Pictures of possibility: Exhibit by acclaimed illustrator Christian Robinson aims to help children explore the variety life offers

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 01-27-2023 9:35 PM

Illustrator and children’s book author Christian Robinson calls his website “The Art of Fun,” and it seems an appropriate title. Robinson’s colorful and whimsical art — a mix of detailed collage, acrylic paint and colored pencil — transmits the sense of exuberance and innocence that’s such an important part of childhood, and the California artist also comes across as a pretty bubbly guy in online interviews.

But Robinson grew up in tough circumstances: He was raised in a tiny Los Angeles apartment by his “Nana,” or grandmother, living alongside his older brother and a number of other relatives because his father and mother were mostly out of the picture.

Yet along the way, the artist, now 36, got support from some key people, including his grandmother, who encouraged his creativity and interest in drawing. Today he’s an in-demand illustrator whose work has won numerous awards and inspired a successful line of clothing and home items for families and children.

Some good samples of his work are now on view at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst in a new exhibit, “What Might You Do?” that runs through June 4. From book covers, original artwork and preliminary sketches, to an extended video of Robinson working in his studio, the exhibit highlights his artistic process, while also providing some autobiographical points of reference.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle Museum’s chief curator, says a key focus of Robinson’s work is inclusion. He didn’t have much exposure to children’s literature growing up, she says, and as a Black child, he didn’t see himself reflected in the kids’ books he did look at.

“He’s very interested in having all kinds of children, of every color and background and circumstance, be able to identify with his stories,” Keiter said.

“He’s drawn his whole life. I think he was looking for a way to make space for himself in the world and to deal with the some of the chaos he grew up with.”

As Robinson puts it in a statement that’s part of the Carle exhibit, “Children need to see themselves in books. They need to see their gender. They need to see their color, hair texture, their disability … Seeing yourself is like a message. It’s saying, you matter, you are visible, and you’re valuable.”

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Keiter notes that Robinson initially studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and also worked at Pixar Animation as an intern before becoming a children’s book artist. That influence can be seen in much of his work, she says, including two original titles, one of which, “Another,” is a wordless picture book.

“He really knows how to tell a story with pictures,” she said. “And he has a very open approach to his work. He’s interested in form and pattern — he’s not as concerned with a linear perspective.”

In “Another,” for example, a little girl and her cat use a mysterious portal to move from a darkened room to a world of color, where children walk upside down and right-side up and bright objects abound. One panel shows the girl on a steep hillside dappled with what might be flowers; they’re actually tiny colored dots, dozens and dozens of them cut from paper.

Meanwhile, the tail and back legs of the cat are seen protruding from a gray oval — the portal — that floats alone in a white backdrop.

In “When’s My Birthday?” written by Julie Fogliano, Robinson uses a range of materials — string, photographs, paper doilies, graph paper — in his collage art to capture the excitement and anticipation a child feels about a coming party.

“I think this a great example of the way Christian takes his own joy in creating art and makes it part of the story,” Keiter said.

Telling his own tale

Perhaps most interesting are Robinson’s stories offering snapshots from his own life. One of his first big triumphs was the 2015 book “Last Stop on Market Street,” for which Robinson and the book’s author, Matt de la Peña, won a number of awards, including a Newberry Medal for de la Pena and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Robinson. The book has since been adapted for a children’s musical.

De la Peña based the book on an illustration Robinson made of himself as a child riding a city bus with his grandmother. The story follows a young African American boy, CJ, who wishes he and his Nana could be in a car and have nicer things in life. But Nana shows him the beauty and variety of everyday life around them, such as the other passengers on the bus, the friendly driver, and the blue sky overhead.

Another poignant tale is “Milo Imagines the World,” a 2021 book also written by Matt de la Peña that delves into Robinson’s experience visiting his mother in prison when he was growing up. It was a wrenching experience, he said in an interview with the “Today” show a few years ago: “When someone you love is serving time, it feels like you’re also serving time. You’re also being punished.”

In the book, Robinson depicts Milo, a young Black child, on a subway heading to see his mother in jail. He passes the time imagining the lives of the other passengers, including a well-dressed boy who he guesses might live in a castle with servants at his beck and call. Instead, the boy ends up visiting his own incarcerated parents, just as Milo is visiting his mother.

Keitner says Robinson’s life story has a few almost magical elements that would seem to match the magic of his art. After graduating from CalArts, he held a number of odd jobs but was posting his artwork on his blog. That caught the attention of a children’s publisher, who signed him to illustrate the 2012 book “Harlem’s Little Blackbird,” a story written by Renée Watson about the Harlem Renaissance singer and dancer Florence Mills.

Robinson also dedicated a 2014 book he illustrated, “Gaston,” to his high school art teacher, Elizabeth Kim, a woman he says helped him build a portfolio, drove him to college campus tours and interviews, and in general played a pivotal role in setting him on the road to a career in art. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Ms. Kim,” he writes in exhibit notes.

“He’s had some people who have recognized his talent and helped him along the way, and the rest he’s done through hard work and creativity,” Keiter said.

Keiter says she first met Robinson five or six years ago when he was one of the presenters at the Carle Museum’s annual educators’ conference, and his art was also featured last year at the museum in a group show dedicated to collage art. This is his first solo show at the Carle; the exhibit has toured elsewhere in the country.

“We’re really lucky to have gotten him,” she said.

“What might you do?” will be on view at the Eric Carle Museum through June 4. More information is available at carlemuseum.org. and additional information on Christian Robinson can be found at theartoffun.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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