Bringing Unsung Heroes to Light: Talking about The People’s Painter with Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk
For every book I read, I keep notes. Not particularly long ones (who has the time?) but a kind of encapsulation of my feelings surrounding each individual title. And I want to share with you today the thoughts I had surrounding a new picture book biography of the artist Ben Shahn. Like myself, you may never have heard of him. Here’s how the publisher describes the book The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice With Art by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk:
“The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.” As an observant young child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees-and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too. So when Ben and the rest of his family make their way to America, Ben brings with him both his sharp artistic eye and his desire to fight for what’s right. As he grows, he speaks for justice through his art-from challenging classmates who bully him for being Jewish, to resisting his teachers’ calls to paint beautiful landscapes in favor of painting stories true to life, to using his work to urge the US government to pass Depression-era laws that help people find food and security. In this moving and timely portrait, award-winning author and illustrator Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk honor an artist, immigrant, and activist whose work still resonates today: a true painter for the people.”
And here’s what I wrote about the book immediately after having read it.
A finely wrought telling of the life of a boy who went from shtetl to tenement apartment to becoming an artist who would always fight for the oppressed. I feel like last year we had only a small sample of children’s books with Jewish content to include on our end of year lists. 2021, in contrast, bestows on us a plethora of amazing titles. I was unfamiliar with Ben Shahn, his story, and his work prior to reading this book. So, after reading this, I looked him up and came to the realization that Evan Turk has seamlessly incorporated Shahn’s work into the illustrations of this book so well that you’d miss them if you weren’t looking. The storytelling is amazing and 20 points for that kicker of a last line. Turk’s art is, as ever, absolutely some of the best coming out these days. There’s even great backmatter, including this Timeline that pairs “Snapshots of Ben Shahn’s Life” in context with “The Bigger Picture”. It’s a beautiful idea and I wish every picture book bio had something similar. All told, this is a picture book bio done exceedingly well.
Naturally, a book this interesting can make you curious about all kinds of things. Its subject. It’s origins. The research. I had a chance to ask both Ms. Levinson and Mr. Turk and was delighted to find they had answers for me. Many answers:
Betsy Bird: Hi, Cynthia! Thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m absolutely fascinated by the backstory to the creation of this book. As someone unfamiliar with the works of Ben Shahn (prior to reading this title) I wonder, how did you first hear about him? And did you immediately want to write a book or did that come later?
Cynthia Levinson: There are some friends (or a spouse!) whom you meet, and you know you’ll never forget that moment of sitting down next to them in the cafeteria or falling into their lap on the bus. And there are others you’ve known for so long you look at each other and ask, “How DID we meet?”
My awareness of Ben Shahn is like the second of these. As a young person, I knew about his Passover Haggadah. I recall being struck by his drawing of Dr. King on Time magazine’s cover in 1965. And Shahn’s peace dove became the iconic symbol of Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign, which I worked for in 1968. Then, I met his second wife, Bernarda, at a high school reunion in 1993, though we attended the school about four decades apart. But, I wasn’t writing for children in those years. The idea started percolating in 2012. Since I was starting then to write about social justice and I’m Jewish—both of which are themes in Shahn’s work—he seemed to be a natural fit.
BB: And Evan! So lovely to talk to you too. I’m just gonna start out with the obvious question: How did you come to this project? And what drew you to it?
Evan Turk: Thanks for having us, Betsy! Well, I knew the editor for this book, Emma Ledbetter at Abrams, way back when from working on Grandfather Gandhi when she was at Simon & Schuster, and she reached out to see if I would be interested. Now Ben Shahn is one of my favorite all time illustrators and artists, and so I was immediately into it. I think he is a favorite for a lot of illustrators, so he’s kind of an underground hero. I love how much humor, depth, and emotion there is in his work, while still being approachable and always focusing on storytelling. Aside from just loving Shahn’s work, I learned a lot about his life from Cynthia’s manuscript, and I thought she did such a great job of really making his childhood come to life.
BB: Cynthia, please tell us a bit about the research you conducted in the course of writing this. What sources did you turn to? Which ones proved to be the most useful?
