It’s been three years since award-winning author-illustrator R. Gregory Christie packed up his belongings and headed south to Georgia from Brooklyn, all in the name of making children’s books as compelling, as he always put it, as the latest pair of sneakers—and to bring tangible art forms to communities. Once settling in Decatur, he opened GAS-ART GIFTS (“Gregarious Art Statements”). It’s here that he’s been teaching classes to art-lovers of all ages.
But, lucky for his readers, he’s also still making children’s books. His latest is a contemporary adaptation of the classic Aesop’s fable, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Mousetropolis, released just this week, brings readers the story of City Mouse and Country Mouse, who visit each other’s respective homes yet discover that their own stompin’ grounds, previously under-appreciated, are precisely where they need to be. The story pops with Christie’s sleek, vivid gouache illustrations. He brings new life to the classic tale.
I chatted with him via email about his art workshops in his thriving business, this new book, and what’s next on his plate.
Can you talk about wanting to take on a story from Aesop? Were you inspired by your own move from Brooklyn to quieter Georgia?
The idea came from two sources, 20th-century photojournalist Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) and Holiday House editor (perhaps even artist herself) Grace Maccarone. Weegee’s “Coney Island” photograph from 1940 shows hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying a day out. It made me think about how time can affect a place. A spot that’s bustling with people in one decade can be desolate in the next, and the only proof that it was the way it was is through art or an old-timer.
So, I approached Grace with the idea to do a book on Times Square, as well as a book called Gracie’s Mansion. They were only rudimentary ideas, but I was thinking of a New York City landmark book series that could document these places during our time. I had the hope that we’d find an author to hash it out, but she suggested that we already had an author—me! My Times Square book became Aesop’s tale with her pitching to me that it would be an opportunity to “do some amazing city scenes,” so that’s where it all began.
For a Brooklyn man such as me to make my way down to a small town that’s west of Atlanta was all the research I could ever need to “be authentic”!
I love the textures in this book (and I love the train spread, in particular). Do you enjoy working with gouache?
I have admired gouache since being a little child in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. The local children’s library and art store were my first exposure to that medium. Ezra Jack Keats, Aliki Brandenberg, Martin Provensen, and many other artists from the ’60s and ’70s showed me what gouache could do.
However, Acryla Gouache—a fast-drying, opaque, acrylic-based watercolor—is my new love. I feel that it has the best qualities of gouache and acrylic.
What's new with GAS-ART Gifts? What have you learned in the three years you've been doing this?
Three years, indeed, of blood, sweat, and tears, which aren’t always my own. There’s too much to write in terms of what I’ve learned, but at the end of the day I know that I feel free, and we’re doing something that helps people—ages three and up.
We have something for everyone. You can be the hit at your next baby shower with an autographed copy of Mousetropolis. We offer date night and girls’ night out with two-hour, step-by-step paintings of flappers, high heels, landscapes, and still-life paintings. I do hour-long art fundamentals for anyone curious about tapping in to their creative side. I specialize in “I can’t draw a straight line” and “my sister/brother/ Granny/ whoever got the art gene—but not me” students. I can teach you and help to problem-solve away whichever creative block is hindering you.
I really enjoy it, and I find happiness in seeing people make discoveries. Whether it is a new book for a child, an understanding of an artistic concept, or one of my pieces for their wall, these discoveries bring me happiness and keep me going.
Any new projects you're working on now (that you're allowed to talk about)?
Sweet Blackberry's Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story is the latest animation project. Karyn Parsons wrote it, Chris Rock narrated it, and Pixel Pirate Studio animated my artwork. You can see it on Netflix or buy it from Karyn’s website.
The latest books are Little Bee Books’ Freedom in Congo Square, written by Carole Boston Weatherford with an introduction by author-historian Freddi Evans. I’m very excited to have teamed up with Lerner books, editor Andrew Karre, and author Vaunda Nelson in order to do the artwork for The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem's Greatest Bookstore. Other projects are an upper-grade book on little known Revolutionary War heroes, a book on Jackie Robinson, another animated film, and a project that will team me up with Nikki Grimes again.
Text and illustrations copyright © 2015 by R. Gregory Christie. Used by permission of Holiday House.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.