Profile of 2019 CSK Illustrator Award winner Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes is love. I am but one grateful member of an immense and inspired community that cherishes, and is beloved by, Ekua. At its heart, this community is local, centered on the place of Ekua’s birth — Roxbury, Massachusetts — via Arkansas and the U.S. American South, via Africa. Ekua’s community has widened over decades, and is now global — ancestral and otherwise. It remains intimate and in-person, while also being far-reaching and digital. A small but mighty portion of voices of Ekua’s community — friends, loved ones, fans, collaborators — are humbly rendered here. Their reflections on Ekua are intermingled in this text in boldfaced words. This seemed the only way imaginable to share something of what Ekua, her art, and her very being mean to so many of us.

Generous and grounding.
Centered in profound love of Black people and Black experiences.
Universally uplifting.
Roxbury Girl.


Ekua’s love and appreciation of community, of family, of Blackness, is grounded in her native Roxbury. She still delights in her childhood, continually nurtured by the truths of and care from her family, neighbors, teachers, and friends. It seems fitting that Ekua’s first picture book, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (recipient of the 2016 John Steptoe Illustrator Award for New Talent; a Caldecott Honor; a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor; and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor), begins with author Carole Boston Weatherford rooting young Fannie Lou in the place of her childhood: Sunflower County, Mississippi. Was it coincidence that the first book Ekua was invited to illustrate was about one of her many (s)heroes? Was it coincidence that Ms. Hamer’s county of birth is named for Ekua’s most favorite of all favorites, the sunflower? In fact, there were no coincidences here; this was a calling. Ekua embraced the project. Her deep appreciation of history, her profound admiration of Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer, her aspiration to revive, remember, and literally picture a civil rights icon, animated her desire. And her love poured out onto the pages. The brilliant alchemy of Ekua’s pictures comes from rendering lives through redemptive and respectful imagery, reflecting the humanity of Fannie Lou and her family, and of countless other Black people whose stories are untold, unheard, or unsung.

Storyteller on a mission.
Vibrant patchwork.
Textured.
Compassionate and
deeply rooted.


Early in Voice of Freedom, a six-year-old Fannie Lou is pictured with her family, picking cotton, in an open field. Ekua wraps them in love: she gives them form amidst a rich layering of patterned papers, lyrical stencils, verdant washes. Strong and subtle touches of blue and white paint sprout from the pages. Young Fannie Lou is centered. She is the same age that Song, Ekua’s granddaughter, was at the time of printing. Ekua’s profound grief for this reality, as well as her urgency and gratitude to picture Fannie Lou’s life, are as strong as the life-giving and near-intolerable sun. That this rendition of a 1920s sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta is made with so much tenderness, gentle care, and fierce love is in itself a healing act. That it is in a picture book also bountiful with the textured images of love, Black-is-beautiful-ness, a mother imparting pride, persistence through relentless injustice, Freedom Summers and political thunderings, Guinea/Africa, Black Power!, and continued struggle for justice, is also of paramount importance. Ekua offers us these pictures, and we receive them, as we would a meal made with love: necessary for survival, and thrival.

Community centered.
Vibrant kindness.
Advocate of creativity.
Connector.


Before she started making picture books in 2015, Ekua had a thriving practice as an independent artist. She had worked in many realms: with the City of Boston; as the owner and creative director of EJ Designs, her graphic design business; as a curator of her own gallery promoting emerging Black artists and providing them a platform for their work; as an active board member and tour guide for Discover Roxbury; as the author of Dreaming Big: Pioneers of Roxbury’s Public Art, a catalog of public art projects. And the plentiful list goes on and on. Ekua is always, devotedly, involved in her various communities through the arts and design.

In the fall of 2010 she had set out to find a part-time job, a “whatever job,” to have some extra cash in her pocket. Preferably something “mindless” so she could keep on with her many overlapping ways of creating art. A friend encouraged her to respond to a job posting to manage an art mobile at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, her alma mater; she thought it sounded perfect. And it was. Indeed, it is — although not at all mindless! Ekua and I have worked and collaborated and learned together for the last nine years at MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships (CACP). Ekua is CACP’s associate director, and she directs sparc! the ArtMobile, a retrofitted van fully equipped with art supplies that brings innovative and intergenerational art and design programs to Boston communities. She works closely with a college student team, local artists, schools, and organizational partners, as sparc! “ignites art and design in the neighborhood.” Ekua and the sparc! team dispense tools and techniques, yes, and warmly inspirit the creativity in everyone to bloom. Ekua co-creates artistic experiences with and for people of all ages with an energy and intention akin to what she brings to her own creative process of making pictures. Images and experiences, for Ekua, are aesthetic and political. They are her love letters to humanity.

Confidently exquisite.
Vibrant color.
Song-centric.
Soft-power and soulful.
Possibilitarian.


To experience Ekua cutting a paper shape, designing a poster, drawing a profile, or painting a picture is mesmerizing. She moves and shapes materials with spirited focus, calm curiosity, and welcoming rigor. She listens to the words of collaborators, be they community partners or authors. She listens again for what is there, and what is not there. She learns, and she imagines, and she creates. Ekua was drawn to the text of Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, the second book she illustrated, for which she received the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. She gracefully pictured the richly layered complexity of the authors’ vision: an invitation to poets, sparked by other poets, to spin inspiration into new poetry. So many words! So many poems! Ekua’s illustrations interpret fragments of each poem, while evoking the spirit and wonder of the whole. Her circular stencil forms and rounded shapes proudly claim their life. In one image, they form a vivid lapis skyscape sweeping across the page. In another, they echo within a quiet, contemplative moment, enveloped under fallen snow. And in yet another, they linger as snowflakes, crossing the expanse of the book’s borders, coming into and out of focus amidst the children at play. Whether an African sun or the starbursts between sections, Ekua’s circular forms — some earthy, some vibrant — are radiant and inviting. Play is always at work. Frederick Douglass said that “pictures have a power akin to song.” Ekua’s pictures are spirited reveries, the melodies of daily moments. Dynamic, captivating refrains. They are cradlesongs and wake-up calls.

