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Chuck Close: Face Book: 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award Acceptance Speech

By Amanda Freymann and Joan Sommers

Amanda Freyman and Joan SommersChuck Close is so very honored to receive this award, and is so sorry he cannot be here. These masks were made from two of the hundreds of self-portraits he has created. We thought it was a fitting way to bring him into the room tonight. On behalf of Chuck Close and ourselves, we want to thank Roger Sutton, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Committee, and Simmons College.

Chuck Close is one of the most acclaimed visual artists in America. He lives and works in New York City. Chuck is known for his large-scale portraits of friends, fellow artists, and himself. He paints, draws, takes photographs, and makes prints, using every kind of media — oils, airbrush, paper pulp, pencil, and even his fingerprints. Although his style and process often change, his subject is always the face.

Chuck often says that art really saved his life. As a child he was severely learning disabled, had neuromuscular problems and could not play sports, and suffered from prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” Growing up at a time when children with disabilities were seen as “dumb” and “lazy,” it was Chuck’s talent for drawing, along with the support he got from his parents and teachers, that saved him. Art was what he did to convince his teachers he was interested in school, and to feel good about himself. For the past twenty-four years he has been wheelchair-bound as the result of a spinal artery collapse that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He made a remarkable partial recovery that allows him to continue to paint using a harness to hold his brush. He credits the discipline and determination he learned as a child overcoming dyslexia with helping him get back to making art.

Chuck Close FacebookThe genesis of this book was when I [Amanda] was hired to work with Chuck in 2007 by Prestel Publishing to oversee the quality control on a retrospective catalog, an adult book, called Work (2010). I had the real privilege of working with him over a period of time and I am proud to call him a friend. I asked him if there had been any children’s books about him and there had only been one, a wonderful book published by DK, now out of print. I asked him if he was interested in working with us on a children’s book and he said, “Sure.” So I called Joan and said, “Guess what!” and then we thought, “Great, but now what do we do?” Then the idea of the flipbook happened. Chuck has created so many head-on self-portraits from the same perspective, and we just played around with them until we came up with the idea. So then we had the middle of the book but we still didn’t know what the rest of the book would be.

We have a third partner named Ascha Drake who at the time was teaching at the Studio in a School in New York. It was Ascha’s idea to set up the interview between kids and Chuck, and she found the teacher and the class at PS 8 in Brooklyn. She provided the materials to teach the kids about Chuck. Then we had the interview and it was a wonderful, wonderful day. These twelve fifth graders arrived at the studio, full of beans, with their questions on index cards, and Chuck wheeled up to the door saying, “Come on in.” They sat on the floor and he asked them how old they were and then said, “Let me show you what I was doing at your age.” He had pulled out paintings that he made when he was twelve years old, so right off the bat he was saying, “See, we are all the same.” They started asking him questions, and at some point we suggested they stand to stretch their legs. They immediately surrounded Chuck in his wheelchair and followed him around, never leaving his side as he showed them his palette and his paintings. That day is what we tried to capture in the book. We took the questions and we took his answers and we put them together, so, yes, he is the author of this book. We are the people that tried to get it between the boards.

And then we thought, “Okay, who is going to publish this book?” and there was only one person and that was Howard Reeves at Abrams. Howard and I [Amanda] had developed a number of children’s books while I was at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Publications Department. He loved the book, as we had hoped he would.

This book was a true collaboration. Chuck brought his art, life experience, and voice, and we added our bookmaking and art education expertise to the mix. He graciously opened up his studio to the student interviewers and answered all their questions. He read and commented on the text and image layouts for the book that came out of that interview. He allowed us great latitude with his art, especially the center “flipbook,” which cuts his self-portraits in thirds so the reader can flip back and forth and compare many of his different processes. Many artists would have objected, but he improved on the idea, suggesting we include his black-and-white as well as color self-portraits. Working with Chuck was and is an extraordinary experience.

You go into a project like this hoping that the story you want to tell is a story people are interested to hear. We knew Chuck’s art and life were compelling and would be well received by those who know contemporary art, but we wanted to create a book engaging enough to attract those who don’t consider themselves artists, or think that “Art” resides only in museums. From the positive reviews, this wonderful award, and the responses from readers, we are optimistic about the book’s ability to reach a larger audience. That is a really good feeling.

Chuck is adamant about the importance of art education and the availability of art for children. Every time budgets are cut, it is art and music and theater that get axed. He would tell you that without art he wouldn’t have made it; that he was a very intelligent person who did not measure up in all of the conventional ways. He has made it a priority to advocate for art and art education, and we hope this book will continue that cause.

This speech was originally delivered on September 28, 2012, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College.

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