R. Gregory Christie has illustrated over fifty books for young readers, many of them award-winning, including It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. A successful commerical illustrator, he is also the proprietor of Gas Art Gifts, an independent children’s bookstore in Decatur, Georgia. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about his work on his most recent publication, Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom.
Kidsbiographer: Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s illustrations depict settings as varied as pre-Civil War plantation life, the foundries where Reid worked, and the Washington D.C. building where his expertise saved the Statue of Freedom. What sort of research did you to do to illustrate this array of images?
RGC: The research for such a book starts with putting the historical figure’s name in a search engine. Then figuring out the ages of the characters during specific key dates. When illustrating historical books, you must concern yourself with the fashions, hairstyles, architecture, species of plants and animals indigenous to specific regions and the day-to-day protocol and interaction between the book’s characters. The process further moves in to sketches that I’ll show to the editor along with notes questioning the historical accuracy of what I’ve drawn.
For instance, if dealing with slavery and more specifically skilled trade slavery, I want to render the art in a historically realistic manner; I feel that it’s a disservice to everyone not to do that.
I wondered if Mr. Reid had overseers when doing skilled labor? Did he have used equipment or the best available? Did he have better clothing than a field slave? Did he work alone, outside or indoors, What was the average height of a man during this time period? I would need to know people’s height so that I could render that in proportion to the statue’s height. All these questions go in to the illustration sketches before I can move to a final piece. So these days I use the internet, public library, editors, and the author of the project to be as historically accurate as possible with the visuals.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in the picture-book biography is the one that shows young Philip Reid and his mother outdoors framed by a doorway. The green horizon suggests the freedom they envision, while the grey doorway reminds viewers they are still enslaved. How did you compose this remarkable painting?
RGC: Wow! I am happy to know that you picked up on that. I really wanted to have a visual balance to the written word, but often I break away from the literal interpretation in to a more symbolic one. I think that it is ironic that Mr. Reid, an enslaved man, was pivotal in saving a statue symbolizing the country’s bravery and freedom. Also in that spread, the author’s words touched on a woman speaking to her child about excelling in life, but both were still enslaved. I imagined that this conversation was in secret, perhaps in hushed tones and I wanted the viewer of this image to almost be visually eavesdropping on these two. The viewer’s vantage point is from inside a dark place, looking through the main figures and even past the green fields in to the true subject matter, the unseen world beyond those trees. It’s the same world the mother probably had never has seen, but believed in enough to speak about it to her child.
Kidsbiographer: Some of the book’s most striking illustrations depict the foundry where Reid worked. The liquid bronze glows in the dark room. Despite Reid’s enslavement, these images are exciting and convey something of the passion he brought to his work. Can you describe how you composed these illustrations?
RGC: I had to look at old Renaissance paintings of Hades and artwork from the Industrial Revolution era in order to figure out how to paint illuminated rooms of soot and stone. I’ve mostly painted art in books showcasing objects from a sunlit light source. If it were anything else, my semi -bstract style made the nighttime sky or candlelit room plausible through color over tone and proportion.
This particular style was reminiscent of my illustrations in William Miller’s Richard Wright and the Library Card. In both cases, I was more impressionistic with the paintings as I leaned more towards realism. If speaking about the foundry, then the orange and yellow you see in Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s hues have to serve as a directional device but, I feel, can’t overpower the sentiment of a gritty and grime filled foundry. Not even, the permanence one would see in the withered and charred stones surrounding a team of stalwart workmen from that time period.
Kidsbiographer: You created a number of visual characters for Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom. Which was your favorite and why?
RGC: I really loved painting of the old man that taught Phillip about clay. Again my interpretation of Mr. Lapham and Mr. Walton’s words is metaphorical and symbolic in its meaning. You are there with the two slaves as they are sharing a peaceful moment in a dark place. Although the two are confined , the only reality is the work in front of them, and the interaction that they experience. It’s not only commenting on them and the work that they must do, but it’s also more specifically, it’s them and the work that they must do; it’s a man who’s lived the scope of his life without much to look towards other than the rest of peace and a young boy facing dual aspects of his future, the one set up for him and the uncertain possibilities beyond that path. That’s why I chose to have Philip facing the window and the older gentleman facing his task on hand.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?
RGC: That there’s a lot more to our book than a quaint story and pretty pictures. The irony of this book screams for a discussion and revaluation of our typical lesson plans. Our history, as it often is, can be seen all around us. Our history as it often is, can be seen all around us. Historical visuals like the Statue of Freedom help to teach the stories of “how, why and who” along with the “when”. It’s not just all about numbers and dates, there’s humanity in our history and when we can be open enough to reevaluate these stories, maybe even relearn our history, it can help to bring some balance and humility for our future generations.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
RGC: Fortunately there’s always been illustration work since I’ve graduated art school (I’m knocking on wood). These days there are at least therebooks coming your way via my art table. However, the latest project is Gas-Art Gifts, my small bookshop at the North Dekalb Mall in Decatur, Georgia, which offers art classes, signed children’s books, community outreach, and artwork. It’s my own way to fight the implicit sentiment that our technology wins all. It’s not been easy and has not been lucrative, but I know it’s a very important direction for me, and the right thing to do.