The Assured Hand of Gifted and Beneficent Royalty

Recognize the real.
Cover detail from Mansa Musa by Khephra Burns (2001)
Illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon

Technically, I’m a patron of Leo & Diane Dillon’s, the famed and widely awarded husband & wife children’s book illustrators. (I purchased a very small painting by them, at an extremely generous price, a few years ago.) As well, I’ve hosted them as guests on NONFICTION, my Friday 2 pm WBAI-NY radio show, commemorating their 50th anniversary in March 2007. (Leo has even said he’s a regular listener.)

But that’s just full disclosure stuff, because, what’s true is that I love their work with the kind of passion that almost halts one’s breath.

The Third Artist leaves its mark…I’m not sure that I’m really able to put into words how their art makes me feel. I don’t mean that in some overstated, writerish way that merely sets up a resplendent explanation or description. I mean that as a failure of hand: I’m not sure that I possess the ability or skill to say what I see. Anything I think I could write just seems like awkward blather when I look at what this couple creates through the conceptual entity they call “The Third Artist”: The merged creative force they share.

But I have to say something, otherwise, why write this post? Indeed, I’m doing it because, starting tomorrow, if you’re anywhere near Abilene, TX during the next 2 1/2 months, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature there (I’d never heard of it, either) is hosting “The Global Artistry of Leo & Diane Dillon: A Retrospective.” It runs until October 25th.

The NCCIL web site doesn’t say how many works are in the exhibit, or even credit the paintings it uses to market the show on the net. While bad form, none of this will matter once you’re inside the gallery.

To start, take a glance at the Mansa Musa cover image that opens this post, with its purple and gold brocades, muscular stallions, erect and able warriors and attendants with their dark brown faces both lit dramatically and shadowed by an iron-hot African sun.

To begin, have you ever seen an image of Black people so purposeful? Yet it’s up close that one will see details, dots, and brushstrokes; the marks of the able artist that indicate not only intent, but perception bordering on the indigenous.

Looking at the Dillon’s work in person is like hallucinating, but it’s a better hallucination than you’ve probably ever had. Certainly better than all of mine. I’m still seriously trying to figure out if there is some way I can get down SXSW to see these glorious pieces all in one place.


1 comment so far ↓

#1 sirensongs on 08.10.08 at 1:37 pm

When I was a kid, I used to picture one of the Three Wise Men looking like just like this. (In the version I learned, one was “from Africa,” he supposedly brought the gold.)

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