Elizabeth Brown found the heart of her story by examining how her character overcame obstacles. What pulled her through? How did that perseverance manifest itself? Then, how could the author thread that through her story for children? Today we dig deep into DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimee Sicuro (Abrams, 2019).
Humans struggle to keep going in the face of adversity. It’s a universal truth – part of the life experience. But how we overcome it is crucial. This is the “heart” of DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER. Helen Frankenthaler struggles to find herself through art. She must overcome societal expectations for what a “girl” must be like and how she must behave. She fights to work on her art in the style she wants to work in – not how her teachers teach her to paint. Helen must deal with the “male-dominated” art world of postwar America, wherein her work is not valued as much as male artists’ works. Ultimately, Helen must overcome the battle within herself, especially her grief after her father’s death and dig deep within to find the courage to try out her artistic ideas and then develop them to the fullest (her soak-stain technique) which led to the start of the Color Field movement.
Whenever Helen found resistance or struggled, she found a way to keep going. Even when everything seemed bleak, she triumphed. I thread this “heart” throughout the story because I want young readers to identify with Helen’s story of perseverance and be inspired to create their own art or pursue their creative goals in the way they see fit. Helen found her sanctuary in painting and used colors to express emotion and feelings. Art saved her.
Helen’s story will hopefully empower readers to focus on their goals and stick with them, no matter what. For Helen, colors represent emotion, nature, and memories. Through her painting she is able to see her life and come to terms with it: the good, the bad, the darkness, and the light. Threading in the heart with her use of colors also helped to explain Helen’s art techniques and helps the reader understand that color can be the painting which is what Helen wanted to achieve in her work.
Helen’s early life story may serve as a navigator as young readers continue to grow. Young artists may encounter a world, now or in their future, that tells them, in different ways or by various methods, that their creative pursuits don’t matter and that these activities are secondary or lack importance to other things that are prized or cherished in today’s society. I hope that reading this book will demonstrate to children how other artists before them overcame hardships and fought adversity. I also hope it will help children realize that trying something new in their art explorations is okay and a necessary part of developing as an artist. Young creators must never stop believing in their own visions and never stop creating art!
“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is all about.” – Helen Frankenthaler
Elizabeth Brown is the author of DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER, her debut picture book and a Junior Library Guild Selection for Spring 2019. She has additional forthcoming picture books to release soon. Elizabeth holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and lives with her family in the Chicago area.