Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Defending Your Passion

Some people demonstrate a talent early in their lives for what will become their life's work, though it's rarely a straight path.  For too many the trail is fraught with major obstructions, obstructions sometimes decades in the making.  Whether it's of their own choosing or not, a detour is offered and taken.

In fact, this detour seems to be in direct opposition to the earlier displayed ability.  Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, January 28, 2018) written by Sandra Neil Wallace with illustrations by Bryan Collier (Hey Black Child Little, Brown And Company, November 14, 2017) describes the remarkable story of a childhood longing realized through perseverance.  If you hold onto a dream with both hands, you'll have a better chance of making it come true.  This is what Ernie Barnes did.

He waited for the backyard to turn into mud.
Painting mud.  Then Ernest found a stick and painted in the slippery soil.

Believe me, this grabbed ahold of his neighbors' curiosity.  It also garnered the attention of his mother.  She worked as a housekeeper for Mr. Fuller, an attorney in Durham's white section.  When Ernest saw the artwork on the walls of Mr. Fuller's library he knew painting was what he wanted to do.

By the time he was thirteen Ernest was carrying a sketchbook and drawing what he saw in the neighborhood.  Even though the coach at Hillside High wanted him to play football, Ernest wanted to use his hands for making art.  This coach got his way and Ernest became a star player earning him scholarships to more than twenty colleges.  At North Carolina College near Hillside High Ernest studied football and art.

When he wondered what to paint his teacher helped him to focus.

"Art is all around you," Mr. Wilson told Ernest.  "Use what you see.  You catch my drift?"

Ernest was drafted to play professional football in 1959.  After watching the Baltimore Colts play, Ernest went home and painted.  He named it The Bench. Ernest was named Ernie by a news reporter after seeing The Bench which he carried everywhere.  Ernie moved from the Colts to the New American Football League that first year but was cut due to an injury.

Ernie kept his desire to paint alive by working as a door to door salesman and chatting with his customers.  When his hand healed he started to play again but this time he took a sketch pad (small) and pencil with him.  The coach did not appreciate this and fined him.  Did Ernie stop sketching? No, he did not.

By 1964 Ernie knew football needed to be replaced with painting full time.  Ernie's plan for success was a marvel.  He never forgot where he started as evidenced by how he framed his work.  His accomplishments are a beacon and an inspiration for us all but certainly for the children who view his work and read this book.

Sharing pertinent details with readers found through her painstaking research, Sandra Neil Wallace takes us into the world of Ernie Barnes's childhood, teen years, college and adulthood.  With each page turn, by selecting and placing direct quotations within her narrative, Sandra Neil Wallace increases our understanding of this man.  Her carefully chosen words breathe life into every depicted situation.  It's as if we are there with Ernie Barnes.  Here is a passage.

Back home the sideline images still swirled in Ernest's mind.  Jersey numbers, bruising cobalt blue.  Referee calls, roaring crimson red.  Sharp shoulders draped in goalpost white.  Everything was so clear that Ernest didn't draw it in his sketchbook.  He stretched out a canvas, reached for a palette knife, and painted.  Quickly. Before the image had disappeared from his mind, he'd created his first football painting.  He called it The Bench.  Ernest decided that he'd never part with it.

Those piercing, sincere eyes of Ernie Barnes looking right at readers surely get your attention.  Upon closer inspection of the matching, opened dust jacket and book case, you can see portions of his life and his framed art above his left and right shoulders.  To the left, on the back, framed in wooden fencing on the top and bottom is a close-up of Ernie's hands holding paint brushes in front of stretched canvases.  In the right-hand, lower corner is a yellow football helmet resting on its top.

The opening and closing endpapers are a lively, spring green.  With the first turn of the pages we come to the initial title page.  Now those paint brushes are being held together inside the helmet.  The fencing is used as a background here and on the formal title and verso pages for the text.

Eighteen moving, stunning illustrations spanning two pages each, rendered in watercolor and collage by Bryan Collierenvelope you in the life of Ernie Barnes.  It's like walking through a gallery, hushed voices speaking in admiration at what is revealed.  Bryan Collier's color choices and his perspectives represent and elevate each scene described by Sandra Neil Wallace.  With his placement of the elements in his illustrations we are drawn to a focal point.

Mr. Collier's use of light and shadow is excellent, especially in the facial features of the people.  Each picture is emotionally charged.  We feel longing, desire, acceptance, determination, understanding and victory.  We are uplifted.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when Ernest returns home after viewing the Colts game prior to the beginning of training.  It is a brilliant blend of the stadium filled with people, players moving and bending with each play like ballet dancers, and a referee standing guard.  Within this collage Bryan Collier has put Ernest on the right, his hands outstretched holding a canvas and palette.  His right elbow crosses the gutter.  It's a mix of artistic calm and measured tumult.

You will be unable to read Between the Lines:  How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery written by Sandra Neil Wallace with illustrations by Bryan Collier only once.  It invites you to revisit each page absorbing the truth of the words and the beauty of the illustrations.  I highly recommend this outstanding picture book biography for your professional and personal collections.  At the close of the book are an author's note, an illustrator's note, an extensive bibliography, quote sources and additional resources.

To learn more about Sandra Neil Wallace and Bryan Collier and their other work, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website you can view six interior illustrations. Please enjoy this video with Bryan Collier speaking about the process for this book.

Don't miss visiting Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher, this past week.  There you can view the other titles selected by those participating in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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