiences and throws them into the wind, spreading art, culture, history, and power. It’s a joy to witness Bryan’s journey and join him on that train. I can’t wait to see where he takes us all next.