Among the more persistent and valid criticisms thrown at creators, critics, curators, and collectors of the art world alike is this: Your art is not for anyone except yourselves.
Blustering indignation aside, the message stings because, in some cases, maybe even many, it’s true. Artworks abstracted beyond all recognition, citation-riddled Marxist and postcolonial analyses, the marking up of a painting to a million dollars or much more (in 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold at auction for $450.3 million)—all place art far beyond the reach of everyday people.
James Ransome brings it back.
Born in rural North Carolina, Ransome grew up far from galleries and museums. His only early exposure to art was found in comic book pages and Bible illustrations. By imitating these drawings, he discovered his lifelong passion and skill. He went on to study photography and film-making—elements of which are evident in the strong use of perspective and pacing in his painting—before earning a BFA in Illustration from the Pratt Institute.
Since then, Ransome has illustrated more than 60 children’s picture books. He has won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, among many others, and is named by the Children’s Book Council as one of 75 authors and illustrators “everyone should know.” Perhaps this is because he makes art for everyone.
To help “everyone” discover his work, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas, organized Everyday People: The Art of James Ransome. The exhibition has traveled across the country for several years, with stops in the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska; the Children’s Museum of Houston; the Abraham Art Gallery at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas; the Northern Illinois University Art Museum, and the Orlando Museum of Art. Curators in Orlando noted that across the more than 60 artworks on display, what Ransome’s works have in common is their “celebration of the simplest and most joyful moments in our lives.” From listening to good music to making that same music with good friends, to dancing and singing and sitting quietly to contemplate the falling autumn leaves, Ransome’s is the best kind of art, the kind that captures and evokes in us the strongest and purest emotions of our lives.
At the Provo Library, librarians have made a public space in which everyone can view Ransome’s art. Soft jazz music plays through speakers in a nod to two of Ransome’s books: Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History. A large bookshelf holds the library’s copies of dozens of Ransome’s books, with bookmarks to indicate the works on display.
While the printed illustrations are captivating, the varied textures, vibrant colors, and piercing gaze of protagonists found in the original watercolors, oils, acrylics, and pastels hanging on the wall, come alive.
One particularly striking picture is Ransome’s portrait of legendary baseball player Satchel Paige, who signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of Major League Baseball. The red accents of Paige’s uniform starkly contrast with the rich blue sky behind him, the contrasting colors enriching one another in turn. Set against a low horizon line and inch-high infielders, Ransome makes Paige take up the entire frame. His tall figure splits the scene slightly off-center, creating a captivating, larger-than-life tribute to the storied player.
Just because art is accessible does not mean it is watered down. Ransome’s paintings, many of which depict poignant stories of Black Americans, are uncompromising. One of these is “A Love Worth Waiting For” from Patricia and Frederick McKissack’s Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color to His Daughter. The painting depicts an enslaved man and woman standing in for the biblical figures of Jacob and Rachel. The two form a striking figure in the center of the composition. Though they wear dull brown clothes meant to erase their identity, “Jacob’s” bright red kerchief and “Rachel’s” vibrant blue head wrap are stark reminders of their individuality. Their downcast expressions, combined with the bouquet of purple flowers lying flat on Rachel’s lap, communicate their somber mood. A few bright brushstrokes in the midground evoke chickens pecking in the yard. Their implied clucking, contrasted with Jacob and Rachel’s obvious silence, makes palpable the figures’ silent sorrow. In a way that is simultaneously sensitive, direct and powerful, Ransome forces viewers to confront the cruelty of slavery and recall the sacred love in their own lives.
This is what art is about–capturing the little moments and the big feelings, the ones we can’t express and yet feel compelled to share. Ransome’s art is a celebration of everyday people, for everyday people.
One of the art world’s most popular taglines is, “art is for everyone.” In Everyday People, this is actually true.
Everyday People: The Art of James Ransome, Provo Library, Provo, weekdays from 3:30-8:00pm, through February 22.
Candace Brown received her BA in Art History and Curatorial Studies from BYU. Raised in Utah, she is proud of the state’s extraordinary artistic community.