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Interview with Javaka Steptoe: ‘Art Outside the Lines’

Brooklyn BookBeat

November 30, 2016 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Author Javaka Steptoe. Photo by Gregg Richards
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My interview with Brooklyn-based artist and illustrator Javaka Steptoe coincidentally occurred the same week I saw the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at the Met Breuer and Barry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight” at the BAM Rose Cinemas. And therein lies a tale…

In 1955, Simon & Schuster published a 112-page paperback called “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” with text by Langston Hughes and black and white photographs by Roy DeCarava. The cover featured the soulful eyes of an African-American child. Although the volume was slim, in the 60-plus years since its publication “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” has influenced painters, musicians, filmmakers and photographers. In 1996, Jazz at Lincoln Center held a symposium with Roy DeCarava and Spike Lee, in which Lee showed scenes from several of his films (“She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “He’s Got Game”) in which DeCarava’s photographs served as the visual template. DeCarava, who died at 89 years of age in 2009, was — along with James Van Der Zee, who was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance best known for his photographs of the neighborhood’s growing middle class and who died at age 96 in 1983, and Gordon Parks, who was a Life magazine photojournalist of the 1940s through 1970s and who died in 2006 at the age of 93 — the pre-eminent African-American photographer of the 20th century. [All lived into their late 80s and 90s, testament to their creative energy, stamina and spirit.]

Cut to earlier this month. After seeing Jenkins’ astonishing film “Moonlight” at BAM, I stopped in Greenlight Books in Fort Greene. I went, hoping against hope, I might find a copy of “Flypaper” to replace the one that got lost in my move from Los Angeles to Brooklyn 10 years earlier. I did not find a copy (in fact, what I did discover, is that the book has been out of print since 1977), but in searching for it I came across a riveting book cover which, although not a photograph, but rather a vivid collage/painting with a child’s beaming face in the center, still reminded me of the cover of “Flypaper.”

The book was “Radiant Child: The Story of the Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” and the author/illustrator was Javaka Steptoe. The cover showed the expressive face of a young boy of color surrounded by a collage of images: a multi-colored flag, children’s spelling blocks, fragments of a map of Brooklyn and an Arm & Hammer soap box, pencils and brushes and four strategically placed stars. It was, and remains, one of the most eye-catching book covers of the year.

And, happily, the text and illustrations inside live up to the cover illustration. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Jean Michel Basquiat was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in children’s street games, in the shops on his block, even in the colorful mix of languages he heard spoken every day. (His father Gerard was Haitian and his mother Matilde, Puerto Rican.) His mother encouraged his wide-ranging interest in art by reading poetry to him and by regular visits to museums and theaters. But she also encouraged him to see art in the everyday, taught him to be alive to “how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.” It was a lesson young Basquiat took to heart.

Similarly, Steptoe’s own father, the esteemed author and illustrator John Steptoe (who was born in Brooklyn in 1950 and who passed away at the tragically young age of 38 in 1989) taught young Javaka to really see things, not just look at them. John Steptoe’s first picture book “Stevie,” which he began when he was only 16, was published three years later to unanimous critical and popular acclaim. Life magazine published “Stevie” in its entirety and hailed it as “a new kind of book for black children.” After “Stevie,” Steptoe wrote and illustrated 10 more children’s books, plus five more for which he did the illustration only. “The Jumping Mouse” in 1985 and “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” in 1988 were both named Caldecott Honor books by the American Library Association. In addition, Steptoe received the Coretta Scott King Award for both “Mother Crocodile” in 1982 and “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.” After his death, the American Library Association established the John Steptoe Award for New Talent.

Javaka Steptoe chose to proudly follow in his father’s footsteps. He has also received the Coretta Scott King Honor for “Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow” (about rock icon Jimi Hendrix), and his debut picture book “In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall” won the Coretta Scott King Award. In addition, “Hot Day on Abbott Avenue” (with a cover as striking as “Radiant Child”) won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

Recently, in the cafe at the Society of Illustrators Museum on the Upper East Side, I sat down with Steptoe to talk about his beginnings, his influences, how he manages to earn a living in these harsh times for independent artists and, of course, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.”

The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Eagle: Like Roy DeCarava you got your degree from Cooper Union. Did you study art history?

JS: No, not really. I did have “foundations” classes where you studied photography, printmaking, sculpture, drawing. But along with the “foundations” classes you had to take electives, and one of those electives was art history. But it wouldn’t even be accurate to say I minored in art history.

Eagle: What about traveling in Europe — France, Italy, Spain — to see art, going on the “Grand Tour?”

JS: No, I haven’t really had a chance to do that yet — but I plan to soon. The one time I have been to Europe, it was to talk about my Jimi Hendrix book “Sounds Like a Rainbow” at the elementary and junior high schools at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany.

