Higgins Bond is a trailblazer. She has been a freelance illustrator and fine artist for almost forty years. She has received many awards, including a medal of honor from Governor Bill Clinton, the Ashley Bryan Award for outstanding contributions to children’s literature. She has exhibited her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and the DuSable Museum of African-American Art in Chicago, Illinois. In addition, she is the illustrator of three Black Heritage stamps for the United States Postal Service and four stamps for the United Nations Postal Administration on endangered species. Many of her original images have been published by some of this country’s largest collectible plate companies.
Higgins Bond has illustrated 39 books for both children and adults. Her lists of accolades are long. Here is Higgins Bond in her own words:
When I was young, I never knew anyone personally who actually made a living as an artist. So drawing and painting was just a hobby for me that I truly loved. My family and I believed it would always be just that. So inevitably, when I told my parents that I wanted to attend the Memphis College of Art, the only thing they wanted to know was “how will you really make a living?” As if a career in art was merely a fantasy. However, I grew to have faith in myself as an artist. It took a while before my family also believed.
After graduating with a BFA in Advertising Design, I was fortunate enough to get a job at a Park Avenue advertising agency in New York City. All through art school, I signed my work with my maiden name “Higgins”, because “Barbara” (my first name) was one of the most popular names at the time. Using last names was less confusing. But when I got married in my final year of college, I went back and added my new name to all my work. The professional name of “Higgins Bond” has stuck with me ever since. Hardly a year after graduation, my son was born. At this point I made the decision to become a freelance illustrator, so I could stay at home with him for a while. It was very slow and difficult at first. My son is now 39 years old and I have illustrated 39 books. That is about one for every year of his life. In between, I have worked for such clients as Anheuser-Busch, The Franklin Mint, Hennessy Cognac, The Bradford Exchange and NBC TV. I have even been a footnote in history, as the first African-American woman to illustrate a stamp for the United States Postal Service.
At first my only concern was just to make a living and pay the bills. An illustrator’s job is to interpret what is written and paint or draw whatever the art director asks them to. But as I grow older, my priorities have changed and I need more urgently to express my own creative passions about nature and wildlife. However, as a widow now, the practical matter of just paying the bills doesn’t allow for much creativity like a fine artist. But this passion has given me the honor of working with many wonderful authors over the years such as: Joan Banks, Mary Batten, Melvin and Gilda Berger and most of all Melissa Stewart.
For most of my career when asked, I would always say that my specialty was limited edition collector’s plates. I have illustrated many plate series about kittens, tropical fish, butterflies, dogs and children. Unfortunately, when the economy crashed and some people could not afford to put food on a regular plate, collector’s plates were a luxury. That market has all but dried up for the moment. Thankfully however, people will always read. A few years ago, I was honored to illustrate the 30th anniversary edition of Alex Haley’s Roots, The Saga of An American Family ©2010. It was a special collectible edition for Easton Press. This was particularly gratifying because, in addition to being passionate about wildlife, I am also passionate about African American history. Throughout my career my most successful work has involved the history and struggles of African Americans such as the three paintings I did for Anheuser-Busch’s Great Kings and Queens of Africa series and three Black Heritage stamps for the US Postal Service. It’s very important to me to continue to honor my heritage with more historical painting and drawings.
I recently published my 39th book, A Place For Turtles, by Melissa Stewart. Artwork like this is considered commercial art, but when I began my career, that didn’t matter. I just didn’t want to become one of those starving artist you hear jokes about. At least I can still say that I make my living from my art. Something I did not believe was possible when I was young. Things are getting better and the economy is coming back. I’m older and more patient. I don’t seek just to document nature and wildlife like Audubon, but rather to illuminate God’s creations and my history in a way that crosses that difficult but arbitrary barrier between fine art and commercial art.
I adopted a logo many years ago that I think is symbolic of my ideas about illustration. My logo is a self-portrait that is composed of black-and- white puzzle pieces with the focus on the eyes. Illustration is all about vision. I adopted this as a symbol on my cards and stationary because I began to see illustration as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The average illustration that I do is composed of at least 10 different images. My style might be considered photo-realistic, but I’m not trying to compete with a photograph. If that were the case, the art director would just hire a photographer. An illustrator is often needed when something just can’t be photographed, or to show an idea that goes much farther than a photograph. That’s illustration. That also means that these works of art don’t always have to be painted or drawn traditionally. There are many illustrators that use only computer generated images. And that’s fine, whatever works. As long as you think of it this way: illustration is language. It’s the language an artist uses to communicate what the author has written in a book an ad or poster. A good illustrator tells a story with images.
But I still prefer the traditional way with pencils paint and brushes. All my black-and-white illustrations are done with pencil. And all my color illustrations are done with acrylic paint on illustration board or canvas. I like to use watercolor brushes because I can get more detail with them. Pencil is my favorite medium, but these days I seldom get to use it. I do all of my sketches in pencil however, and once the art director, editor, and the author approve them; I then proceed to paint the final art.
Non-fiction children’s books today require many hours of research to find all the “puzzle pieces” needed to put together an illustration. The books that I have done about animals had to be scientifically correct and accurate. You can’t just make things up. Some time ago I illustrated a book about the former slave and the Native American woman that traveled with the explorers Lewis and Clark. It was called I Am Sacajawea, I Am York. This one had to be historically accurate as well.
When I was a child, art was just a hobby for me along with stamp collecting and playing the piano. I stopped collecting stamps and playing the piano as a teen, but stamps continued to interest and fascinate me. One day I was reading the newspaper and I saw Thomas Blackshear’s beautiful black heritage stamp of John Baptist Du Sable. Blackshear was one of the most highly talented illustrators I have ever known. But his Du Sable stamp was stunning! I was already familiar with the beautiful stamps in the series that were done by Jerry Pinkney, such as the Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman stamps. I said to myself, “I would give anything to get to do one of those stamps”. Well it never hurts to dream. You see I had already met Pinkney and Blackshear because we are all part of the earliest groups of artist hired by Anheuser-Busch for their Great Kings and Queens’s series of posters. We also worked on the same jazz calendar for Smirnoff liquors and we were all members of the Society of Illustrators. I had met them both at various events and unveiling ceremonies. So I felt comfortable enough to write to Jerry, who for those of you who don’t know is the winner several time over of the Caldecott Award, most recently in 2010. The Caldecott is the highest honor there is for a children’s book illustrator. Anyway, I wrote to Jerry and asked him how do you go about getting a job like this? It turned out that Jerry was now the art director for the Black Heritage Series, and was no longer painting the stamps. Blackshear was now working on the next two stamps in the series. I told Jerry of my interest in the project, so he took samples of my work to Washington DC and showed them to the Stamp Advisory Committee (they make all the decisions about stamps). And as a result I was commissioned to do the Jan Matzeliger Stamp in 1991, the W.E.B. Du Bois stamp in 1992 and the Percy L. Julian stamp in 1993. I will be forever grateful to both Pinkney and Blackshear for the inspiration and Pinkney especially for opening this door for me.
I don’t know about you, but I’m blown away by Higgins Bond — Don Tate