Womanist.
Authentically, artistically beautiful.
Tender and Tenacious.
Respectful.
A voice distinctly hers.




Ekua Holmes. Photo courtesy of Now + There.


We were in our office one day, and I remember experiencing awed disbelief when Ekua mentioned she was working on illustrating two books. At the same time. While working at MassArt full time. While devising a proposal for “The Roxbury Sunflower Project,” a public artwork that involved hundreds of people planting twenty thousand sunflowers in Roxbury in the summer of 2018. This project was inspired in part by the generations of men and women who opened doors for her as a young artist; it was Ekua’s intention to emulate their generosity, creativity, and collective strength. One such woman is the late Ms. Elma Lewis, founder of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, and later Boston’s National Center of Afro-American Artists, in Roxbury. Ekua speaks so lovingly of Ms. Lewis, who instructed her in ballet lessons, yes, as well as through the gifts of discipline, self-love, pride, and all the connecting fibers in between. Ekua is called to always remember, acknowledge, and hold up those people whose shoulders she, and so many, stand upon. These are the broad shoulders of, in Ekua’s words, “the dreamers, strivers, builders, agitators, and waymakers” whose presence and energies paved a way for her and for many. It is abundantly clear that Ms. Lewis lives on through Ekua and many of her former students to this day. So, interesting that one of Ekua’s next picture books was What Do You Do with a Voice like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Born fifteen years after Elma Lewis, Barbara Jordan, too, was a trailblazer. As with her research for Voice of Freedom, Ekua was once again deeply steeped in history, place, and the context of her subject’s life.

Ekua’s layered images express Barbara Jordan’s journey with rapturous color and depth. Visible are bits of Ekua’s collections: scraps of paper, news clippings, vintage wallpapers. Abundant are the painted, patterned, textured papers that, cut up and collaged, give form to the roundness of sleeves, the fullness of hair, the pure poetry of spaces: Ms. Jordan’s neighborhood, a glorious sunset, a library, the Texas State Senate floor on her way to the United States Congress. Asserting themselves in radiant hues, Ekua’s pictures sing with bright, determined confidence, reflective of Ms. Jordan’s voice and resilience. Here again is Ekua’s tribute: a celebration of an extraordinary human being who was precisely so because she was an ordinary person; a deeply rooted, beautiful Black woman who used her voice to great purpose. Like Ms. Elma Lewis. Like Ms. Ekua Holmes herself.

Welcoming and trustworthy.
Leader, Artist, Teacher, Innovator.
Full of wisdom and wonder.


Ekua asks of no one what she hasn’t done or wouldn’t do herself. She is open, curious, enchanted by artistic possibility; she trusts the process. Around the same time as What Do You Do with a Voice like That?, Ekua was also working on The Stuff of Stars, which received the 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Ekua’s way of working is not fast. Even while her cutting and collaging can be confidently nimble, it still takes a long time. In fact, making picture books changed her way of working, as she could not spend the same amount of time on an illustration as she once spent on a mixed-media painting. So, as Ekua was figuring how to picture, of all things, the universe, she serendipitously glanced at a piece of paper she had made in a paper marbling class (because she also takes classes, if you have any credulity left to believe that Ekua engages in all kinds of creative pursuits not mentioned here!). That paper, and the piles more that Ekua made, transformed into the marbled depths of the universe, formed into the cosmos, became stardust, and you, and all of us. To experiment freely, to work in the digital realm — never to replace the scissors and scraps, glue and paint — but to experiment. This is Ekua: overflowing with curiosity, fueled by prospect and possibility. The Stuff of Stars is stunningly vivid, with an animated intensity of rumblings and explosions, then stillness and emergence. The creative process, entrusted to love.

Love’s architect.
Joyful inspiration.
Ambitious generosity.
Convergence.
Creativity.


On several occasions Ekua has shared with me an illustration or a picture book in process. Each time I have felt in the presence of a gift, grateful to be a part of Ekua’s travels in this relatively new and exciting endeavor of picturing the world through the visage of (extra)ordinary humans, poetry, stardust, and more. Gift is also what it’s like to have a friend in Ekua, and the privilege and the honor of collaborating — to work together, build community, reflect, learn, and play. The process is a fantastic, life-fueling ride. “Make hay while the sun shines,” Ekua’s mother, Florence P. Holmes, used to say. The proverb aptly describes Ekua’s earnestness, her desire to be useful, to infuse as many images, opportunities, possibilities, and as much love as possible while she’s here on Earth in physical form. Like her radiant and beloved sunflowers, Ekua is rooted in the earth and soars toward the sky, always following the sun.

Ekua Holmes and Ceci Méndez-Ortiz, each holding the other's artwork. Photo: Iris Lapaix.


 

Ekua Holmes is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and published by Candlewick Press. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.
Ceci Méndez-Ortiz
Ceci Méndez-Ortiz is an artist and executive director of the Center for Art and Community Partnerships (CACP) at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has worked as a museum educator, curator, teaching artist, and instructor in community-based courses in higher education.

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