According to debut children’s book illustrator Carl Joe Williams (Mardi Gras Almost Didn’t Come This Year by Kathy Z. Price, Atheneum), art has been part of his life from the beginning. Born in New Orleans, Williams feels a close, personal connection to the story of Lala, Babyboy, and their family as they weather the realities of life in post-Katrina New Orleans and seek joy and healing through the celebration of Mardi Gras. “I went through it, with my family and friends, and everybody,” he says. “It was about telling that story, visually, as much as I could, while at the same time telling another story.”
Williams recalls, “Visual art is something I’ve been drawn to since I was as young as I can remember. I’ve always been known to be an artist. It’s always been a part of my identity.” As a kid, he could often be found creating: painting or writing songs for his musically inclined friends, or collecting discarded artifacts to incorporate into his artwork. “Like a lot of abstract work back in the 1980s, I would piece things together and make work like that.”
Williams’s role models include such artists as Willie Birch, Faith Ringgold, and John T. Scott, and he credits his own foray into collage to Ezra Jack Keats. Regarding his penchant for integrating vivid color palettes and arresting patterns reminiscent of quiltwork into his paintings, art installations, and perhaps most notably, the illustrations within Mardi Gras, Williams describes developing his signature style while at the Atlanta College of Art. Through the study of African American artists alongside other Black students, “I started to recognize that there was a language there,” he says, “and I felt that I was a part of it.” Then, through the examination of African art and textiles, he elaborates, “I started thinking about quilt-making and started to allow those ideas to become a part of my language, in a sense, so I tend to paint that way, with a lot of patterns.”
It was only after losing his job 11 years ago that Williams chose to make art his career. “I went through a period in my life when I didn’t make art as continuously as I should have, or felt like I should have,” he says. “I decided to really pursue it after I got laid off. I made a firm decision to pursue art with a little more passion and to try to understand the business of art better than I did at first.”
Though Mardi Gras constitutes Williams’s first published children’s book project, Williams has been passionate about illustrating books for kids for many years. “Speaking of artists who I felt were mentors, I never met Faith Ringgold, but she was the artist I looked up to,” he says. As an art student, Williams encountered work by Ringgold in the High Museum of Art and then Tar Beach, Ringgold’s Caldecott Honor picture book. “That,” he says, “is when I got interested in making a children’s book.”
Twenty years later, Williams was in the midst of a six-year effort at drafting his first children’s book when Simon & Schuster reached out to him about illustrating Mardi Gras. “I was like, sure,” he says. “It actually helped me figure out how to finish my own book.”
As a result of his New Orleans upbringing and experience living through Hurricane Katrina, Williams was grateful for the chance to illustrate Mardi Gras. “I really wanted to do that story justice,” he says. Williams employed his mixed-media expertise to create the art for Mardi Gras, beginning with a Black family he found on Instagram who volunteered to model for the story. “I ended up with the whole family for a one-day photo shoot. After three hours of shooting, Williams began to “paint and collage, and cut out and repaint” until Mardi Gras came together.
A proponent for social change, Williams considers his art the “vehicle” for his activism. “It’s a way for me to parlay all my skills, interests, and abilities to do work that is meaningful for the future of humanity,” he says. Of his first endeavor into children’s book illustration, Williams says, “I want readers to connect with the work, with the amount of time and energy that went into it. I want them to connect with that entire experience of having your family being threatened by natural disaster, but at the end, we can all come together for something that keeps us all connected.”
Idris Grey is a Black queer writer, book reviewer, and sensitivity reader in Texas.