Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

Visual art and literature have a great symbiotic relationship of supporting and influencing each other in profound ways. When visual artists collaborate with writers, they illuminate certain areas of a written narrative. Whether an artist takes a more literal aesthetic approach or interprets the plot more abstractly, the juxtaposition of text and image can be a powerful means of symbolic communication.

In a previous post (see: Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language), I describe how artists incorporate literacy and language into their work via the written word. This post will explore the work of specific artists who have taken direct inspiration from literature. Some artists are influenced by previously published literary works, such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Nina Katchadourian, or Joan Mitchell.  Other visual artists, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold have created illustrations for several books, particularly within the children’s literature genre. This post will focus on the latter two artists, and the significance of making imagery in conjunction with a literary narrative.

Ringgold has written, illustrated and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

Tar Beach is an empowering work of art and literature that sends a whimsical message of self-liberation, agency and intersectional feminism. Within the totality of Ringgold’s Women on a Bridge quilts, the patriarchy is deconstructed through strong and influential women who take control and confront towering infrastructure such as a bridge, which according to Ringgold, is symbolic of masculinity (see: Spector, n.d.).

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A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

As an artist whose work expresses the individual and communal American Southern experience, Benny Andrews was a good choice to illustrate books such as Sky Sash So Blue (1998 by Libby Hathorn, Simon & Schuster, New York), Pictures for Miss Josie, (2003 by Sandra Belton, Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York), Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005 by Jim Haskins, Candlewick, Cambridge) and John Lewis in the Lead (2006 by Jim Haskins & Kathleen Benson, Lee & Low Books, New York); which feature subjects and themes relating to the African-American experience in the American South.

Most of the books Andrews illustrated have a socially engaged focus, which is befitting of Andrews’ legacy as an activist for the equal and equitable representation of black culture within American society. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested museum exhibitions over the whitewashing of African-American themed exhibitions (see: Cotter, 2015), and the lack of consideration for black artists by curators, critics and museum professionals. In 1982, Andrews became the visual arts director of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he personally was instrumental in providing valuable resources and support to contemporary black artists.

As a result of Andrews’ own captivating art and his socially engaged activism, he was clearly a strong candidate to illustrate books that are geared to inspire understandings and expressions of community, creativity and empathy. In addition to illustrating books on renowned Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis and W.W. Law, Andrews’ own life is the subject of a book by Kathleen Benson titled Draw What You See (2015). Andrews was the illustrator of course, represented posthumously through his paintings.

In education, storytelling is an important means for incorporating multicultural learning and inspiring students to make connections. Illustrating or responding visually to literature is beneficial for students of all ages. Utilizing illustrative texts is a helpful way of scaffolding multidisciplinary learning, because it incorporates multiple intelligences such as visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities. The first two modalities are fairly self-evident because picture books offer the benefit of descriptive words and imagery. The presence of descriptive imagery accompanying written language is very beneficial to students who have difficulties expressing themselves linguistically and students who are emerging bilingual learners. Storytelling is both a personal and collective means of communication and therefore it requires an understanding of archetypal imagery, signs and symbols that can express both individual and collective relevance.

Images and text offer different ways to convey a story, and because everyone learns differently, there are enormous teachable moments resulting from reading and comprehending illustrated books. When reading illustrated book, it is important to scrutinize the images in a similar manner as the written words (see: Robertson). When reading as a class, the teacher should make sure students can see the illustrations clearly, and ask questions (i.e. What do you see? What is happening in this illustration? How can you tell?). Personally, I alternate between showing students the illustrations before and after I read the text. In either case, the students are encouraged to make their own observations and make inferences based on what they see, what they’ve read/heard and what prior knowledge they have.

As Robertson notes, discussing the subjective and descriptive significance of formal elements of art and principles of design, is another way to strengthen reading comprehension, especially with young learners and emerging readers. A way of doing this is asking students to make associations between colors and feelings; and relating texture, lines and shapes to movement, actions and relationships.

While literacy is a major focus in educational environments, visual literacy is just as important. Both the written word and the visual image play an important factor in how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. The arts teach us to read visual cues, by acutely interpreting the aforementioned aesthetic and emotional facets in a manner that takes account of our experiences and prior knowledge. Besides the clear benefits on learning, visual imagery is a great way to captivate the attention of students and inspire thoughtful participation in class and beyond.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “What I Learned From A Disgraced Art Show on Harlem.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/arts/design/what-i-learned-from-a-disgraced-art-show-on-harlem.html

Morris, Laura. “Joan Mitchell and the art of painting a poem.” Poetry Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69917/introduction-56d2499348f8a

Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishing.

Robertson, Katrin Oddleifson. “‘Read’ Illustrations to Improve Literacy Skills.” PBS Parents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/reading-language/reading-tips/read-illustrations-to-improve-literacy-skills/

Spector, Nancy. “Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series).” Guggenheim Online Collection entry for Tar Beach. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/3719

Zucker, Adam. “Benny Andrews: Illustrator.” Rhino Horn. 1 Mar. 2019. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/benny-andrews-illustrator/

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