Inside the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), a crimson wall introduces visitors to the artwork of Daniel Minter, a painter and illustrator. It’s a precursor for the type of art in the show: bold, noteworthy and complex.
Nearly a dozen children’s books come to life through Minter’s illustrations. His debut work was for a book called “The Foot Warmer and the Crow” and is part of the naam show. The richly colored painted wood carvings pop out against the gray walls. The series of works show Hezekiah, an enslaved man, with dreams of being free as a bird. A crow comes to his aid by offering him a tip on how to get away from Master Thompson. Hezekiah offers himself as a foot warmer in the winter so he can learn Thompson’s secrets, which eventually lead to his freedom.
Minter’s vividly painted carvings show the cruelty of Thompson and the harsh conditions Hezekiah was forced to work under. In one scene Hezekiah is picking cotton under a scorching sun. Each piece is intricate and comes to life. There’s a specific aesthetic to Minter’s work. He purposely made Hezekiah dark-skinned with a broad nose and full lips.
“I intentionally gave him Black features, and I always do that in my work. It’s always there, it’s always intentional. I always try to emphasize the features that I find beautiful in Black people,” Minter said. “Sometimes people don’t realize that is what I’m doing. Some of the pieces I do. I will really exaggerate the lips or the eyes or the way the body is positioned, because those are things that I feel carry our expressions.”
Minter lives in Maine, but the Georgia native has ties to the Pacific Northwest. In the mid-’90s he lived in Seattle. Art-goers may remember his work from shows at Seattle Art Museum or Tacoma Art Museum.
Minter celebrates Black identity, which receives varied reactions depending on how comfortable the viewer is with Black imagery.
“Some people have been uncomfortable with it. Perhaps not wanting to see themselves or perhaps not valuing that in themselves. I’m not sure,” Minter said. “[For]other people it is the exact opposite. They love seeing themselves in the work and they love being able to see features that look like theirs, that look like their family, that look like their relatives. That is the biggest compliment that I can get.”
Microsoft bought the “The Foot Warmer and the Crow” artwork for its collection and recently donated it to NAAM. Curator Rezina Habtemariam said the museum had been interested in showing his work for some time.
“I would describe his work as being really diverse across various mediums,” Habtemariam said. “My sense is the through-line for him is storytelling and preserving story. I think that’s what his work has in common: preserving story, traditions and ritual. Specifically Black stories, traditions and rituals.”
In “New Year Be Coming!: A Gullah Year,” a book of monthly themed poems, those traditions are the centerpiece. Minter’s artwork helps showcase the Gullah culture found in the low country of South Carolina and the coast of Georgia. In one of the illustrations, Spanish moss hangs from a live oak tree, and in another, a woman is fishing. The Gullah people are descendants of slaves from West Africa who developed a unique language and folk tales like Br’er Rabbit. “New Year” is written in Gullah dialect, which is still used today. One poem in part reads, “In June month, / every gal child take off ’e shoes / when ’e get off the yellow big bus.”
“I love the way that people react to ‘New Year Be Coming’ because the language, the dialect in that book — they know people who talk that way. You know people who use those terms and you see the simple rhymes and talking in rhythm is familiar,” Minter said. “You don’t see it in print. You don’t see it very often. You don’t see it in a way that is applying value to those terms and to the people who are saying them.”
Minter picked up carving while growing up in a small town in Georgia where he said a knife and wood were readily available. A friend and roommate who was a printmaker introduced him to wood block prints.
“The block itself for me is still the artwork, and the print is really to me just a copy,” Minter said. “I switched from using wood to make prints to using linoleum, because for doing illustrations you want something that’s a little bit more reliable and consistent. So I would use a flat linoleum and carve on that.”
Visitors to Minter’s exhibition also get the opportunity to see his creative process. Sketches, carvings and the final product are on display for “Ellen’s Broom” and “Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story.”
“It’s a really hands-on and tactile process that he uses. I like that every step he’s producing an artifact. He’s producing a piece of art whether that’s the sketch, the linoleum block or the print,” Habtemariam said. “I think seeing all of that together you have this opportunity to see how involved this process is. I think it’s really beautiful.”
In 2004 and 2011 the United States Postal Service commissioned him to create stamps celebrating Kwanzaa. They’re on display along with the linoleum block and print.
Over the years, Minter has provided important visuals to children’s books, where children of color are underrepresented. In a recent report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers analyzed a total of 3,400 picture books, novels and nonfiction. Only 12 percent were by authors of color, and in 22 percent the main character was a person of color. For Black authors and main characters, it’s 3 percent and 8 percent.
The statistics reinforce what Minter has witnessed. He said publishers want the books to have White characters as well or content solely about a heavy subject related to Black identity. He said it’s hard to get books about the simplicities or complexities of life with characters who happen to be Black.
“Publishers usually lean toward ones that have some type of tragedy or some type of social struggle involved in them, because they can easily understand that,” Minter said.
The artist considers himself lucky to have award-winning illustrator and artist Ashley Bryan as a mentor. Bryan has been crafting children’s books since the early ’60s.
Minter is currently working on illustrating a children’s book about Sojourner Truth, a women’s rights and civil rights activist born into slavery who was best known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
When asked if there’s a message he’s trying to convey in all of his artwork Minter said he is emphasizing the subtle power in nature.
“I’m trying to make connections with our spiritual and natural way of being in the world without the constant weight of struggle, because life itself is a struggle enough,” Minter said. “I’m always looking for things that we can use from the natural world to help tell our story of how we exist in the world.”
WHAT: “Daniel Minter: Carvings”
WHEN: Runs until Sept. 17, open Wednesday - Sunday
WHERE: Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St.
Minter will be at NAAM for events June 15 -17.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Facebook, Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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Read the full May 17 issue.