Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
R. Gregory Christie

h1 January 13th, 2009 by jules

I can’t even BEGIN to tell you how pleased I am that my first breakfast illustrator interview of ’09 is with artist R. Gregory Christie. He had me at hello a long time ago with this statement on this page of his web site: “The disproportionate compositions and elongated figures {of my art} are meant to be a directional device for the viewer, my own natural inclination, and a challenge for the viewer to break away from the established fundamental belief that all children’s books must be realistic or cute” {Ed. Note: Emphasis all mine.} Since I’ve always been such a fan — and Eisha, too — I think this is one pretty kickin’ way to bring in the new year here at 7-Imp. Christie, who goes by Greg, is here for some pancakes, eggs, and sausage, which is what he says he eats when he’s “eating badly,” but I say his visit calls for a big ‘ol matutinal feast. I’ll gladly provide the pancakes and other dishes, since he decided to come talk to us about his work and share gobs of great images of his energetic art. We’re just all going to indulge ourselves here. Deal? Deal. Besides, great art + pancakes? Score.

Greg, who studied Fine Arts at New York City’s School of Visual Arts in the early ’90s, started out by creating art work for the covers of various jazz records, including the two pictured above. After then spending some time creating illustrations for various publications in Europe, Asia, and America, he was offered his first children’s book from Lee & Low publishing, as he discusses a bit below. The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children, edited by Davida Adedjouma, was published in 1996. School Library Journal wrote that Greg’s illustrations “could stand alone as a lively introduction to modern art,” and here’s what Kirkus had to say:

“The real story here is the glorious art by picture-book newcomer Christie, who displays a fine-arts sensibility that is incorporated into his illustrations, looking as if the influence of African art has been distilled through Klee and Picasso in the 1920s, with a touch of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet Christie’s art remains all his own. Elongated limbs and abstract backgrounds emphasize the skill of his portraiture, drawing viewers to the astoundingly accomplished painting of individual faces. His interpretations of the text elevate its feeble nature and allow every page and double-spread to convey a distinct story, mood, or tribute to the culture.”

This, his children’s book debut, won him the American Library Association’s 1997 Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration.

Since that time, Greg has gone on to receive two more Coretta Scott King Honor Awards — in 2000 for Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (published by Alfred A. Knopf), pictured below and which The New York Times described as having “the look and feel of a children’s classic,” and again in 2006 for Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost boys of Sudan (Lee & Low Books).

From Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth
by Anne Rockwell (Alfred A. Knopf; 2000)

Greg has continually illustrated books about many historical and cultural figures, many African-Americans, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Muhammad Ali, to name just a few.

A Song for Langston

Clay vs. Liston


He also regularly contributes to The New Yorker and continues to create fine art, illustration, and art for album covers and other media. It’s because of art work like this that I am a fan and thrilled that he stopped by:

Wonders of the Mind 1

From Hot City by Barbara Joosse (Philomel Books; 2004)

Cover art for Traci L. Jones’ Young Adult title,
Standing Against the Wind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2006)

…and oh-so many more.

Greg’s latest title is When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat by Muriel Harris Weinstein, to be released next month by Chronicle Books. I haven’t seen it yet. Am curious to. But I can at the very least show you the cover.

Greg also serves as a resident illustrator of sorts for Sweet Blackberry, who create stories of African-American achievement across a multi-media platform. Back in December of ’07, Greg stopped by 7-Imp one Sunday to preview some of the art work he did for the animated Garrett’s Gift, written by Karyn Parsons, which went on to receive the Learning Magazine 2009 Teachers’ Choice Award. On that Sunday in December, he also shared some of his sketches from When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat, so head on over there, if you’re so inclined, to see even more of his art.

I also, as a former sign language interpreter, love his art work in Pete Seeger and Paul Dubois Jacobs’ Schneider Family Book Award-winning The Deaf Musicians, but I’ve said enough already and could probably go on about his art for a long time. I covered The Deaf Musicians anyway here in 7-Imp Land in ’06.

So, let’s get to those pancakes. We’ll get the basics from Greg while we set the table, and I thank him kindly for stopping by, especially since I find it fascinating his road to publication, the DJ record-spinnin’ live painting in night clubs, for one, not to mention the very intuitive and dynamic approach he takes to his work. Let’s get to it then…

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Greg: Illustrator.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Greg: {Ed. Note: Greg sent me a .pdf file of his titles, ’cause he’s thorough like that. Readers can visit this page of his site. There. That’ll do.}

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Greg: Acrylic.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Father's Day Jazz

Greg: When I painted my first picture book (The Palm of My Heart, Ruler of the Courtyard, almost anything before 2004), there was no difference at all, but later on I decided on more approachable images for younger children’s books. I do this with color and form but keep myself challenged by abstracting each figure’s proportion. In chapter books for older readers, I tend to use darker earth colors and make images that can easily be hung in any contemporary art show and hold its own. {Ed. Note: Pictured here is an illustration from Palm of My Heart.}

