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Nanette Carter on Children’s Book Illustrator Tom Feelings

Nanette reveals the museum experience that sparked her love of the arts.

Our new series In Celebration of Black Contemporary Artists returns with a conversation between Duneska Michel and visual artist and educator Nanette Carter. Below, Nanette expounds upon children’s books illustrator Tom Feelings and the museum experience that sparked her love of the arts (hint: it took place at Montclair Art Museum!)

DM: Hi everyone! My name is Duneska Michel and I am the School and Community Relations Specialist here at Children Museum of the Arts and I am so excited to be in conversation with Nanette Carter, who is an artist that inspires dialogue around contemporary issues through abstractions. So welcome, Nanette!

NC: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

DM: Yes, absolutely. So Nanette and I were just talking about about selecting a children’s book that is either written by a Black artist or involves a Black illustrator. And you had a really honest answer that I think should be brought to light and be discussed. So if you want to share …

NC: Yeah, because of my age and I’ll be very frank, I am 68. I grew up in the fifties and the sixties and I don’t recall any black illustrator or writer of children’s books at the time. I think some of the big books at the time were by Dr. Seuss. And so these rhymes that would go with what he was, his storyline, and what have you. I remember meeting my first African-American illustrator when I was probably in my early twenties, here in New York — Tom Feelings — who not only did these gorgeous rich drawings, but also wrote the stories. And his books now are real classics because he was one of the earlier artists. He was also a fine artist. He also made his own art, but then he did these books also that were really quite gorgeous. And I recall that they weren’t really colorful but he would use charcoal and chalk. There was a soft kind of quality to them. Sort of an atmospheric quality, and also quality of sort of the sense of mystery. And of course the stories were about black and brown children. And of course, using the charcoal he could get some really nice tones in terms of the skin tones. During the fifties and sixties, there were very few dolls of color to play with. I was playing with white dolls all the time. There were very few cartoons with Black children involved. So this was a different time period. Very different time period. What I do remember though, was going to the museum. My first time, I was six years old. And I think that had a lot of influence on me because I thought I was going to see paintings and drawings and sculpture but it was a show of works by Navajo Indian artists, Native American artists. And to see these feathers and headdresses and colorful beads I thought, “Oh my gosh, so art isn’t just painting and drawing.” And again, these sort of European ideas of what art would be but also including things from nature directly using cow hide and horse hair. And while I was fascinated, it also scared me a little bit because it was just so magical and so real. Whereas art, you’re drawing and making things but they’re not real. They’re drawings of reality. They’re drawings of children. They’re drawings of children in schools or going to their homes, or of having friends nearby. But this, these were absolutely stunning colorful parts of nature.

DM: Yeah.

NC: It really opened my eyes to what art could be, and that one’s creativity could also bring in the natural world, which I think we also see in African art where you see artists using wood cowrie shells, rafia, just all of these different things that they find right there on the ground in nature and then bringing them together to build something very special.

DM: Absolutely.

NC: There’s just this idea of this world of ideas and how you you can bring so many different things together, not just paper and not just clay, and not just canvas and paint.

DM: Yeah. I think that’s especially beautiful to think about considering I’ve worked with children for a very long time and they love collecting. They love gathering and foraging. The concept of holding things having things together, bringing them together. I really appreciated you sharing that and just imagining a child watching this conversation and thinking to themselves how they can incorporate these things that they gather into their work.

NC: Actually artists today are using fabric. So things are, like you said, you could just find right there in the house. I just saw a show recently where this graduate student… and you see my pot of plants here. This is a Pothos plant. The student used leaves in their artwork. And that was beautiful. And it was this, what she did was she had lots of leaves. Of course, when you think of fall, when the leave are coming off the trees, that’s a great time to collect leaves and they’re such beautiful colors.

DM: Yeah.

NC: But she had built up these leaves. It was like this thick collaging of leaves.

DM: Wow!

NC: And the surface was so rich and beautiful. You really wanted to touch it. It was very tactile.

DM: Yeah.

NC: You wanted to touch it. Just like I remember wanting to touch the feathers that I saw on these Navajo headdresses. And the feathers were not only just around the head but the feathers would go all the way down the back —

DM: Wow.

