Monday, October 07, 2013

Process Talk: Don Tate on Illustrating The Cart That Carried Martin

It's a rare picture book with two creators that manages to look as if it came from a single inspirational source. The Cart That Carried Martin from Charlesbridge is such a book. I'm so pleased to be able to interview illustrator Don Tate about his glorious art for this book. 

[Uma] Don, welcome to WWBT. Talk to me about what research was involved in illustrating Eve Bunting's text for The Cart That Carried Martin. What did you learn from this project? 

[Don] For research, I found hundreds, if not, thousands of photos online. They informed and inspired my drawings. I also visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site in Atlanta, where the cart is now on display. I took photos of the cart at every possible angle, and of the newly renovated Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

What impressed me the most about the day were the sheer numbers of people who turned out to celebrate King's life. I learned that about 1,300 people were at the funeral held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and between 50,000 and 100,000 followed behind the wooden cart that carried King's casket. Reading the numbers are one thing, seeing the photographs of the size of the crowds, that’s a whole other thing. The crowds were beautifully overwhelming. 

When studying history, I sometimes feel a disconnect between myself and the people I’m studying about. Stories about slavery, Reconstruction, the 1960s civil rights years, that happened awhile ago, most of it before my lifetime. The people can seem so far away. Almost unreal. Photographs don’t lie, though, and serve as a reminder that these things really happened, the people were real. Slavery, whippings, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, beatings, fire hoses and dogs — real people, just like me, experienced these things. As I looked through the photos of King's funeral and procession, I saw myself. That's why stories like The Cart That Carried Martin are so important, so we don't forget.

 [Uma] You work in many media--why pencil and guache for this book? And the style here is quite different from some of your other work--would you like to talk about how form and content came together for you here? 

Honestly when I read a new manuscript, I don't have a particular media, look or "style" on the ready. The story leads me to a particular media or style. Sometimes I don't even know until I sit down to render the first piece of art in a book. I may create sample studies and settle on illustrating a book in oils, only to sit down and pull out my watercolors, if that's what feels right when I begin to work. Most of my books have a slightly different look. But they all seem retain a familiar clarity, a sharpness -- hard lines, bold colors, tightly rendered ("muscular," as one reviewer described my art work). That's me. But for The Cart, I needed to loosen up because of all the crowd scenes, or else I'd have driven myself crazy trying to draw every little eye and nose and ear in a crowd. Loose lines, light-flowing colors, I felt that would be best for this story. And besides, with the subject matter being a funeral, realistic paintings might have given the book too somber a feel.

[Uma] There is one spread in this book that is utterly transcendent in its power--it's the one where the men walk in front holding the reins of the mules, and "The widow walked behind, her grief hidden by her veil." The words are so simple, and the art in the scene is deceptively simple as well. But something in the way the crowds melt at the edges, the perspective, the smallness of the people and the simple power of that wooden cart at the center--well, you just take a moment and center it there in a truly unforgettable way. All right, I'm done raving. I want you to tell me how you composed that scene, and what the creation of those pages meant to you. 

[Don] Again, photographs of the day inspired the scenes. Love was the dominant theme for the day. As the cart wound its way through Atlanta streets, people looked on with admiration. They held hands. They embraced. They caressed the cart. Men walked alongside, reaching over to touch the casket.

At first I worried about picturing the coffin. To me, coffins are scary. When I see one, I get a sick feeling in my stomach, and I turn my eyes away quickly. I assumed that most kids felt this way, too, so I wasn't sure how to show the coffin. I experimented with drawing the cart at different angles, hiding the coffin on only showing hints. But ultimately, that would have been defeating the purpose of telling the story of the day. I chose to picture coffin in full view, where necessary. How could a scene with a coffin be scary when surrounded by so much love?

And finally:

[Uma] What's up next? Any projects coming up I should know about?

[Don] Oh, I have a lot on my slate. I feel blessed. The next project I'm illustrating is the story of John Roy Lynch. It's the story of a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It is written by my friend, Chris Barton. Next, I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It's the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south, before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery, a brave man, huh?). And I'm under contract to illustrate two more books, one that I wrote as well.

Thank you, Don! Congratulations on your beautiful book. I look forward to your new work and to many more conversations to come!

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