Quote of the Month

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




Wednesday, May 5, 2021

An Eye For Truth

Our view of the world, at a personal, local, state, national, and global level, is determined by more than one thing.  We are shaped by the people who are our family, our closest friends, our colleagues and even those who wish us harm.  We respond to small and large events and those things which register in our minds subconsciously. As whole people, we are comprised of many parts and their particular influences.

When we look back at our lives, we can see this is true.  When we are presented with the facts of prominent people's lives, we understand why they took the direction they did.  The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought For Justice With Art (Abrams Books for Young Readers, April 20, 2021) written by Cynthia Levinson with pictures by Evan Turk is a luminous exploration in words and art of a man who urged others through his creativity to look around and to make what they saw wrong, right.

"The first thing I can remember," Ben said, "I drew."

As a young boy Ben lived in a village in Lithuania.  He drew what he saw; his parents and grandfather making their own kind of art.  Paper was a rarity, so Ben would draw in the margins of Bible story books.  Ben was known for speaking his mind in the classroom.

When he was very young, his father was taken from their home to Siberia.  His father managed to escape to America, asking his family to come there, too.  Ben was only eight.  He, his mother and younger siblings made the journey leaving his grandfather behind.  Already in his young life, change was tarnished with sadness.

Five people in a two-room apartment in a crowded building in a crowded city was difficult, as was the new language, and bullies at school.  Guess what made the bullies stop their taunting?  Several teachers noticed Ben's artistic skills and offered encouragement.  At fourteen his dreams of finishing school and becoming an artist were dashed.  His father lost his job, forcing Ben to quit school and go to work.  Fourteen.

As years passed Ben perfected one form of art during the day and studied at art school at night. The problem was he wanted to paint people and tell their stories.  He left America, traveling to Europe and Africa, finding what would become his signature style.  His first outstanding work was twenty-three pictures telling the story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

His depictions of people and injustice were so effective, he was hired in 1935 and again in 1937 by the United States government.  But it was not always smooth for Ben.  There were others who thought his artwork was anti-American.  Ben persevered, bringing inequality into the light.  He was and is remembered as a champion for those whose voices needed to be heard.  (The final three sentences and accompanying double-page image are a breathtaking portrait of a life lived to its fullest, a life lived in the service of others and those yet to be born.)


Even without the extensive back matter, readers are well-aware of the meticulous research employed by author Cynthia Levinson in the writing of this book.  Carefully selected and specific information with the insertion of quotations form, piece by piece, a powerful explanation of this man.  
Cynthia Levinson also chooses the right words to not only inform, but to give readers a very real sense of place, time, and emotional impact.  It is as if we are walking next to Ben Shahn.  Here is a passage.

Ben didn't know yet how to draw his outrage.  But, feeling his father's boldness
inside himself, he marched up to the sentry at the end of the street and shouted,
"Down with the Czar!"
The soldier chased after him, but Ben escaped.

(Ben was four.  This was after his father was taken to Siberia.)


There is strength in the double-page artwork shown on the open dust jacket.  The white doves, a sign of peace amid the pastel background on both sides of the spine, are significant.  On the right, front, Ben and the text are varnished drawing our eyes to him.  To the left, on the back, there is a childlike depiction of Ben's family, his grandfather, parents, and younger siblings done in black.  The doves fan out around them.

For the book case, artist Evan Turk has used the space as a single piece of paper.  Its texture is like whitewash on brown paper.  On the left side, one of Ben's hands holds the paper in place.  On the right side, his other hand, grasping a large pencil, is completing a self-portrait.  Across the top of the left side and continuing to the right of the spine is the outline of a dove in flight.  (This is also a near replica of the first image in the book.)

The opening and closing endpapers are covered in the same color seen on Ben's shirt on the dust jacket.  The initial title page uses the same font as shown on the dust jacket, stating the first three-word title.  On the formal title page, between the text, Ben's hands are releasing the dove so it can fly.  This is done in black outline drawings.

The illustrations for this book were made with gouache, acrylic, pencil, chalk, and linoleum block prints.

All of the pictures, double-page pictures with four full-page images, are full of emotion.  They are bold in color, composition, and their lines.  You can feel the passion which fueled this man and his work.  You know of child Ben's pride in his parent's and grandfather's workmanship.  In this visual, Ben is off to the side with a book.  With a page turn, Ben and the book are enlarged so we can see him drawing in the margins.  The heartbreak at leaving his grandfather is a single page showing the grandfather's hand clasping little Ben's hand.  They don't want to break this connection.  But this is followed by a wordless double-page, three panel depiction of the family's arrival in New York, going through Ellis Island with other immigrants, and embracing a waiting father.

One of my many, many favorite pictures is a double-page image.  It seems to be designed like an open book with the left page smaller in the lower, left hand corner and enlarging as it spreads to and across the gutter filling the entire right side.  Above where the left page begins is black space for the white text.  In that lower, left-hand corner is Ben painting a series of portraits, first in black outlines.  As faces, eyes, hands, and certain circumstances are collaged together, we see a breadth of people forgotten and needing someone to speak for them. Ben does this through his art.  The rich colors accent each individual element. 


One word comes to mind after every reading of this book, gratitude.  There is gratitude for people like Ben Shahn. There is gratitude for people like author Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Evan Turk for making an exquisite book titled The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought For Justice With Art.  At the close of the book are an author's note, an illustrator's note, a timeline with dual columns (Snapshots of Ben Shahn's Life and The Bigger Picture), a selected bibliography including books, personal interviews, site visits, and websites and source notes.  I highly recommend you read this title and place a copy in your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their respective websites.  Cynthia Levinson has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.  Evan Turk has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  At Evan's website there are interior images in addition to those available at the publisher's website.  Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk are interviewed at The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, A Fuse #8 Production about this title.  Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, interviews Cynthia Levinson for the cover reveal on his site, Watch. Connect. Read.

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