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Greg: Brooklyn, New York, officially. A gypsy, otherwise.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Greg: I started painting in night clubs. DJs would spin records, and I would show slides or do a live painting in front of a crowd. Sounds crazy, I know, but coming from a small town in NJ and having no network in NY, it was an idea that turned into an opportunity. Before I was thirty, I ended up being sponsored for night-life paintings in Malaysia, England, Sweden, New York, and Holland. When I first started in ’94, I was noticed by an unsigned band during one of my nights out (Justice System) and was asked to do their album cover whenever they did get signed. MCA records eventually signed them; the image was completed and later caught the eye of an editor named Liz Szabla when she worked at Lee & Low books. I’m forever grateful to her and the company for the opportunity, which later resulted in a Coretta Scott King Honor. Since that first book, librarians have been looking out for my titles and reviewing them, and my fan base is growing amongst teachers, librarians, and the general public.

A “live painting” in Sweden

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Greg: (“gas,” the acronym for “gregarious art statements”).

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Greg: Yes, I absolutely do school visits and have loads of fun doing them. They are like a Jazz improvisation. I go with the flow of whatever energy I feel from the crowd of students. I bring out main points, such as: art is communication, the aspects involved in the book-making process, and my biographical information. After this, I have an informal conversation about whatever they’d like to speak about; I consider it a time to listen to them, as I honestly and responsibly answer their questions. It’s a very open interaction at this point, and overall it’s a lecture style I use from kindergarten to a group of college professors.

Teaching an after-school workshop

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Greg: Bad News for Outlaws, the story of Bass Reeves, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Roots and Blues by Arnold Adoff, Black Magic by Dianne Johnson, Pettina and the Wind-Rope by Erica Silverman — quite a few. Some deal with historical figures, and others are fantastical and abstract. Each one has its distinct demeanor, and I get into each separate mindset to create something beautiful and interesting.

Bad News is about the Indian Territory before it officially became Oklahoma; Black Magic is a beautiful poem about a little girl with a wonderful imagination about the color black; Roots and Blues is an abstract, but very moving, flow of words about the Southern experience (it will be a chapter book format but is unique from anything I have ever done before). Pettina and the Wind-Rope is a picture book about a brash tomboy sailor girl that has a talking dog. Also, I have a book collaboration with Nikki Grimes {pictured here}… All this work is on the painting assembly line, and all will be given my best effort.

Cover art for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall, to be published by Carolrhoda Books this year

From Black Magic, forthcoming from Henry Holt

From Pettina and the Wind-Rope, to be published this year by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sketches from Roots and Blues

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast. Have coffee. Can chat. Now we’re ready to talk more specifics…

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Greg: I do not like to analyze a book too much in my mind, so my sketches are very loose, and most people commissioning me have to trust my instincts and talent. I do practice the formal protocol of breaking down the manuscript into spreads, sketching ideas, and brainstorming with my editor, but during the process of painting, I love to keep things fresh and spontaneous. So much so that I sleep {only} because I absolutely have to and wake up with an excitement to get back to that art table. My best books are done when I just get into a hermit state. No phone calls, a beard starts to grow, I get food delivered, and I just let things go (this is why I’ve had interns and assistants in the past). I turn on a radio, listen to the BBC, have an internet connection for immediate online references, I’m up and down to switch my paint refuse for clean water, and I work on a slant (never flat). These are the simple things needed when painting; it’s not too complicated. So subsequently, I often find myself painting in strange places: hotel rooms, in people’s kitchens, and even in a park at times. It’s always funny to me that I need noise when I paint but like silence when I write.

Study for Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church
by Tonya Bolden (Alfred A. Knopf; 2001)

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Greg: A cozy but open space with a light for mood and a light source for my color mixes and support. I have a small radio or an internet connection for music, news, or technical reference. That’s it. This means my studio could be a bungalow in idyllic Thailand, a posh London nightclub, a tawdry hotel in a bad neighborhood, or a movie director’s duplex. I’ve worked in all of these and have had my best results with the variety of it all.

Greg in Sweden in 2004

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Greg: Ezra Jack Keats, Jerry Pinkney, all the Little Golden Books I could get my eyes on, superhero books, comics, heavy metal, Conan, Sgt. Rock, and anything about how to paint or draw.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is one of Greg’s personal pieces of New Orleans jazz trumpet player Bunk Johnson.}

Greg: David Macaulay, Jennifer Aniston, Kelly Rowland (when she writes her book)…I know this is cheating, but fortunately I’ve met many of my favorite authors and illustrators — if not a handshake, then as acquaintances that have grown into supportive friends. I often take a peek at what’s on the shelves and see so many interesting approaches to the art work in books, but for the most part in this type of case, I unfortunately remember the art over specific names.

