MTYT: A Splash of Red

This post continues February’s My Take/Your Take conversation on books that have won the Schneider Family Award for their portrayal of the disability experience. The conversation started with The Deaf Musicians and continues this week with A Splash of Red.

My Take Your Take, global perspectives, A Splash of Red

DESIREE: Horace Pippin is considered the foremost self-trained American artist of the twentieth century. During World War I, he enlisted in the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. He did so to demonstrate his patriotism and his place as an equal citizen. The all-black unit to which Pippin was assigned was sent to France, and it was there that he was shot in the arm and permanently disabled.

A Splash of Red traces Horace Pippin’s life from his early years as imaginative child with a passion for art to his surprising entrance into the American art world in the 1940s. Through a series of colorful, representative-style illustrations and vignette style writing, Sweet and Bryant highlight Horace’s passion and determination to be an artist. In his teen years, he dropped out of school in order to help support his family. Although his job was physically exhausting, Horace continued painting; “pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead,” he said. While he was away at war, he drew what he saw from the trenches. After he returned home, he learned to use his left hand to assist his right, paralyzed hand, to draw. Horace Pippin created richly textured paintings of African-American life, Bible stories, images of war and emancipation, many of which were displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

Until I read this book, I had never heard of Horace Pippin. This is an important story about one man’s ability to defy all odds to become an artist. The Museum of Modern Art described him as a “Disabled, Negro war veteran.” I think this book could easily be placed in an African American text-set, based on his race. However, overcoming his physical disability was an equally important part of his story. How do you think this book connects to and/or extends the other books in our disability text set?

MEGAN: This story both connects to and extends beyond the group of texts we have been looking at over the previous few months on individuals with disabilities. Horace is disabled which connects him and his story to the other books in our set. I feel that Horace’s story connects best with a story we looked at in the fall for My Take / Your Take, Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist, by Bonnie Christensen. In both cases, the protagonist (Horace, Django) is a male artist from a marginalized group who was not born disabled, but through injury, becomes disabled. In addition, after their injuries, both Horace and Django initially retreat from their artist calling, though they eventually find their way back. Both Django, through his music, and Horace, through his art, overcome their disability, adapt, and find success in the performing arts community.

A Splash of Red also extends the text set. Similar to the way Django does. Both characters belong to a marginalized group, are poor, and have to adapt to a disability brought about through injury, providing a more dynamic story than some of the other books we have covered.

DESIREE: When we started this conversation, I said that I really enjoyed this book. It seems that there are a number of “Hidden Figures,” with whom I am only now becoming familiar. Children’s books featuring the African American experience were rare when I was growing up. I think that is why I have gotten stuck on how Horace Pippin’s multiple identities intersect in this book; he is African American, dis-abled, and perhaps even someone from a poverty situation. I realize that each of these identities shaped Horace’s life and by extension, his art.

One thing that has troubled me as I have further considered the book, are the illustrations. When I first picked up the book, I was not certain that Horace was African American. In the illustrations, he is depicted much lighter in complexion than he was in life, or even in his self-portraits. I wondered why the illustrator chose to depict him that way. I also found the story itself to be a bit problematic. The author repeatedly drew reader’s attention to Horace’s “big hands.” I questioned why she focused on the size of his hands rather than on the art he created despite his paralysis. In many of our conversations, we have grappled with the idea of insider and outsider perspectives. We have also read Jacqueline Woodson’s article, “Who Can Tell My Story.” While I am thankful that someone finally did tell Horace Pippin’s story in the form of a picture book, I wonder how different it might have been if it were told by an African American author/illustrator, or one who had a physical disability. What are your thoughts?

MEGAN: I agree. After reading your post, I went back into the book to review the illustrations. I also viewed Horace’s photograph on several websites to compare with the book’s illustrations. A troublesome occurrence (at least at first in the story) is that his skin is not a consistent color throughout the book. At times his skin is lighter and in one picture in particular it is not. I read in several reviews that Melissa Sweet, the illustrator, somewhat mimicked Horace’s own painting style for the illustrations as well as featured small replicas of Pippin’s paintings in the background of her illustrations for the story. I began to wonder if Sweet intentionally varied Horace’s skin color in an effort to prompt discussion.

While this assertion seems possibly far-fetched, Horace himself varied the color of the skin of his characters both white and black. Horace brought attention to the themes of race, war, and social injustice and picked his colors carefully…so was there some intentionality in his choices in order to promote discussion? I think one question you bring up is an interesting one to dig deeper — what is more important: to tell an individual’s story that is worth telling, even though you “have not been in their house,” or to not tell it at all? I do not think the answer is a simple one because the answer lies in the gray. I think a white author needs to do due diligence, as well as recruit an individual(s) from the culture or community they are writing/illustrating to advocate for that culture and provide a more critical eye. The best scenario is always to have a writer or illustrator from the culture being written or illustrated for the most authentic and accurate rendering.

The way in which the intersection of Horace’s identities plays out in his life is an interesting concept because his art varied widely in style and theme. Horace’s art crosses between African and American primitive art; and his themes cover subject matters such as autobiographies, historical paintings, portraitures, politics and religion. Horace’s art is in many ways much more complex than many artists of his day. The idea that nothing about Horace, Horace’s paintings, or the book that tells his story are simple to analyze is interesting. I might argue that by both nature and circumstance Horace was complex, and possibly the illustrator demonstrated Horace’s complexity well. I do not think this explanation adequately accounts for the lack of depth of color given to his character, but it does make me wonder how much intentionality Sweet gave to the thought of color or not.

Title: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0375867125
Date Published: January 8, 2013

This is the second installment of February’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, start with The Deaf Musicians and check the WOW Blog every Wednesday for new posts.

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