Me and Uncle Romie
Q&A with Claire Hartfield, Author of Me and Uncle Romie
Q. First off, let me just start by saying I loved the way you wrote this story! I’m curious how you were introduced to Romare Bearden and his art? Is there a particular image that you remember having caught your imagination?
A. The arts have always been a big part of my life. I was a dancer, myself. As a shy five-year old, I was delighted to find that, through dance, I could express and communicate my ideas. I have continued to dance through adulthood, and have also taught dance classes, helping others to express themselves through art.
My mother is a poet and arts education administrator. Throughout her life she has collected many works of art and art books. One day, when my three daughters were quite small, my mother graciously took charge and left me a few moments alone in her living room. As I was enjoying the quiet space, I noticed a large, colorful painting that graced a book jacket on my mother’s coffee table. The book turned out to be a Romare Bearden exhibition companion book. The vibrant colors lifted my energy level right away and impelled me to explore more deeply. I was fascinated to learn that Bearden’s paintings were not only strikingly beautiful but had much to say about his own life, about African-American culture and about cross-cultural rituals. The two images that particularly drew me were, in some ways, opposites. One was the urban energy of Harlem as portrayed in The Block. The other was the series of paintings of rural North Carolina with its turquoise blue skies and wide-open spaces. Just looking at those pictures made me want to know more about the stories behind them.
Q. I’m actually a collage artist myself, so I loved the way you described Uncle Romie’s studio: “What a glorious mess!” When you see Romare Bearden’s work hanging on the clean and orderly walls of a museum, it’s easy to forget the chaos that the art is birthed from! Have you ever tried collage as an adult or while working with kids? What was your impression of the medium? Do you find that it lends itself well to storytelling?
A. Like most children, I made collages in elementary school. What I remember about them is that they were thematic – a collage of flowers or pasted pictures of automobiles or the like. The idea of collage as a storytelling medium was not something I was taught. I did like the tactile feeling of collage with its many parts.
As an author presenting school visits, collage as storytelling is central to my work with children. On a typical visit, I read the book to the students to get their creative juices flowing. Then, I provide materials for them to make their own collage books telling a story from their own lives. Teachers love it. The students exude happiness at communicating something personal through art.
Q. For me, the most poignant part of the story is when James and Uncle Romie, who have just met and barely know each other, start to share stories of home and family and friends, and then later on when James realizes that that’s the true power of Bearden’s art. As James observes: “All these strangers talking to each other about their families and friends and special times, and all because of how my uncle Romie’s paintings reminded them of these things.” Did you ever have that kind of experience with a work of art?
A. Yes many times. I actually am looking at one of my favorites right now – a Picasso that depicts a circle of people, white, black, yellow and red, holding hands and dancing around a bird of peace. This painting reminds me of many things – dance class, wedding celebrations, recess games in elementary school. On a larger level, the painting depicts the joyful side of humankind and inspires me to keep doing my part to make the world a joyful place.
Q. The exhibition that’s on view now features Bearden’s collages illustrating Homer’s Odyssey, which is all about the epic journey that Odysseus takes. I don’t believe that a journey has to be epic to have an impact on your life. I think in a way, your story “Me and Uncle Romie” is about a relatively short journey that has a huge impact on James and his perception of his own life. How has your journey as an author changed your perception about your own life?
A. The most fulfilling part of being an author is sharing ideas that may get children thinking in a new way. I spent many hours reading to my own three daughters when they were small. I was awed by their questions that revealed their deep thinking. Now, as an author, my life has been changed for the better by the many profound questions and thoughts and stories of the children who read my work. I am especially gratified that my work has been republished in three textbooks, allowing me to reach many, many children, some who would not have access to the story otherwise.
I am currently working on a new book for middle school children with the same hope that the stories I share will stimulate their thinking.
Q. What does Pepper Jelly taste like?
A. Delish! It’s sweet and spicy hot, all in one. When you first put a dollop on your tongue, the sweetness prevails. The spiciness grows from there – a vibrant but not overwhelming peppery finish. It’s great on crackers. I always bring a jar with me to school visits. Try some!
Join us Monday, June 23 at 11:30 a.m. for Storytime in the Gallery where we will read “Me and Uncle Romie” and create a collage masterpiece of our own. Recommended for ages 2 to 5, but all are welcome.