Billie Holiday, 1997; Visit this page of Greg’s site for more of his original art.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Greg: No, not music. Mainly news (BBC, NPR), but I have such eclectic tastes and tend to like obscure {music} or music from the past. Ueh, Basia, Radiohead, Stereolab, Don Drummond, Fela Kuti, Emilio Santiago, Kraftwerk, Count Basie, D Sound, Roy Ayers, Gigi, Jean Sibelius, Gabriel Fauré, on and on and on — along with the stuff I’m embarrassed about but still sneak a listen to when no one’s looking.

Pictured above: Greg at work in Sweden in ’04 and his illustrations from The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Tonya Bolden (Knopf Books for Young Readers; 2004), hanging in his studio in Sweden

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Greg: I have the ability and drive to learn how to render a classical academic painting as well as David or Ingres but chose to do what excites my own visual sensibilities.

As Beautiful as April

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Greg: Just a statement…

Nothing worth having comes all that easily. An artist’s life isn’t easy, due to internal and external obstacles. As for myself, I’ve come a long way from a weird and shy child in a small colonial town who liked to copy comics into a multi-award winning children’s book illustrator. These days, I definitely need help promoting these books over Xboxes and iPhones. I worry about the future generation setting the foundation for a society that completely relies on electronic technology over tangible published information, because in these times it’s better to have a hold on a truth rather than to have it spoon-fed to you. I suppose that anyone on this wonderful site knows this, and I’m preaching to the choir, but I’m here as a tool to reach the young people in our society. Please consider or recommend me for a school visit.

Three pieces of Greg’s personal art, the last one, Evelyn, an oil painting

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Greg: “Indignant.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Greg: “What?”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Greg: Change.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Greg: Monotony.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Greg: Ask me when you meet me, but if you can’t handle it, then don’t ask it.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Greg: Under most circumstances, a woman’s voice.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Greg: Unexpected knock on the other side of a door.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Greg: Anthropologist. Chef.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Greg: War-time soldier.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Greg: “There is no such thing as time here, but you will become everything and everything will become you so that all missed opportunities and unanswered questions will be fulfilled.”

* * * * * * *

All photos and art courtesy of R. Gregory Christie. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

41 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
R. Gregory Christie”

  1. Man – I’m blown away by that last Pivot answer. Seriously.

    I already knew I liked his work, but it was great to see so much of it showcased here!

  2. Whew. I now have one enormous crush.
    Love the work, love the interview.

  3. Astonishing range and from the little bit showcased here, an astonishing mind as well. Thanks for the interview.


  4. Oh wow…that’s outrageous art. Love, love, love the style. Outstanding interview, yet again.

  5. * jaw drops *

    I think I am in love. It is amazing how well Greg captures facial expressions. And he seems incredibly intelligent, interesting, talented, and confident.

    Jules, this is one AWESOME post. Thank you for introducing a new-to-me illustrator!

  6. Glad you all enjoyed the interview. For those of you to whom Greg’s work is new, I am so very glad that I may have introduced you to him. Woot! If you go and get his illustrated titles from the library/bookstore/bum from friends/where ever you get your books, you will not be disappointed. This is in my not-so-humble opinion. I rate Greg’s work way way up there. I think Eisha would agree with me.

    If any of you go exploring his illustrated titles, come back and we’ll discuss!

    Tarie, I think that confidence is refreshing, yes?

    P.S. Jazz Baby—from the end of ’07—is also swingin’. I mentioned it here in this post on that Sunday when Greg briefly stopped by to show some what-was-brand-new-then art work.

  7. Like Kelly said, the last Pivot Questionnaire answer made my jaw drop.

    I can’t find a specific example at the NYer site (or at Greg’s, for that matter). But I know I know (and admire) his style, from article illustrations and also I think from more than one cover. Unmistakable!

    Noticed that the Just One More Book site featured the Louis Armstrong book in a December podcast. (But phooey — can’t access it from my work computer.)

    Really nice, really thoughtful, really talented people are a treasure. Thanks so much for (re)introducing us to another one!

  8. Thanks, John. JOMB rocks, and I’m glad to know they reviewed it. I missed that.

  9. What glorious work! I don’t know if any of this illustrator’s books are available in Australia, but if Mr Christie ever wants a trip Down Under, we’d make him very welcome. (Also, organise school visits for him!)

  10. What a beautiful, thoughtful interview and what magnificent images. Thanks so much.

  11. JES, thanks for the tip! Woohoo! I can’t believe I missed that JOMB episode. I guess I was caught up in all the holiday stuff. I will listen to their podcast on When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat asap!

