When the Kennedy Center asked Mo Willems, its first education artist-in-residence, to create a series of giant abstract paintings to accompany performances of Beethoven’s nine symphonies by the National Symphony Orchestra, it was, he said, “terrifying.” But after making that creative leap (the paintings will be exhibited at the Center in January 2022), Willems knew he was ready to make a picture book unlike any other in his very popular oeuvre. In Opposites Abstract, readers are asked to think about how 18 paired, non-representational images make us feel (“Is this soft? Is this hard?”) as well as how and why we place one idea in opposition to another. PW spoke with Willems about risk-taking, the allure of the square, and, of course, the Pigeon.
What was the thinking that informed Opposites Abstract?
I have the great luxury of being able to terrify myself. And because I have that opportunity, I feel a need to take it. On some level, writing a book is writing a letter to yourself that you’re asking other people to buy. But you’re also communicating to an audience. These are ideas that interest me.
This pandemic and the issues of politics and justice it’s raised have made me want to step back and look at some fundamental questions. I find the clarity of my questions through making things. Opposites Abstract was a joy to make. I am not by nature an optimistic person—most of my characters are stuck in an existential state of incompletion—but the further I go back to fundamentals of shape and form and ideas and think about who we are and who we can be to each other, the more hopeful I become. Every one of the paintings in Opposites Abstract has a literal silver lining, literal silver paint on it.
In a YouTube video about the book, you say you’ve always been fascinated by abstraction, and that your own characters are “one step away from abstraction.” Who are your artistic inspirations?
I think that over time it’s changed. As a younger guy, I was a huge fan of Joan Miró, Paul Klee—one of my first gigs, at least 30 years ago, was carving on bowls in the style of Paul Klee for the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. As I’ve gotten older, Helen Frankenthaler has just surprised me: her work is about trusting the medium and allowing things to happen, while some of the earlier artists I admired, like Miró and Picasso, were much more controlled and contained.
My biggest abstract hero is Alexander Calder, one of the very few artists who created a new form of art but was in the tradition of Mondrian and all of these people. He was funny and accepted as an artist, at a time when “funny” was seen as a real pejorative.
How did the paintings you did for the National Symphony celebrating Beethoven’s symphonies lead to a children’s book?
My editor, Tracey Keevan, saw how much I loved [the Beethoven project]—maybe to the detriment of me hitting other deadlines‑and since it was Covid time, and I need to express myself through something, she said, “You should keep painting.” And we hit on this idea of opposites: opposite being two sides of a coin, but not always antagonistic—they support each other, and you have to have one for the other to express itself. So we thought about a bunch of opposites and I did some rough and small drawings.
One of the great things I read about Beethoven [while working on the symphonies project] was, “Nobody gave Beethoven extra notes. He got the same notes that we all did, he just put them in a more interesting order.” That was a guiding light. I get the same shapes that a five-year-old gets, the same colors a six-year-old gets, I just have to put them in an interesting order.
I’m not about making things. I want to spark connection. I feel lately that all works of art are three acts. The first act is the buy-in: you go to the library or the bookstore and get the book—I don’t have any control over that. The second act is the actual encounter with the art. The third act is what the book inspires you to do. I want kids and former kids to say, almost simultaneously, “That’s beautiful, I couldn’t do that,” and “I could do that.”
Plans are underway for this to become part of an interactive experience. We might get kids in Title 1 schools together with people in nursing homes to create their opposites or get musicians in different genres to create pieces of music based on the opposites.
The original paintings for Opposite Abstract are 40 x 40 inches square. You’ve said that the Kennedy Center project got you hooked on scale. What is it about the square shape that keeps you interested?
The square is such a great shape. I think of books as works of sculpture. If a book is tall, like Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse or an Elephant & Piggie book, it’s probably about a character, because if you take a picture of someone, that’s how you take it. And if it’s wide, like Knuffle Bunny or Where the Wild Things Are, it’s probably going to be about a place or location. But a square book is about getting something you’re not anticipating. And it’s such a fundamental shape.
The opposites you cite aren’t typical ones—they raise some big philosophical questions: for example, the idea of something being intentional or accidental, or inclusion and exclusion. How did you come up with your list? And how did you think about presenting big or profound concepts to young readers?
I can’t imagine I would ever write anything too profound for a five-year-old. They’re the perfect philosopher: they’re open to new knowledge and forgiving of their ignorance.
The first draft is always a lot of throwing everything out and you become reductive, and a rhythm starts to build. For me it wasn’t just “find the opposite,” it was finding the order of the opposites. Each opposite speaks to the one coming next to it. “Hard” and “mechanical” speak to each other in some way. And so it really was the dialogue and a narrative through the progression of these opposites.
I know people will react to Opposites Abstract, but I’m not sure how they will react. I’ve made this but I’m not creating the meaning—that’s another great thing about this book.
Your in-person activities are starting again after a long Covid hiatus. What’s coming up for you?
On October 9, I’m doing something at the Kennedy Center REACH Plaza called We Are All Connected with 240 members of the local community—people who are involved in food, justice, wellness, learning, medicine, art—who are going to place giant, three-foot circles around the plaza, and I’m going to physically connect all those dots into a giant playscape. It’s my way of saying goodbye after being education artist-in-residence.
It will be great to be able to collaborate again and be outside again after spending so much time in this terrible rectangle. It’s really heartening.
Right before Opposites Abstract’s publication date, the Pigeon received a flurry of attention on social media due to the shortage of bus drivers. How are you and the Pigeon feeling about that?
The Pigeon is always happy to have as much acclaim as it can. The fact that I haven’t made a Pigeon book in a couple of years is a source of frustration for the Pigeon, so the Pigeon is looking elsewhere for attention.
I’m always surprised by anyone who has ever read any of my works or when it’s referenced in some way. I don’t control the Pigeon. I only fledged it, and now it’s doing its thing out there. It’s joyous and terrifying.
Opposites Abstract by Mo Willems. Hyperion, $14.99 Oct. 19 ISBN 978-1-368-07097-3