Legend has it that Wu Daozi, a Chinese artist during the seventh century’s T’ang dynasty, cheated death. He is said to have walked into his last painting, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, his frescoes have been lost.
Daozi is the subject of a new picture book from Lenore Look, called Brush of the Gods, illustrated by Meilo So. An opening note from the author states that this book is an “imagined version” of Daozi’s life, which she pieced together from translations of T’ang poetry and essays, as well as from knowledge of life in Chang’an during T’ang times.
Look grabs child readers on page one with young Wu Daozi in class, attempting to learn about calligraphy from a stern monk. Daozi is not properly paying attention. “Sit up straight,” the monk demands. Calligraphy is the highest of the arts, he tells the students, and if done well, it brings honor to one’s family. Daozi’s brush reveals a squiggly line, what he calls a worm. “Your worms are beautiful,” his friend whispers, “but you must learn your characters.” After creating his first drawing, he declares that he loves calligraphy, only to be met with a stern “That’s not calligraphy” from the elderly monk.
(Ouch. Are we going to have to take a moment to sing along to Harry Chapin, circa 1978? “There are so many colors in the rainbow … and I see every one.” Nah? Okay, maybe later.)
Eventually, Daozi is drawing on walls everywhere with his paintbrush. As Look points out in the opening Author’s Note, the artist was the first to employ the concept of showing movement in figures and in their clothing. The town marvels at the “flying sleeves” of his flying Buddhas. They even start referring to the artist as Flying Sleeves: “Daozi painted so fast that his sleeves looked like wings spread in flight.”
Daozi’s paintings appear so life-like that they begin to come alive and step away from the walls where he paints. And it is here that the book shifts into the legend behind the artist, embracing the fantastical. The birds he paints flutter away. The horses he draws gallop into the mountains. Everything he paints onto a wall disappears, leaving him empty and driving away his admirers.
Except for children. The shoeless, hungry children of his town follow him everywhere, fascinated by his magical art and forgetting their hunger pains. Thanks to the children, Daozi’s fame grows, and at an old age he is revered, painting in great temples. At the end of his life, as the legend states, the artist holding the brush of the gods walks into one of his own paintings—of Paradise, no less—and disappears forever.
The author does an expert job of weaving the facts of the artist’s life (what is known anyway) with the legend. Writing with lyrical imagery (“the painting was as brilliant as fresh-fallen snow”), she brings this tale vividly to life.
Using watercolor, ink, gouache and colored pencils, illustrator Meilo So brings fluid lines, sweeping curves and bright colors (especially toward the end) to the story, making this unusual picture book biography sing. As Kirkus’ own review of this picture book notes, this is more than just a tribute to the artist; this is a tipping of the hat to creativity and imagination and the very power of inspiration. Needless to say, any schools with curricula involving units on Chinese art or the T’ang dynasty would be well-served by this book.
A beautifully rendered tale. On shelves next week, it’s well worth a look.
BRUSH OF THE GODS. Copyright © 2013 by Lenore Look. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Meilo So. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, New York. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
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.