Eagle: How did that come about?

JS: The visit was arranged through the sister of a librarian I knew at P.S. 181 in Brooklyn, which is the school named after my father, John Steptoe. The librarian and I became friends because I would visit the school annually. One summer after she retired she told me about her sister who worked at the base as a teacher in the military school system. She connected the two of us and from there we worked it out.

Eagle: What did the “gig” entail?

JS: “Sounds Like a Rainbow” had just been published. I made presentations to the students based on the book. In addition to making artwork, I used interactive storytelling for auditorium presentations. I picked volunteers from the audience to play different characters from the book. Interestingly enough, there was an African-American kid with a humongous afro and naturally he volunteered to play Jimi. As I remember, he also knew how to play the guitar… a little bit.

Eagle: Cool. What are your first memories of going to a museum?

JS: Well, like most New York City kids, the first museum I visited wasn’t an art museum, it was the Museum of Natural History. Those dinosaurs … they were iconic and really resonated for me. Later on, when I was a bit older, my parents would take me to art museums.

Eagle: Who were the African-American artists whose work you remember most vividly? And who influenced you?

JS: In addition to my parents’ work, definitely Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar [Saar is known for her work in the field of assemblage. She was part of the 1970s “Black Art Movement” that challenged myths and stereotypes. One of her most celebrated pieces is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” which depicts a “mammy” doll, in front of syrup labels, carrying a broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other.]

Eagle: Any others?

JS: Yes, Aaron Douglas [an African-American modernist who, in addition to his paintings and drawings, did many murals across the U.S.]

Eagle: Interesting that you mention Douglas; in the current Kerry James Marshall exhibition at the Met Breuer, in the gallery devoted to artists whose work Marshall cites as influences, there is his magisterial “Aspiration” from 1936.

JS: I haven’t seen the Kerry James Marshall exhibit yet, but I definitely plan to go.

Eagle: Which illustrators of children’s books influenced you?

JS: My parents always had a library at home, so I grew up reading illustrated children’s books. I definitely remember reading Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” and being really impressed by Leo and Diane Dillon [husband-wife team who won the Caldecott Medal in 1976 and 1977, the only consecutive award winners of the most important award in the field of children’s illustration.] My father would read to us all the time. So, I grew up surrounded by art: paintings, illustrations, books.

Eagle: We also talked about the influence of Langston Hughes’ and Roy DeCarava’s “Sweet Flypaper of Life.” Were there other writers and photographers whose work you read and saw?

JS: Sure. James Van Der Zee and other Harlem Renaissance artists and writers: Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston.

Eagle: In this challenging economic climate for the arts, how difficult is it for an artist like yourself to make a living?

JS: Well, you have to be open to doing other work to supplement your income: teaching, commercial work like advertising, those kinds of things.

Eagle: Do you have a steady teaching gig?

JS: No, not steady, but I do teach. And, regarding commercial work, my portfolio isn’t geared toward that, so I haven’t done any advertising work. Which is not to say I’m ruling it out in the future.

Eagle: Do you have a gallery that represents you?

JS: Not presently, but that’s something I’m definitely thinking about. Diversifying.

Eagle: Are most, if not all, of your book illustrations stand-alone works that could be exhibited at a gallery?

JS: Yes. I come from the school of thought that says my approach is fine art. Recently someone said to me, “you’re more like a fine artist who happens to do illustration than an illustrator who dabbles in fine art.” And I agree with that description.

Eagle: One of my favorite books of yours is “Hot Day on Abbott Avenue.” It has this “Sweet Flypaper of Life” feel to it.

JS: “Hot Day on Abbott Avenue” was a really fun book for me to do. The language is very musical. I created these two characters going through their day, playing “Double Dutch” and hopscotch, other games. So, the reader hears the rhythm of these games.

Eagle: In your introduction to “Radiant Child,” you write that you didn’t want to use actual reproductions of Basquiat’s work, you preferred “my original pieces that were inspired by him.” Was this approach something you had decided on at the beginning?

JS: It was dictated by a very practical issue: the Basquiat estate. From the beginning, I knew I wasn’t going to get the rights to any actual images. So, I had to figure out which pieces by him I wanted to represent in my own painting. Which was actually all to the good, because by my not being able to acquire any rights, my imagery is “inspired” by Basquiat, but it is most definitely my take, my rendering of the imagery that takes precedence. I honor Basquiat’s story and spirit without using reproductions. Which actually worked out to be much more satisfying and stimulating.

Eagle: A classic case of “necessity being the mother of invention.”

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“Radiant Child,” published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is currently available in bookstores. For more information, go to Javaka Steptoe can be visited online at


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