  12. Coming to this a day late, and WOW!
    He’s new to me, so thanks SO much for this interview. Especially love the Billie Holiday painting and the Louis Armstrong book looks great. How cool is it to paint in nightclubs? And did he mention wanting to be a chef? I’m all a-swoon.

  13. Incredible images. Wow this must have taken forever to post. Thanks for all this great information in one place. Very inspiring.

  14. Wow, My new favorite artist! I had no idea he was out there, thanks for featuring him!

  15. […] see Rubbino’s style with your own eyes — his mixed-media illustrations (with a definite R. Gregory Christie vibe), loose-lined and rendered in that cool, subdued […]

  16. I had the pleasure of meeting Greg in Chicago at the 2008 African Arts Fest before I had any idea of who he is. Now I cherish my signed copies of “The Champ, Muhammed Ali” and “DeSwhawn Days” even more. We just finished re-reading “Bad News for Outlaws” and the images make it come to life…so exciting! I’m so impressed by this brilliant and down to earth gentleman and I’m excited to share his work with my young son. Much success to you Greg!!

  17. This is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. It’s nice to see artwork that is neither cutesy nor realistic- just abstract and very artistic. This is his website:

  18. […] (Yesterday I Had the Blues, Tricycle Press. Text copyright © 2003 by Jeron Ashford Frame. Illustrations copyright © 2003 by R. Gregory Christie) […]

  19. […] A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, which I’m eager to see. But this week I’ve got some artwork from another of […]

  20. […] R. Gregory Christie recently told me all about this artwork, which I love and want to, in turn, tell you about. […]

  21. […] above is illustrator R. Gregory Christie. That image comes from my 2009 breakfast interview with him. Greg has a wonderful and worthwhile new idea for which he needs financial backing from […]

  22. […] tip to Jules Walker Danielson for this one! And check out her interview with Christie at Seven Impossible Things Before […]

  23. Refreshing, bold, mind stretching, intuitive, emotional views of strength, all wrapped up in art visions and executions from Gregory Christie. The pearly gates can wait a little longer, as we earthlings need more of these visual sites. Beautiful work – keep it coming.

  24. Were planning a “Father Giving Back Scholarship Event” in Feburary. Want know if you would be willing to donate a art piece to auctions to rasie money to support inner city childern go to college. We arre not-for profit agency and 501C3 tax exempt with the IRS. For addtion information please feel free to contact me Terry D Byrd 614-824-1338 or direct 614-975-1822. Thanks!

  25. […] took me a while to get used to Mr. Christie. As he has said in an interview: The disproportionate compositions and elongated figures [of my art] are meant to be a directional […]

  26. Great art and interview – awesome !

  27. […] Carole Boston Weatherford’s Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. This is a February release from Albert Whitman & Company. To read more about the book, just […]

  28. Greg I stumbled up on your gallery and story of your art work and was in awe, and could not believe just one word lead me to your site. Enjoyed following your many accomplished work for many years.

  29. […] The illustrations by R. Gregory Christie are colorful and rich paintings, with a thick line and impressionistic style.  You can read an interview with him at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast here. […]

  30. […] good discussion we had about picture books. I moderated, and weighing in with great responses were: R. Gregory Christie, Phil Stead, Erin Stead, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and Dan Santat. […]

  31. […] Source: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » Seven Questions Over Breakfast withR. Gr… […]

  32. […] something that helps people.”   This morning over at Kirkus, I talk to author-illustrator R. Gregory Christie about his new picture book, as well as GAS-ART GIFTS (“Gregarious Art Statements”), […]

  33. […] each spread to enlarge)   Here’s a quick post to share a bit of art from R. Gregory Christie’s new book, Mousetropolis (Holiday House, September 2015), as a follow-up to our chat last week at […]

  34. […] Boston Weatherford’s Freedom in Congo Square (Little Bee Books, January 2016), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. That will be here […]

  35. […] Boston Weatherford’s Freedom in Congo Square (Little Bee Books, January 2016), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. I’m following up today with some spreads from the book. Be sure to click on the column from […]

  36. […] Baby did just that. This book is written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie and is a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book. Wheeler’s text and Christie’s illustrations sing to […]

  37. […] Ed Young, R. Gregory Christie, David Gentleman. (And Xu Bing, who might not consider himself an illustrator, but I certainly […]

  38. […] Yelchin; and Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie and coming to shelves from NorthSouth Books in […]

  39. […] compositions and elongated figures in his vivid gouache paintings. As he has stated in an interview, his art is meant to be “a challenge for the viewer to break away from the established […]

  40. […] An interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie. […]

  41. […] illustrator R. Gregory Christie whose electrifying artwork has appeared in The New Yorker magazine as well as several […]

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