Alex Beard is an artist on a mission. With schools cutting arts funding and what he calls a “schism” between the fine art world and much of the population, Beard wants to encourage kids to embrace creativity in their own lives. And his first book for children, The Jungle Grapevine—a moral fable based on “telephone,” the childhood game of misunderstanding—is just one piece of the puzzle.
“For the vast majority of the population, art galleries and looking at art has become an intimidating experience,” says Beard. “If one walks into an art gallery, there are big white walls with art. You have no idea who made it, why they made it, what it is in many cases, why it costs what it costs, and no one is polite enough to tell you.” Beard, who has studio/gallery spaces in New York City and New Orleans, wants to combat that trend and “make it so my art is as accessible as possible.”
Beard's childhood is a striking example of how influential art can be. Born and raised in New York City in the 1970s, he was a self-described “fly on the wall” when luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Truman Capote visited (his mother is writer Patricia Beard and his uncle is photographer/artist Peter Beard), giving Beard an early taste of life as an artist (and the idea that commercialization isn't necessarily an artist's enemy). “I learned not what to make or how, but that you could,” he says. “That to me is the most important lesson for children. If you choose to be creative, it's a viable outlet.”
It was Beard's travels that shaped the stylized brand of artwork seen in The Jungle Grapevine and on the walls of his galleries. During summers off from boarding school, he got a firsthand taste of Africa, visiting his uncle's ranch in Nairobi. His time there shaped the savannah watering hole setting for The Jungle Grapevine. And a 1993 trip to India led him to Kanha National Park, the same part of the country where Rudyard Kipling set The Jungle Book. “Kipling was a great model because he was able to take a place and have it [serve] as the driving force behind the series of stories,” Beard says. “Thus the creation of the watering hole.”
Though Beard's initial attempt to have The Jungle Grapevine published didn't pan out, he eventually connected with Howard Reeves at Abrams Books for Young Readers, after installing the artwork for the book in his New York City gallery and inviting three publishers to visit, so he could walk and talk them through the book.
Reeves signed up The Jungle Grapevine in summer 2008, and it was published this past September. Beard toured heavily for the book, incorporating drawing and painting activities for children into his events. He lives with his wife, four-year-old son, and newborn daughter, dividing his time between New Orleans (he calls himself “a loud and active advocate for the fabulosity of the Big Easy”) and New York City. Monkey See, Monkey Draw (Abrams) is also set at the watering hole (though not a sequel).
Beard admits that there is still a stigma surrounding artists who embrace commercialization—and with 2D and 3D puzzles, board games, flash cards, and other products based on his work available, he clearly has a broad, commercial vision. But as he puts it, “When I sit down to draw or paint or write, I'm not thinking about how this is going to appeal to the widest audience. I'm thinking about doing the best work I can. Once the work is done, then I actively think, how can I engage the public in as many and as varied ways as possible?”