Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Seeing: The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock

In the beautiful countryside in southern France near the town of Arles long ago, I did an ugly thing.

Into a provincial village in south France comes a strange figure, a self-proclaimed painter who can't sell one picture, an "artist" whose images look nothing like the scenes the townspeople see him creating on canvas.

This small boy joins the others in harassing the town crazy guy with the wild red hair and the persistent scowl.

His dream, he told anyone who would listen, was to tell the truth by painting pictures.

He painted awful pictures.

The colors are all mismatched and garish, and the people and flowers and skies he painted didn't look right, The pictures were not pretty like paintings are supposed to be. Everybody agreed they were ugly.

Small boys followed the man on his rounds, hooting and laughing. The boy threw stones at his window. He joined the others in calling the man a fool, saying it louder than anyone, the way cowards do when they are safe as a part of a crowd.

But the boy is curious about the crazy guy. One day he secretly follows him outside town and into a field with tall grasses that keep him hidden. The artist seats himself and begins to paint the scene before them in his own way, and the boy creeps closer to sneak a look at the canvas.

The sky was blue, but boiling with violet. The wheat field shimmered like gold. Everything didn't seem as it should. Or maybe it did.

Then he stops and the man turned around to face the child. The boy freezes. But the man reaches out and offers the boy his painting.

"Take it," he said kindly.

The boy is terrified and filled with shame at his behavior and turns and runs away.

But that's not the end of the story. Many years later, when he is old and his own grandson is a small boy beside him, he sees a painting, a now-famous painting, on the wall of a Paris museum, a painting of a wheat field that is considered a priceless masterpiece of art.

"Much madness is divinest sense..." said Emily Dickinson, and that is the theme revealed in Shane Peacock's The Artist and Me (OwlKids Books, 2016), in which the author uses a small boy as narrator to reveal the contradictions in the life of Vincent Van Gogh, his alternate take on reality, seen as mere craziness by the townspeople of Arles. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes it takes a special eye to see the world in a new way. With a clear but understated lesson on cruelty to those who march to a different drummer, who see a different version of the truth, this picture book not only offers the essence of the life story of Vincent Van Gogh but offers young readers a way to gain the understanding that others can have different versions of truth who can teach us something beyond our own take on the world.

The story is told simply through the eyes of a child, and the accompanying faux naif style of artwork reinforces the theme well. And as Kirkus Reviews says, "Peacock's wonderfully paced, poetic text evidences strong evidence of the power of the page turn and how it can masterfully scaffold the storyline."  This is a first purchase for school libraries who want to support their own art program, one of those biographies of famous artists that speaks directly to the mind of the child.

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