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Bryan Collier: A Collage of Purpose, by Katherine Romano

A brilliant young artist takes his distinctive watercolor and collage style and finds his purpose in life – illustrating for children

Stepping into author/illustrator Bryan Collier's apartment in Harlem, NYC, we were immediately struck by how strangely empty it seemed. From the doorway we could make out a chair or two haphazardly arranged in a corner, a few framed pictures propped up against the walls and the shadowy outline of an elegant antique couch in the next room. As we exchanged greetings and stepped over the threshold, we realized that all of the ornamentation in Bryan Collier's home exists solely upon its walls. Everywhere we looked, we saw what appeared to be rivers of color emanating from beautifully matted and framed pieces of Bryan's distinctive watercolor and collage artwork. Many of the pictures on his walls have appeared in his growing list of books for kids – These Hands (Hyperion, 1999), Uptown (Holt, 2000), Freedom River (Hyperion, 2000), Martin's Big Words (Hyperion, 2001), Visiting Langston (Holt, 2002), I'm Your Child, God (Hyperion, 2002) and most recently, Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

Becoming whole.
Growing up in rural Maryland, Bryan was heavily into sports before he began painting at the age of 15. His art teacher in high school allowed him the use of her office for work space and it was there where he began to define his style as an artist. Bryan came to New York in 1985 when he was accepted at the Pratt Institute. As he further explored his craft, he began to think about illustrating children's books.

After graduating from Pratt, Bryan worked for 12 years as the director of the Harlem Horizon Art Studio, a studio he helped to create that's located within Harlem Hospital and is open to both young patients and children in the community.

Many of the children Bryan worked with were at the hospital in order to heal both emotionally and physically and were able to find art as a way to grow and move past their hardships. "We explored what makes us whole," he told us. "We found that creativity helped mend part of that brokenness on levels that you can't see with the naked eye but it manifests itself in your life, your actions and in your change of attitude and behavior."

Bryan Collier and several of his illustrations

Images from I'm Your Child, God (bottom left), Freedom River (bottom center) and Martin's Big Words (bottom right) showcase Bryan's incredibly distinctive and emotive approach to his art. Each of these books were published by Hyperion's Jump at the Sun imprint.

Life on a scaffold.
While directing the Harlem Horizon Art Studio and hoping to someday land a book deal, Bryan began painting murals around the city and quickly gained recognition for his unique form of artwork. In fact, Bryan's mural work was so spectacular that he received an invitation to paint a very special mural on one of the best known streets in the world – Sesame Street. "When I was invited to Sesame Street, it was the highlight of my life!" Bryan exclaimed. One of Bryan's murals became the focus of an episode of Sesame Street and also lead to the creation of a new character – Speedy Van Go, the fastest painter in the world – who "painted" Bryan's mural for the show.

Bryan didn't get his book deal until seven years later, in 1999. He knows now it couldn't have happened any other way. "The books have opened up a whole new world in terms of the art and how I've changed in terms of what it means to make a book," he said. His first book, Uptown (later published in 2000), which he wrote and illustrated, was bestowed with the Coretta Scott King Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Award.From that point on, wonderful things began to happen for Bryan Collier.

Visual stories.
From the very start of his career as a children's book illustrator, Bryan has been careful in how he selects the manuscripts he agrees to illustrate. "It's something that has to strike me immediately and I can imagine visually how to tell the story," he said. So far, it's a mentality that's worked beautifully for him – Martin's Big Words netted a Caldecott honor, a Coretta Scott King honor and was named New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book; Freedom River was also named a Coretta Scott King honor book.

Piecing it together.
Bryan's since forged a special working relationship with author Doreen Rappaport – she wrote both Freedom River and Martin's Big Words, and they'll have a new book in 2004 about John Lennon. The symbiosis between Doreen and Bryan is evident even in Freedom River, their first book together. Freedom River is the story of John Parker, who was born into slavery and was one of the most active members of the Underground Railroad, eventually helping as many as 900 African- Americans cross the Ohio River to freedom. This story of courage and determination is made all the more powerful by Bryan's striking illustrations for the book. Bryan's signature style is in full force on every page and wavy lines representing the river and the desire for freedom play across the faces of the characters.

Bryan Collier with a collage of his artwork

Bryan Collier stands at part of his larger "collage" of artwork – some of the smaller pieces he has made into postcards for friends and family. Below, he signs some of his books for us.

Bryan's use of collage within his artwork came about when he was painting using only watercolors and was looking for a way to give the art more texture. "I realized that growing up, my grandmother had made quilts and I was influenced on a subconscious level by her piecing together quilts," he told us. Most of his best collage material comes from back issues of magazines he buys from street vendors (his favorites to work with are Architectural Digest and Elle) and then refashions into elements he's looking for to fill out his illustrations.

Finding a purpose.
In addition to book tours and appearances all over the country, Bryan also enjoys going into schools and visiting with children. It was on one of these visits he had a life – and career – changing experience. "I was talking to five-year-olds andasked, 'What do you need to make a children's book?'," he said. "Many of the kids named the obvious things, but one little girl spoke up and said, 'You need purpose. You can have pretty pictures or good words but it doesn't matter if you don't have purpose.' " These sophisticated words from the mouth of a child, Bryan carries with him to this day. "Way beyond the awards, way beyond the actual books themselves, it put me where I was supposed to be and that's the miracle about making books and and finding your purpose. It amazes me every day." For our sake, may he continue to be amazed.

Author Study Info

Q. Is there a story that you hope to one day illustrate/write?

A. I read the autobiography of Quincy Jones and I really want to do a children's book about his childhood. He was raised below poverty level and he and his brother were left to fend for themselves. They vandalized their school and broke into the music room and Quincy found this piano and it changed his life.

Q. Do you have brothers and sisters? Are any of your siblings also in the art world?

A. I'm the youngest of six. My older sister designs cakes!

Katherine Romano, associate editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

Meet the Author