CL: Apparently, I’m incapable of researching efficiently. But you just never know where you’ll find that fun anecdote (like the fact that Ben threw up the first time he ate a tomato!) or the perfect culminating incident (like his advising children to draw in the margins of books).
I always begin research on a project by reading the secondary literature. Books by Shahn scholars helped me grasp the scope of his life and art, the teachers who influenced him, and the events that motivated him. My conversations with a number of these scholars helped clarify details. There are also a number of interviews with Shahn and reviews of his exhibits online.
Then, there’s the primary research. There is no substitute for “being there.” So, going to his home and studio in Roosevelt (formerly Jersey Homesteads), New Jersey, where I talked with his son and several neighbors, to the Whitney Museum, which holds part of the Sacco & Vanzetti series, and to installations of his work in public buildings were invaluable. Fortunately, Shahn was highly prolific, not only as a painter but also as a photographer, commercial artist, stage designer, lithographer, and writer. His series of lectures called The Shape of Content helped me understand why he focused on story-telling and how he composed those stories as an artist. The book he illustrated for children called Ounce, Dice, Trice is just joyful and gave me insight into his sense of humor. I also read the FBI report against him, which shows his sheer courage.
BB: Evan, you have your own form of research. Your own personal history! For example, you mention in your Illustrator’s Note that you did a report on Shahn’s paintings in the fifth grade. As a kid, what was the lure of his art? And do you try to link to that feeling in the art in this book?
ET: You know, I wish I had a better story, but mostly I remember seeing the painting called “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti”, probably in a textbook relating to the famous court case. I’m not sure what drew me to it, but in hindsight, I think it must have been how accessible Shahn’s artwork is. Even though it’s a heavy subject, he doesn’t talk over your head. The way he paints people has such specificity and clever exaggeration. It really makes the people come alive and I think kids will really enjoy that. I tried to capture that spirit in the way I drew the characters in the book, and hopefully brought that same sense of vibrancy to the illustrations.
BB: Cynthia, One shift that I’ve noticed in the last few years involves publishers moving away from the conventional wisdom that to write a children’s picture book biography the subject needs to already be famous. Now too little lauded heroes are having their day in the sun. You met Ms. Shahn in 1993 and now the book is out in 2021. Were you waiting for the right moment to write it or did you have to wait for the publishing industry to be ready for it?
CL: Neither one, exactly. I met Bernarda nearly twenty years before I started writing books for kids. Still, from concept to completion took another decade. Part of the reason is that I’m a ponderously slow researcher and writer. There were many false drafts in between. And there has been more popular interest in slice-of-life biographies than in soup-to-nuts. So, I did need to find the right publisher—and in Abrams I did! But, some little-known people, like Shahn, are so prescient that the issues they were involved in seventy-five years ago are still relevant today.
BB: Evan, how do you decide what medium to use to create the art for a given book? How do you select your materials? And why did you select the ones that you did for THE PEOPLE’S PAINTER?
ET: With each book, I try to play around with several different techniques until I land on one that feels like just the right blend for the book. It’s usually a combination of the different types of art I’m looking at as influences, and what feels right for the type of story. The illustrations for this book are predominantly gouache, which is a type of opaque watercolor. I used a bit of pencil, acrylic, and linoleum block printing as well, but it’s mostly gouache. I thought that it would be able to approximate a lot of the techniques Shahn used in watercolor, acrylic, gouache, and oil, and could really get those rich vibrant colors that I love. One technique that I used a lot for this book, was that I cut thin strips out of masking tape to make small masks for the crisp lines and shapes that I use throughout the book. Shahn has such a masterful use of shape in his work, and I really wanted to bring that to the illustrations.
BB: Cynthia, I’m always on the lookout for strong Jewish content in the children’s books I read and review. Ben’s ability to mix Jewish themes with social justice in his art is singular. How important was it to you to include both of these aspects of his art?
CL: It never occurred to me not incorporate Jewish themes and social justice in the book! Both of these defined and compelled him. I don’t know whether Shahn ever invoked the common Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” which means “repair the world,” but that was his mission. Evan Turk blended them beautifully throughout the book, and his subtle inclusion of another phrase, “l’dor va dor,” meaning “from generation to generation,” on the final spread is very touching.
