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PROFILE: UC Educator Appointed Guest Curator At Museum Exhibit Coming To Amherst

Darwin Henderson’s passion for promoting multicultural literature for children leads to a new collaboration with artist and author Ashley Bryan.

Date: 11/29/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Andrew Higley
UC ingot
Darwin Henderson
Darwin Henderson displays Beautiful Blackbird.

Darwin Henderson, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of literacy and early childhood education, is now planning an art exhibit to honor the career of award-winning illustrator and writer Ashley Bryan. Henderson was invited to be guest curator of the exhibition at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. The exhibit is scheduled to open July 23, 2005 and will run through Nov. 6, 2005.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is “dedicated to exhibiting the best in the genre of children’s book illustration,” according to founder H. Nichols B. Clark. Henderson has devoted his career to promoting literature and accompanying artwork that positively portrays the diversity of children and teenagers. Henderson also serves on a national panel that selects outstanding African American authors and illustrators for the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award. Bryan is one the recipients of the 2004 Coretta Scott King illustrator award for his book, Beautiful Blackbird.

Ashley Bryan
Ashley Bryan in his studio (Photo courtesy of Darwin Henderson).

As guest curator, Henderson will assist in the selection of up to 80 of Ashley Bryan’s illustrations to feature in the exhibit, as well as write an essay for the exhibition catalogue. Henderson previously published an essay about Ashley Bryan in the May 2004 issue of the academic journal Language Arts. He has his own collection of Bryan’s work, and formed a friendship with the artist after first meeting him two decades ago at a Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature – the longest-running multicultural literature conference in the United States.

“I was so taken by the importance of the work he was doing with the African American spirituals, or Negro spirituals, as they’re called. He was selecting and illustrating these spirituals into a book format for children, which had never been done before. He then toured the country – playing the spirituals for children and talking about their meaning,” Henderson says.

Darwin Henderson
Darwin Henderson displays the artist's block prints.

Bryan used an artistic approach of cutting block prints for the spirituals, Walk Together Children, published in 1974, and I’m Going to Sing, published in 1982. Henderson says, “When the spirituals were first published, Ashley would get calls from parents who were a little annoyed that their children were coloring in the block prints. He would explain that throughout history, children have colored in these black-and-white pictures. He’d also tell parents that he was happy that their children were opening up to art and to the world around them.”

A signed mobile by Bryan – a gift to Henderson which was accompanied by Bryan’s children’s book, Beautiful Blackbird – is featured in the Susan Cacini Children’s Library, located in UC’s Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center.

Henderson will be selecting pieces for the exhibit from more than 30 books that Bryan illustrated for children, as well as other creations such as Bryan’s personal portraits of his family and his handmade puppets, two-to-four-feet tall, which feature Bryan’s finds of shells, sticks, nuts, sea glass and even pieces of old clothing. The puppets are prominently displayed through Bryan’s home. “Rather than open the exhibit with a formal lecture on Ashley’s work, I will interview him on stage, accompanied by slides of his work,” says Henderson.

“One of the things that I do and that I insist upon when I teach children’s literature is that it must adhere to literary standards, like all literature,” Henderson says. “It cannot be demeaning. It must adhere to artistic as well as literary merits. Ashley Bryan’s books exemplify these high standards. So, when you have a book that meets these literary and artistic standards, it isn’t hard to demonstrate why children will be attracted to it.”


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