Children’s author and illustrator, Javaka Steptoe visited P.S. 56 in Clinton Hill to share his latest book, Radiant Child: The Story Of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat with the school community.
In preparation for Steptoe’s visit, teachers read the book in their classrooms and discussed the art and themes explored in the book. The students were able to ask some of their questions about Steptoe’s creative process and the inspiration behind his colorful children’s books.
His two-day visit culminated with a meet and greet for the P.S. 56 family. With crayons, glue, and a host of art materials, Steptoe led young participants in the creation of their very own stick figures, inspired by a popular image found in Jean Michel-Basquiat’s work. Principal, Eric Grande thanked Mr. Steptoe for helping to inspire creativity in the students. “Mr. Steptoe’s visit allowed students to see an actual writer in the flesh and helps them better understand that they too can write, illustrate and express themselves in a similar manner,” Grande said.
Book Beat caught up with Steptoe to learn more about how living in Brooklyn and his artistic roots have inspired his unique style.
Book Beat: Your style is very eclectic. Where do you find your inspiration?
Steptoe: My parents are my primary inspiration. They were both artists. My dad [John Steptoe] was an author and illustrator and my mother was a painter. They met at New York’s High School for Art & Design. I’m also inspired by a lot of the artists from the Black Power Movement like Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, and Elizabeth Catlett. Of course, I’m inspired by Basquiat. But I’m also inspired by a lot of the classical European artists like Picasso, Renoir, and Rodin.
I can see something in any type of art. What interests me is if there is something I can use in it, like a technique, colors, or a medium. Artists choose materials they feel most comfortable with and that most poignantly say what they need to say.
Book Beat: What do you need to say?
Steptoe: [Laughs] Each book is different. With Radiant Child, I wanted to expose children to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work by using objects and materials found around the city. To see the beauty in their environment. I want them to know that their power begins with them. Though you may have influences outside of yourself, it’s you that takes the initiative to make the first step and go forward.
Book Beat: Did you set out to be a children’s illustrator?
Steptoe: Not really. I always drew and wrote stories. My first stories were comic book stories with great battles and things like that. And I just followed that love for art. I decided to illustrate children’s books in college out of necessity. I connected with a children’s book company looking for artists. I think people were naturally curious about my work because of my father.
Book Beat: You visit a lot of schools. Does your time with the children inspire your work?
Steptoe: Sure. On one of my school visits, the children made clay figurines based on Egyptian collection at Brooklyn Museum. They painted the figures gold. I liked the idea and used the color in a book. I see and hear lots of things and it all gets cataloged to use later. How and when it will be used, I don’t always know.
Whatever I’m working on has to be interesting to me first and then I take time to figure out how to say it and illustrate in a way that will be interesting to children.
Book Beat: Jean Michel Basquiat is often characterized as edgy. Did you receive any push back about making him the subject of a children’s book?
Steptoe: When you think about it, there are plenty of artists who have had problems, but their story is not being told through the lens of their problems. It’s being told through the lens of their greatness and how they innovated art.
Once parents read the story, they’re ok with it. There was an initial reaction that the story is not child friendly. But it’s a story about a mother and son. The mother inspires the son, which is very child friendly. There is so much in [Basquiat’s] life that is good and nourishing for children of color. You see Haitian art on the wall of their home. You see images of New York, graffiti, hip hop music, advocacy through art.
After researching [Basquiat’s] life, I realized that he was being cast in a more negative light and things didn’t necessarily happen that way. He wasn’t necessarily this wild child among a bunch of people who were prim and proper.
I think about the Black experience when I’m creating. I think about young artists experiencing Basquiat’s work. When they go do research, they see a description that was built by people who didn’t necessarily like him. My power as a writer is to say, that some of the things may have happened, but this also happened. I can make the story “truer.”