BB: Evan, I often find that it can be difficult for an artist to write any kind of homage to another artist, since it sets up this expectation that the person creating the book will do it in the subject’s style. Your advantage here may be the fact that Ben Shahn is not, yet, a household name. Still, how do you balance creating art in your own style alongside creating art that references Shahn’s paintings?
ET: I may have lucked out, because I wasn’t too concerned with having it look too much or not enough like Ben Shahn’s work! I think that for me, I realize that anything I do is going to end up feeling like my work in the end, even if I’m trying to do an exact copy, so I figured I would land somewhere in between. Moreso than trying to emulate him exactly, what I really wanted to study and focus on were the specific aspects of his work that really make it sing for me. He has a very specific way of deciding when to use line, versus shape, versus pattern, that is always exciting to play with. The way that he draws faces and hands is so distinctive, as well, so I tried to bring a lot of that into the illustrations. He also has a unique way of blending figures and architecture, particularly when he’s composing a mural, so I tried to bring a lot of that type of design to some of the “montage” scenes in the book.
BB: The sheer amount of research you had to conduct indicates that there had to be stuff you needed to leave out. What didn’t make it into the final product that you would have liked but couldn’t fit in?
CL: Oh, thank you for asking! It was wrenching to leave two stories, in particular, on the cutting-room floor. When Shahn was an apprentice lithographer, he couldn’t figure out how to space the hollows within and between the letters so they looked pleasing. The master showed him how to pour water into the tray of type and adjust the lettering so the volume of water was even throughout. Once he absorbed the lesson, he said, “only the eye and the hand can measure them.” It’s graphic but also arcane, and Evan conveyed the point by highlighting hands and eyes in the illustrations.
The other story relates to Shahn’s helping the Mexican artist Diego Rivera paint a mural at Rockefeller Center while it was under construction. They included a portrait of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Nelson Rockefeller was so incensed that he had the mural destroyed, after which Shahn led a protest march in New York City.
BB: That puts me in a mind to consider the relationships that exists between artist creators. Evan, what is the role of the illustrator when honoring the work of a fellow artist?
ET: That’s an interesting question, because I think it’s different than the role of the author! I thought of my role in this book, aside from telling the story, as to convey what it is I love about Ben Shahn’s work from an artist’s perspective. Something I try to do in all of my books is offer a wide range of different approaches to art so that kids can start to become familiar with all these different ways of seeing the world. I want to pass along the excitement I have when seeing Ben Shahn’s work! So even if I don’t recreate his work exactly, I want kids to know what a Ben Shahn illustration feels like when they do. I also loved the way Cynthia’s narrative took us through some of his struggles in finding his path as an artist, and I think that’s an important thing for young artists to know. It can take a long time to find your voice as an artist, and that is okay!
BB: Finally, what are you two working on next?
CL: The next work, due out in 2022, is a picture book in free verse about Highlander Folk School, the early strategizing ground for the civil rights movement. Following that is my first historical fiction picture book but that one’s not announced yet. And there are WIPs that I’m too superstitious to talk about until they’re bought! Thank you, Betsy!
ET: I am working on lots of different things at the moment! I just finished up a book about colors and birds called COLOR THE SKY by David Elliott, that will be out from Little, Brown in Spring 2022. I’m working on a book with Atheneum called HELLO, MOON that is all about a mother and child that go out to discover the beauty of the New Moon. I’m also illustrating a book by the lovely Matthew Burgess for Chronicle called THE RED TIN BOX which is such a beautiful story. And finally, a picture book biography about another of my favorite artists, David Hockney, called TO SEE CLEARLY (also from Abrams). I better get to work!
Well, with all those goodies on the horizon, I can’t thank Cynthia and Evan enough for taking so much care and attention to highlight this book. Thanks too to Mary Marolla and the folks at Abrams for suggesting this interview in the first place.
The People’s Painter will hit bookstore shelves tomorrow (April 20th)!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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