Cynthia Levinson is the award-winning author of several books for young readers, including nonfiction titles such as Fault Lines in the Constitution (with her husband Sanford Levinson) and The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist. Evan Turk is an Ezra Jack Keats Book Award–winning illustrator, author, and animator. He is the author-illustrator of The Storyteller, You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks, and A Thousand Glass Flowers. We asked the duo to interview each other about their new picture book biography, The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art, in which they pay homage to an artist whose life and legacy have inspired their own work.
Cynthia Levinson: Evan, I was ecstatic when our editor, Emma Ledbetter, told me you’d agreed to illustrate our book on Ben Shahn. He was such a prolific artist in the 20th century—admired by the public but dismissed by critics and then both hired and fired by the U.S. government! How did you decide to do the illustrations?
Evan Turk: I was sold from the second I heard “Ben Shahn,” but I loved the way you told his story once I read the manuscript. I’m so excited for this book, because I feel like Ben Shahn is very well known among illustrators and Jewish art lovers, but I think this book will introduce him to a whole new world of people!
When did you first come up with the idea for a book about him and what do you think kids will enjoy about his work?
Levinson: I thought of doing a book about Shahn back in 2012. In your Illustrator’s Note, you mention that you did a project about him when you were in the fifth grade! Like you, I’ve been aware of him for a long time—though not from such a young age. I remember seeing his drawing of Dr. King on Time magazine’s cover in 1965, which you evoke perfectly in the book. And Shahn’s peace dove became the iconic symbol of Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign. Since I write about social justice and I’m Jewish—both of which are themes in his work—he seemed to be a natural fit.
There’s so much for kids to like about Shahn. His art is accessible because it’s representative, rather than abstract, and, as we say in the book, it tells stories. His work is also emotional—touching, haunting, angry—because, like kids, he cared about fairness. He also illustrated a book, magazine articles, and an entire mural for kids.
Speaking of emotions, how did you decide to add the illustration of the Shahn family’s arrival in America, a spread without text? It’s so touching.
Turk: I’m so glad you liked that scene! I thought it would be important to show not only Ben’s emotional reunion with his father in New York, but also the immigrant experience coming into Ellis Island. I wanted to show the contrast of the glittering ideal of America, and the harsher, stressful reality of coming to a new country. I also loved the idea of referencing Shahn’s own depiction of immigrants arriving in Ellis Island in the mural he paints later on in the book.
You fit so much information about Ben and his time in this book, and you were able to conduct interviews with so many amazing people with personal connections to him! What were some of your favorite tidbits that you learned?
Levinson: Maybe my inability to stop researching and start writing is the reason this book took a decade! Long before I started writing for kids, I met Shahn’s second wife, Bernarda, who was also an artist and went to the same high school I did. That was thrilling, as was talking with one of his sons, Jonathan, who showed me both his father’s house and his studio. Jonathan still lived in what was called Jersey Homesteads and is now called Roosevelt, in New Jersey. The studio is a concrete-block out-building behind the house and still contained Ben’s drawing table and cans of brushes and pencils.
I loved learning that Ben worked on a mural with Diego Rivera that was supposed to be at Rockefeller Center but was destroyed for political reasons. But my two favorite finds were a booklet that fourth graders made 25 years ago about the mural in Roosevelt and also a conversation I had with author-illustrator Tomie dePaola. A student wrote about the mural, “You just have to look at it, and you see the story.” Her comment made me realize that children can easily follow the stories Shahn drew—an important discovery when you’re writing for kids! Tomie was a student of Shahn’s and said that Ben told him, “Being an artist is not only what you do, but also how you live your life.” The book demonstrates how he did that.
Evan, all of your books have vibrant color palettes—how did you choose the color scheme for this one?
Turk: I always like to use color to help tell the story in the illustrations. In this book, the main colors are blue (we’ll call it “cerulean” as a nod to The Devil Wears Prada), gold ochre, red, black, and white. All of them feature prominently in Shahn’s work, too. The blue (which is a very spiritual color in Jewish art) and ochre was a way to symbolize Ben and his connection to his family and his roots. I used black, white, and red to reference religion, letters, and the idea of justice (right and wrong). The red, white, and blue also reference the United States flag, and Shahn’s idea of what it meant to be an “American” became central to the social justice themes in his work.
I love so much of Shahn’s work, it was hard for me to try and fit everything I love into the illustrations! Do you have a favorite piece or series of his work?
Levinson: No! As you said, there’s so much to love. I’m partial to a poster of voting booths, titled “The end of government is the good of mankind” (where “end” means “mission”), and another where he wrote, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” They’re simple, eloquent, and potent.
You reference so much of Shahn’s art in your illustrations: the hands, eyes, and doves, the shapes of Hebrew calligraphy. How did you decide what symbols and elements to include?
Turk: Early on, Emma mentioned that you loved the idea of using hands as a symbol, and I knew we were on the same page! Shahn’s way of depicting hands and faces are so expressive and so much of his signature, that I knew I wanted them to feature prominently in the artwork. Especially since his family members all were craftsmen who worked with their hands, too! I was always struck by the piece he did called “Farewell” that was part of his series criticizing the horrors of nuclear war, as well as the paintings “Identity” and “Warsaw,” which featured powerful, expressive hands. The doves, in addition to being a little love note to my grandma, Lenore Dove Klein (who is also a fabulous artist and wonderful person!), were a symbol that I had always loved in Shahn’s work. Particularly a painting called “A Score of White Pigeons,” where the doves felt like they were turning into hands. They felt like a perfect illustration of the hope through protest and action that he wanted to express with much of his work.
Levinson: Several readers have said that the text and the illustrations—the art and the politics—blend perfectly in The People’s Painter. Thank you, Evan, for making that happen.
Turk: It was truly my pleasure. Thank you for bringing me on board!
The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. Cynthia Levinson, illus. by Evan Turk. Abrams, $18.99 Apr. 20 ISBN 978-1-4197-4130-2