He used red; the art of Horace Pippin

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Last fall, I had the good fortune to visit the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Standing in front of a Horace Pippin painting, I said to a new acquaintance, “He’s from Cincinnati!”

But he’s not.

The artist, born in 1888 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is known for his depictions of the African-American experience.

Maybe I got mixed up because I had seen his work in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Who knows, but what set me straight was Jen Bryant’s book “A Splash of Red, The Life and Art of Horace Pippin.”

Pippin's painting, Christmas Morning Breakfast. You can see this 1945 work at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Don't worry, I checked!

Horace Pippin’s painting, Christmas Morning Breakfast. You can see this 1945 work at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Don’t worry, I checked!

The title caught my eye on the discount table of a local bookstore. Worth every penny and more, Melissa’s Sweet’s illustrations heighten the great story. Her work is delightful.

Max and Calvin took to the story right away.

Meanwhile, I said to myself, “Huh. I thought he was from Cincinnati!”

Pictures just came to Pippin's mind.

Pictures just came to Horace’s mind.

The book chronicles Horace’s life up until his artistic success. As a child living in poverty, he draws constantly. A lack of money means no supplies but he uses scraps of paper and charcoal. But the enterprising Horace enters an art contest and wins his first box of colored pencils, brushes, and paints.

“That’s my favorite part,” said Max. “When he wins the paint.”

Adulthood comes with responsibility and World War I. Horace is hurt and his right arm  damaged. He stops creating art but misses it. One day thinking of “his grandmother’s slave days, and the Bible stories she’d told made pictures in his mind, he longed to draw them. But how?”

He picks up a poker and uses it and his left hand to guide his right. As he grew stronger, he painted, often using muted colors with “a splash of red.”

“Let’s read the book about the guy who holds his hand to draw, “ Max will say.


Horace overcame his injury and continued to paint.

Horace found success and created many works that hang today in museums around the country. It’s an inspiring story of how he overcame many obstacles – racism, injury, poverty –  to become a respected artist.

My husband (who had the same misconception about Horace’s origins) and I visited the Cincinnati Art Museum recently with our boys. I’ve looked forward to showing them one of his paintings and having some type of deep moment. We ran out of time and didn’t find it.

But we will go back and I’ll be sure to point out the splash of red.

More info
The author and illustrator researched this book together; unusual in the book process. In the back of the book, they share their journey, including a visit to Pippin’s grave. Where they saw a red cardinal in the gray winter landscape.

Here’s a great reading and craft guide to use with the book.

Wicked good books

Stacey's party

One of Stacey’s birthday parties. She’s holding up something. I’m on her left in the white dress and bowl cut. (I’m still friends with some of these girls!)

When I was a kid, all the girls in my class wanted to get invited to Stacey’s house. Her home was complete with lots of rooms, teenage siblings, a beautiful mom that wore Dr. Scholl’s, a silver Trans Am, an outside playhouse, guinea pigs, and a secret passageway that led to a secret room.

I’m happy to say Stacey and I are back in touch. She’s a vet and mom to two kids. They gifted us two of their favorite books hailing from their former home of Maine.

The Circus Ship
In 1836, a side-wheel steamer ship set off with an unusual cargo – circus animal, people, and a band. A festive crowd gave it a big send-off. Tragically, the boat caught fire, people perished, and rumors lingered that the animals made it to islands on the Maine coast.

Chris Van Dusen was inspired by these true-life events when he wrote the gorgeous (and happy) The Circus Ship. His ship capsizes off the coast of Maine and the animals swim to shore and begin living among the people. At first they are seen as pests but in a plot twist, “the animals weren’t bothersome, the animals were kind!” the villagers come to love them.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

During our last reading, Max pointed out, “Well Mama, in real life, I don’t think the lion would get along with the people because of his sharp teeth.”

When the evil circus owner comes back to claim the animals, the townspeople disguise their new friends. This page of the book never fails to be fun; you have to find the hiding animals. My boys never tire of it.

The Wicked Big Toddlah
If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced the beauty and stress of toddlerhood. Everything is a joy and a death trap. Imagine if your baby was a giant. This is the premise for Kevin HawkesThe Wicked Big Toddlah. Toddie, a Maine baby, is so wicked big he comes home on the back of a flatbed truck. The antics of Toddie and an entire town trying to care for him are hilarious.

“How do you think that toddler got those big clothes and that big hat?” Max asked.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

A favorite page for my family is when he gets his diaper changed; a helicopter hovers with talc. Poop never gets old with this crowd.

My memory of having two wicked big toddlers is pretty sharp, through a sleep-deprived lens. Thinking of a giant toddler gives me a wicked big stomach!

Where to buy these books and other info
Buy The Circus Ship from Van Dusen’s website and he’ll direct you to Indie bookstores. I’ve been meaning to check out his book about Cincinnati native President William Howard Taft. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath looks hilarious.

I’ve bought The Wicked Big Toddlah from Cincinnati’s Blue Manatee Bookstore and deCafe. If they don’t have it, they will order it. If you buy it off Hawkes’ website, he will sign it. My boys also love The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes To New York.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.