One of my favorite reading challenges this year is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit her blog to find out more about the fantastic diversity of nonfiction picture books.
Kathy Whitehead’s Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, introduced me and my son to a self-taught painter who grew up picking cotton, harvesting nuts and fruits, and doing other manual labor on a former slave plantation in Louisiana. Many writers and artists visited the “Big House,” and Hunter began teaching herself to paint after she scavenged some art supplies left at the house by another artist. Hunter didn’t start painting until she was around fifty: during the last half of her century of life (she lived to be over 100), she produced 4000-5000 paintings!
Whitehead’s text focuses on Hunter’s discovery of art and her development as an artist, though many memories and scenes from earlier in her life are included as Hunter did work a lot from memory. Her paintings are clearly valuable as art, but they are also valuable for documenting Southern plantation life early in the twentieth century. Hunter’s life encompassed huge social changes, including the Civil Rights movement. There is a poignant scene late in the book where she stands alone in an art gallery looking at the first exhibition of her work. She had to enter the gallery after-hours because as a black woman, she wasn’t allowed in the building while the exhibit was open to the public.
Evans’s art is superb, as always. He uses perspective very effectively, and I love the way so many of the illustrations focus attention on Hunter’s hands. There is limited text, and Whitehead writes simply and lyrically, so this is a biography that very young readers can enjoy. My fifth-grade son and I also found it informative and engaging, and it sent us off on a journey to discover more about Hunter. There are many wonderful images of Hunter’s art online (as well as many fine photos of Hunter herself; I am especially fond of a photo of her holding a chicken.)
The back matter includes photos of a number of Hunter’s paintings, a bibliography, and an author’s note with more details and information.
If you’re interested in learning more about Clementine Hunter, I recommend this video of Clementine Hunter’s biographer, Tommy Whitehead, taking us through an exhibit of Hunter’s work. Whitehead’s insights into the paintings are fascinating, and I appreciated getting to see so many examples of Hunter’s work.