NC: — of the chief or the person who was of importance to the Navajo people. They were the ones that would wear these beautiful headdresses. But it was just so tactile. You wanted to touch the feathers. Of course in a museum, you can’t do that. You have to be respectful, but they’re very tactile. And this woman’s work was the same with these leaves these built up collaging of leaves. And I could just imagine a young person collecting limbs from the trees that have fallen finding dirt or sand and putting it into a piece. You could actually put all of that and use glue to kind of bind it using that as a wonderful surface to work on.

DM: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing your experience viewing art and your first experience at a museum. I’m curious, what is your favorite memory of making art as a child? Do you recall?

NC: Yeah, I think there’s several. First, in elementary school, we had a fantastic art program. I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. And I recall just loving going to that art class because we were doing so many different things that I knew nothing about, like printmaking and using stencils to reproduce something to make a pattern. It was an exciting experience. I also remember my first real, what I would call serious art class, which was at the Montclair Art Museum. And when I walked into this huge room, which was for lots of people to gather to draw, to draw the figure we didn’t have models for in elementary school, but to go to the museum to take an art class there were models. There also skeletons, real skeletons. And that fascinated me because of course we need to have that sense of what a skeleton is like, because the skeleton helps to shape everyone’s face. Some people have high cheekbones. Some people have square chins. It’s the bones that are kind of making the skin, pushing the skin out. And so we learn how to draw a face by drawing the skeleton. We learn how to draw the body by drawing the skeleton. And this was at six years old, too. This was, again, this was this whole period of me going to the Montclair Art Museum. It was so fascinating. Oh, I loved it. And to be there with grown ups who were also taking classes. So I thought I was so important. Going to the museum, I just felt like, wow, this is it.

DM: And you are!

NC: And ever since then, that was it. I knew I’d be an artist. I’ve known I was gonna be an artist since truly, I was about five or six.

DM: That’s beautiful. Yes. I love that. I love that you had that … such an amazing experience. And so affirming! You knew at that moment what you wanted to do.

NC: And luckily I had very supportive parents.

DM: Yes.

NC: Because at that time, yeah very few African-American women were getting into the arts.

DM: Right. Which is such a great transition into my next question which is, why do you think it’s important to make art accessible to children and families?

NC: To express one’s self I think, via music-making or art, is just so important. And I think, allows a child to be a child, to reveal themselves on paper, to have someone say, oh, that’s fantastic. Gives you the sense that what I’m saying and what I’m putting forth is important and I’m important. And that doesn’t mean that the child has to necessarily go into music, or go into the arts, but the appreciation for the arts also starts very young. But I think it’s this idea of expressing one’s self and getting to know yourself. I think when you draw, even you’re older, when you finish a piece and you look at it sometimes it surprises you. It’s like, oh my gosh, I did that. Or, oh, I’m not so sure I like that. But it’s a bit of you and it’s also talking about your concerns what’s important to you what matters what’s on your mind what’s in your mind what’s going on with your body.

DM: It was so funny when you mentioned printmaking, because I immediately thought of my first time printmaking, and we did it using styrofoam plate. Have you ever done it in that way? It was so fun to me to see this different way of utilizing this object that was a normal part of my life. Like styrofoam plates, if you go to a party you go to a gathering, whatever. And I was just so amazed at this different avenue of using this simple material. So fun. So my last question is, what advice would you give a young artist who wishes to pursue an art practice?

NC: I think number one, is just to continue to work, work, work. It’s a skill set that you want to build and it’s being able to have a thought or an idea, run it through your heart, and then bring it out through your hands while you’re making things. And all of that you have to keep doing it in order to get to a point where you’re really happy with the way that you are drawing or portraying your ideas. Drawing is, I think, the bottom line. And we all have pencils. We all have ballpoint pens, finding cardboard, it doesn’t matter paper, whatever you can find to draw on. The accessibility, the fact that all of these tools are right there, probably in your home. And they’re things that your parents are using all the time. So the accessibility is great. Draw, draw, draw. Make art, collage, paint, whatever it is you enjoy doing, do it all the time. Just do it.

DM: Absolutely.

NC: Yeah. So I think the main thing is to just to keep making art.

DM: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Nanette! What a beautiful way to close our conversation. And I hope that any of the children that watch this video can understand that art is a practice that you are involved in every day. Just like you mentioned. So thank you.

NC: Thank you. And I’m going back to my studio now to continue to work!

“It really opened my eyes to what art could be, and that one’s creativity could also bring in the natural world."