Before making her debut as a children’s book illustrator, Ekua Holmes was already an accomplished and award-winning fine artist. She was the first African American woman to be appointed a commissioner on the Boston Arts Commission. She was the recipient of a 2013 Brother Thomas Fellowship from The Boston Foundation for her contributions to the Boston arts community. In addition, she was the creator of a 2015 Google Doodle honoring the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday!
Last year, Holmes took the children’s book world by storm with her illustrations in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford. The book went on to receive numerous awards, including a Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrator’s Original Art exhibition, four starred reviews, a Sibert and Caldecott Honor, and a Coretta Scott King New Voices Award.
Holmes is a painter and collage artist who uses news clippings, photographs, vibrant color and skillful composition to infuse her work with energy.
Presenting Ekua Holmes:
Tell us about your path to publishing. How did you get that first trade contract?
My path to publishing seemed to appear out of the blue. One day I got a call from a woman who had seen my work at an Open Studios event in my hometown of Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston, MA. They asked would I be interested in working in Children’s literature. Would I ??? YES! I have always loved Children’s books and in the back of my mind held it as a possible path for my work. At exhibitions of my work people would say, “Have you ever thought about doing Children’s books.” I believe children’s books introduced me to art through the illustrations. Long before I went to museums and galleries, I went to the library. At the time of the call, I didn’t know if anything would come of it but I was pleased that there was interest.
Tell us about your most recent book, “Voice of Freedom.”
Months later the same woman called to say that her company, Candlewick Press, had a manuscript for me to consider—a manuscript about Fannie Lou Hamer. I knew about her role in the Freedom Summer, and her signature statement, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I admired her and was honored to be asked to illustrate her story. I said YES! What a blessing.
Talk about the research process for the book.
Well first things first—reading the manuscript— again and again! Then images began to come into my mind – colors, patterns, shapes, faces. After that, I started doing online searches. One search led to another and I was able to find images of Ms. Hamer from the 60s. The manuscript is so rich! It chronicles her life from the age of six to her 70s. Of course there were no early photos. Her family was too poor for that. So for the early years, I had to imagine her as a child. What did she look like? How did she wear her hair? What was her demeanor? Where did she live? I read books and articles about her. I read comments written by people who had worked with her in the movement. I listened to tapes of her speaking and singing. I looked at photos of her hometown. I immersed myself in her world. Another smart thing I did was engage a college student to help me collect the books and information from various sources. She was so helpful (thank you Chianta).
Talk about the medium you use in your work
I primarily use collage techniques with acrylic paint. Collaging is basically glueing things onto a surface – photos, newspapers, lace- whatever helps to tell the story. My work is made of cut and torn paper and paint. I am also a proud and committed thrifter. I am always at the flea markets and thrift stores picking up things that speak to me. Just as I was about to work on the image of the doll Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother bought for her, I ran across these two old handmade dolls at a thrift store in Salem, MA. They seemed to be just the kind of dolls that Fannie Lou Hamer would have received from her Mother. They were so authentic! It was as if the universe had provided just what I needed.
Was there anything especially interesting that you learned about the subject while researching the book?
Fannie Lou Hamer was 45 years old when she started her Voting Rights work. Because of her upbringing, experiences and intellect, she was ready when it was her time to step onto the world stage. She was a devoted mother and daughter, committed wife and staunch believer in the word of God. She knew the battle was bigger than her, bigger than any human being. It was a righteous struggle and right had to win. She never said, I’m too old, too tired, too poor- I’m inspired by that.
If you could spend one day in a studio, working with any artist — past or present — who would that be, and why?
What I would really enjoy is going thrifting with them, so artists like Whitfield Lovell, Radcliffe Bailey, Rene Stout or Bettye and Alison Saar. Oh and Nick Cave! They have the same affinity for the power of found objects. WE could spend the entire day (or days) driving through the South (or new England) visiting garages and barns, finding just the right items to inspire our work.
What would be your dream manuscript?
I like to think it’s on its way to me right now. Stay tuned.
Your dream author to work with?
Its funny, there is not as much communication between author and illustrator as you might think. Generally the publisher selects the illustrator (but does get the writer’s approval, I think). So I feel very fortunate to have worked on this book by Carole Boston Weatherford, who has written over 30 books and won many awards. Now I’m working on a book of poetry created by Kwame Alexander – another powerhouse writer/poet and winner of the 2015 Newberry Award. I couldn’t be happier.
Can you talk a bit about your process of illustrating a book?
This was my first time illustrating a book but I think it’s much like working on my personal collages. Research is crucial. I saturate myself in the author’s words (or subject) and allow images to rise to the surface. I sketch and revise, sketch and revise. Each time hoping to get closer to what I feel is the right composition. There is a lot of looking, thinking and moving things around.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?
My partner and I are both artists (he’s a filmmaker). We give each other a lot of high fives. He is very proud of me right now. Also my 8-year old granddaughter introduces me by saying “…and this is Nana, my artist.” Once she patted me on the head while saying this. I couldn’t have been more amused or flattered. If I can work on books that she and her generation will cherish, I will have everything I need in this world as an artist.
What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect to see from you?
Winning a Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award and a Robert F. Sibert Award for “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” is a hearty and magical welcome into the world of Children’s literature. I look forward to illustrating many more books. Folks can expect me to do my absolute best on each story, striving for creative excellence so that the illustrations I make will complement, illuminate and enhance the texts —it’s a collaboration. And after all—my granddaughter is watching.