That the painting, Portrait of a Young Man (a.k.a. Artist Spirit), by the New Orleans and New York City based artist Gustave Blache III, adorned the cover of my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, has long been a source of intense private joy. That joy recently transformed into something closer to inspired awe and restrained pride when I learned that the original painting had not been destroyed by the ravages of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as I once thought, but apparently had found safe haven in New Orleans’ Cole Pratt Gallery and has now joined an eclectic collection of exceptional art that will be sold by online auction March 27 and 28, through the famous New Orleans Auction Galleries.
Every twenty-first century author knows the value of appealing cover art and I considered myself extremely blessed when Blache agreed to allow me to utilize his painting for my book. The funny thing was that I had already picked out a different piece of art for the cover but promptly changed my mind the moment I saw his. A work of 78″ x 36″ oil-on-canvas brilliance, the painting stood about half a foot taller than me and took my breath away.
The artist who had created this Renaissance-like masterwork was as modern as cell phones and MP3s, and the long t-shirt, short pants, and sneakers worn by the title subject with the stack of books at his feet reflected cotemporary times as well. Yet the exquisite balance of deep shadows and abiding fields of light, and the face composed of boyhood innocence giving way to young adult caution, implied the work of a Dutch or Italian Master rather than a young genius from New Orleans. The forthcoming auction provides a resounding sense of validation of that initial assessment because New Orleans Auction Galleries has enjoyed substantial success in recent months marketing works by such classic artists as American painter George Inness (1825-1894) and Irish painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) as well as by modern artists like Louisianan George Rodrigue.
A little girl views “Portrait of a Young Man,” by Gustave Blache III,
used for the first-edition cover of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry.
(photo by Bob Morrison)
As it happened, Blache and I met at a time when we were both at a crossroad in our lives. I was settling into the reality that I had not left Savannah, Georgia, and flown to Europe or Africa as planned when I returned to the city a decade earlier, but instead had become a caregiver , bookseller, and constantly-striving author. Gustave was preparing to graduate from the former Savannah-based School of Visual Arts and relocate to New York. We connected through his mother, author Monica Blache, who had read an essay by me in ESSENCE Magazine, learned about my forthcoming book, then telephoned me to gently but persuasively suggest I “hold the presses” until I saw the real painting destined to become my first book cover. I was very happy to later acknowledge just how right she was.
This first adventure into creative book-cover excellence helped set the stage for a succession of partnerships between my words and different artists’ painted visions. A few years later, the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance was published with Jacob Lawrence’s Village Quartet on the cover. Upon reading some of my fiction and poetry, Tybee Island artist Denise Elliot-Vernon produced the original artwork for Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. The Bridge of Silver Wings, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love, all have cover art by Luther E. Vann. In addition, discussions are currently in progress with Amiri Geuka Farris regarding cover art for a forthcoming title: The River of Winged Dreams .
After learning about the auction, I visited the online site and once again stared at the painting: the meek-yet-sly gaze of the boy made out of poetry both challenged and encouraged bold creative endeavors. The books next to his sneakered feet reminded me somehow that a writer’s work is not done until the life is done, and even then the books left behind often begin a work of their own, carrying the writer’s voice into the lives of readers long after he or she is gone.
author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance