The prolific and award-winning illustrator and author Bryan Collier is known for his unique style of artwork that combines watercolors with detailed collage, featured in such titles as Rosa (Holt, 2005) by Nikki Giovanni, for which he was awarded a Coretta Scott King (CSK) Illustrator Award and a Caldecott Honor; Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (Little, Brown, 2010), for which he also was awarded both the CSK and a Caldecott Honor; and Uptown (Holt, 2000), the first book that he authored and illustrated, for which he was awarded both the CSK and an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award.
On the heels of being named the recipient of the CSK Award yet again for his latest book, I, Too, Am America (S & S, 2012), Collier invited School Library Journal into his home and studio in Hudson Valley, NY—where CSK Award-winning illustrators James Ransome and Charles Smith also live—for a tour and interview about his life, his art, and the creative process.
You’re known for using detailed collages in your illustrations. Are you a collector of various items that you can use for this purpose?
Well, I am always on the lookout, but mostly I just use old fashion magazines for their patterns and inspiration for creating mood or light. I will see a pattern on a dress and also see the color schemes. I incorporate the collage in my work; there is no real rhyme or reason on how. There isn’t more watercolor than collage or collage than watercolor. It just has to feel right.
Do you storyboard your books before beginning to create the artwork?
I do a quick storyboard [but] I drive editors crazy because when I bring in the original artwork it doesn’t look like the storyboard. Something else happens in the process of making the art and the collage. New ideas come into play that seem to be more important to me or more profound to the text. I follow that. The storyboard just gives me a semblance of where I think I am going but I really never know until I start putting it together. I leave that door open to make sure it happens. I don’t want to be steadfast to any ideas I had a month ago. I want to see what happens on the fly.
You have used the lives of real historical figures as the basis for some of your books. What type of research do you conduct before creating your artwork?
For Dave the Potter, I was so intrigued by this brand new history that I went to the plantation in Edgefield, SC. I needed to go there because there really wasn’t much on the Internet or the libraries about Dave. I wanted to see the ground that Dave walked on and the sky he walked under and I wanted to be in his presence and I wanted to hold the pots that he had signed and did poetry on. I had to figure out, Where do I go? How do I get there? Who do I talk to? You feel your way through. I just started to talk to people and the story started coming through.
When I do a book it will embody a distinct light that would be reflective and be a character as well. Dave the Potter shows the earthiness of Dave and the pottery. It has a gritty feel about it. It is put into a historical context of new and exciting history. It is a celebration that history is alive.
Can you tell us more about the important role that poetry plays in many of your books?
I have had the good fortune to do books with both Nikki Grimes and Nikki Giovanni. It was like getting a graduate degree. My work feels lyrical. In many ways, it feels like music. It picks up a flow, rhythm, and a staccato. All that stuff that is in poetry, it speaks in my work as well.
When I do a project that combines the two. It gives the artwork language and words that are readily accessible. There is a visual storyline that happens separate from the text and runs parallel with the words instead on mimicking the text.
Which of your books was the most challenging to create?
John’s Secret Dreams (Hyperion, 2004) about John Lennon, was the most challenging because I really wasn’t a Beatles fan. I was too young to really know the Beatles. I did not follow Lennon’s music. There was a lot of footage on this guy and I could talk to people who knew John. What I found was that he was rich and famous and had a lot of power—but he was alone, empty and broken as a person. These are two stark contrasts that were happening at once.
I often talk to young people on the road about wanting to be famous. I tell them there is a price. I tell them that I did this book about John Lennon and we talk about it. We talk about John trying to find his clarity and peace of mind. He was protesting things outside his persona with his music. That is a decision we all have to make, what is the most important part of life. That was the entrée for me to getting to know John through his lyrics.
You have won several Coretta Scott King Awards over the years for your work. What does the award mean to you?
In the big picture, it means that I am part of a group of people who have been recognized for the work that we do in books on a grand scale. The CSK says that the artists of color are equal to anything that is being made anywhere. If you take that away, we may not get recognized.
That is a very real and sobering reality. If the CSK award wasn’t in existence, many artists would be overlooked. It has a hand in cultivating new talent.
I grew up without books with people like me in them. Ezra Jack Keats’s books are branded in my psyche. My very first book Uptown is an ode to Peter, Keats, and The Snowy Day. It was a very profound moment to get that book and to come full circle with that seed that was planted, to see it come and bloom and continue to bare fruit. They are all significant moments that say who I am right now.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book, Knock, Knock (Little, Brown; 2013)?
The author is Daniel Beaty, a New York actor. He did a monologue on HBO on Russell Simmons Deff Poetry. I saw it and said , ‘that is a book.’ I called Daniel and met him when he was doing a production at Riverside Theater. It was a one-man show and I was asked to do artwork for the production. He and I started talking about fatherhood and what happens to a kid when his father does not show up one day. I took it over to Little Brown, they loved it and the rest is history.
What is in the works for you right now?
I am doing sketches for the childhood of Quincy Jones. I am also working on a story for Henry Holt called My Country Tis of Thee. It is about how they used that song through history for different causes, such as women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and the George Washington to Barack Obama inaugurations. They changed the words throughout history, but it was all based on the same cadence and melody.
In addition to your renowned book illustrations, you also create stand-alone works of art. Can you tell us more about that?
I have been making art since age 15. That is, when I said I want to be an artist, I don’t have a plan B, and this is it. Eventually I got a scholarship to Pratt. I went to school with James Ransome and Robert Sabuda. I make art and do things that are in my world.
The artist talks about how he uses family members, friends, and neighbors to inspire his artwork: