Transcript from an interview with Bryan Collier

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Bryan Collier. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Bryan Collier

Process for Rosa

The process for the project of Rosa Parks was that Nikki Giovanni wrote this wonderful story on Rosa's life, and I got it, and I read it, and I wanted this project. Once I received it and it was a go, I do what's called a thumbnail sketch of the story, which is a storyboard about what goes on each page. And from there, I'll elaborate and do a more detailed sketch, and that sketch will turn into me painting a watercolor wash and then the collage sort of finds its way in. And that's a series of me gluing and cutting away and adding to the image.

I use old magazines that I buy from vendors here in New York — back-issue magazines — and I just tear out images, or patterns, or whatever it is that I need for the collage that lends itself well to the story that I'm doing. And I sorta build on that idea, and by the time we get to the end of the book, they look totally different from the sketches, you know.

And that's sort of the process. There's no rhyme or reason on what goes more, the watercolor or the collage. It's just sorta what feels right. And I sort of feel my way through on how this book should look and how it should feel.

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Research for Rosa

The research that I did for the book was I went to Montgomery, and I had an escort when I got down there. And what this gentleman did was he took me around to where Rosa lived, where she worked. You know, he brought me to friends that knew Rosa and her best friend Johnnie Carr. He brought me to her house. And Mrs. Carr sat me down and said, "Young brother, this is what this was about." And she talked to me. And she just told me her relationship with Rosa, how close they were, and they had known each other since they were children, you know. And the movement and how dangerous it was in Montgomery for anybody of color, and how important it was that people risked their lives to make this thing happen. So, I had incredible research material to work with.

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Visual storyline

Once I've turned the artwork into the publishing house, a group of folks from the publishing house, the editors and art directors, and we all look at the artwork to see if it works as a complete book. Now, the text is on one side, and the art is on the other, and what we try to do is to see if the visual storyline holds up as well as the text. And the visual storyline sort of runs parallel with the text. It doesn't always mimic everything in the text, but it expands the text. That's the goal of the illustrator, in my point of view — to expand what's already written.

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For Uptown, it was just about me talking about all the things I liked about Harlem and my hometown, so it was just my voice embodied in this little kid. And what we tried to do with Uptown was to bridge old Harlem and new Harlem, so we talked about the history — the Vanderzee photographs; Rucker playground, you know; the awnings on the windows to block the sun — all those things of Harlem of yesterday, and then bridge them together with Showtime at the Apollo and Chicken an' Waffles and the barbershop. All those themes sort of run through Harlem, and they connect yesterday and today.

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The magic of storytelling

As an early reader, I was drawn to only the images, and it may have been before I even learned how to read — like three and four years old. And it was the images that sort of led me along and sorta told the story. Like Harold and the Purple Crayon, it was something so awesomely magical about that crayon from page to page. You know, little gestures that Harold did turned that book into a magical book and a magical story. When he made the pies and when he fell in the water and made a boat and made an island to sail to and then he got hungry and made the pies. And then he couldn't eat any more pies, and he made deer to help, you know, eat the pies. And all these wonderful, little things that went from point A to point B to point C — that was so incredible and magical to me.

And that's part of what I've never forgotten in making children's books, and that's what I'm chasing — you know, just that magic in storytelling.

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Collaboration with Nikki

My collaboration with Nikki Giovanni has been incredible. I had never met her until this project. I had, of course, known who she was and what she did and her poetry and wonderful writing, but I never thought I would work with her, and then this project came along. But when we met, it's just been so dynamic — because what I do is I watch her tell the story — her version of, and her friendship of, Mrs. Parks. And it just moves me to tears half the time, with the way she sort of tells the truth on what's happening on that particular day — that moment. She brings it full circle every, single time. And her honesty and her lyrical quality of storytelling is just so amazing And to know that we collaborated on this particular text, and she enjoys and approves of what I've done with her words — it pleases me also, you know.

But she's a dynamic person in many, many ways. And just beyond her words, her inflection on how she tells stories — that's what I'm listening to. I'm listening in between the words, and I'm taking from that space just before she starts and then just after she finishes.

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The impact of Emmett Till

Making this particular illustration for Rosa Parks, there's a message that I wanted to communicate with everyone also — that this movement — that the bus boycott could've never happened if Emmett Till wasn't killed the summer before. See, this was boiling under the community's surface. This was in the minds of all the African-Americans in the South, and this is something that shook the whole community throughout the South. So, we were on edge. And what snapped was when they arrested Rosa, because we had already had enough. We were beyond the boiling point. And this small, so-called insignificant moment became that huge moment because of what had happened to Emmett Till earlier.

We need to understand that to understand what happened with Rosa, because the 15-year-old girl did it before Rosa. A lotta folks had done it before Rosa, but it was this incident that sort of came to a head, and that's why I put Emmett — "In the Memory of Emmett Till" in the newspaper that was being read on the bus — to sort of expand the text, to give it more context and give it more weight, because it was a weighty situation.

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1992 and 1993, I would go to the bookstores in the children's books section, and I never really saw books that looked like me. And this sort of set me on the quest of wanting to illustrate and tell stories and do stories that sort of sounded and felt like me, where I would paint people of color, mainly, and sort of tell our stories. And there're so many wonderful and diverse ways to do that, and I just think that that'll be wonderful as an artist, to sort of use your artwork to sort of do something like that.

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Collage as metaphor

A collage is like this wonderful metaphor for life. Now, I have done a book where I painted puzzle pieces in collage, and what I was saying with that was that every moment of our life is like a piece of a puzzle, and has its own unique shape and size to it. And we don't really know what it means until later on.

What I try to talk about is if you hold on to that piece — that wonderful puzzle shape — it'll eventually make you whole. If you discard it, then that is your void, and that is where you'll be broken. And that's where collage and life sort of intersect — holding on to that small piece and putting it together to make you whole eventually. And that's what all this is really, really about.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables