2019 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance by Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes. Photo courtesy of Ekua Holmes.

Congratulations to all of the 2019 awardees on the podium today. Along with you, I am deeply honored to receive this award, on its fiftieth anniversary, given in the name of Coretta Scott King — a woman whom I deeply admire for her work and legacy. I feel a specific connection because she and I both lived in Boston (where I still reside) and walked the same important streets, like Huntington Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. Although it was an earlier decade, Coretta Scott made Boston her home while attending school at the New England Conservatory of Music. Years later, and just a few blocks up the street, I would attend Massachusetts College of Art and Design. We both decided that our art needed to be in service of something — our people, all people, and justice. She and I both fell in love in Boston. She met Martin there (when he was at Boston University) and their first date was at Sharaf’s restaurant, where my parents often went. The Kings’ first home in Boston was just a stone’s throw from the art studio where I worked for over twenty-four years. 

My sense of home is very important to me; home nourishes the essence of my art. But what is the place without the people? I treasure knowing that some of the most significant people of the last century walked the same streets I have walked all my life, touching the lives of those in both the Roxbury community and throughout the country and the world. I also treasure knowing, and honoring, those influential mentors within my own family — represented here today in three generations — and the friends and neighbors who helped to nurture and shape me. 

I’ve mentioned Martin and Coretta King, but Fannie Lou Hamer also traveled to Boston and Cambridge to speak and raise funds for movements such as Freedom Summer. I’ve met people at home who knew her and heard her speak. 

Barbara Jordan attended Boston University. She wasn’t there when Martin attended — they were several years apart — but they both went to Marsh Chapel to hear Howard Thurman speak and were influenced by him. 

The Roxbury neighborhood of Boston (where I grew up) is the only place that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both called home. 

* * *

I have a tendency to be involved in many things at once. I volunteer to serve on juries for public art proposals; co-chair Boston’s Art Commission; help to plan a Juneteenth celebration in my neighborhood. I’m available to write letters of recommendation for students and to sit in on critiques. I direct sparc! the ArtMobile initiative, a mobile-van project that visits Boston’s neighborhoods to implement unique art and design experiences, including poetry workshops, paint nights, street-level printmaking, and more. I love it! And, like all of you, I tend to the other significant parts of life: a full-time job, keeping up with bills, healthy cooking, grandchildren, my partner, and friends. 

Perhaps most importantly, I make art, which is my life’s love and comfort. Most recently, that “making” includes illustrating children’s books. 

This year was exceptional, and an exercise in contrasts. I went on an exhilarating trip to Cuba for twenty days and came back violently ill, missing work for three weeks. I then had to move out of my lovely studio space, which I’d had for twenty-four years. As an artist who is also a collector of things — books, papers, old wood, jewelry boxes, found objects — all of which become a part of my palette, I had to move twenty-four years’ worth of potential treasures. 

I tell you all this because I’ve found, recently, that life can be so full and so active and so crowded that really, really special things can be missed, or not savored the way they should be, or not celebrated the way they should be. 

This year I received a call on January 28 telling me that I had won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for 2019. (Sorry again, Sam, for the screaming.) After the initial shock and elation, emails to a few friends and family, I just trooped on to the next thing: the next meeting, the next event, the next chore, the next obligation. I just went on. This most prestigious honor is bestowed on my work, and I just went on. 

Then one month later, on the last really cold day in Boston, I slipped on ice and broke my arm. My right arm. The essential one that sketches, draws and paints, drives, types, and sends emails. I broke this precious, dominant right arm in the middle of a book project. In the middle of my move from the studio of twenty-four years, and just after recovering from my Cuba virus. 

Well, I did not just go on. I had to stop. Full stop. I couldn’t put on my earrings or my clothes. I could not cook or drive. I could not type or hold my grandchild or feed the cat. And I definitely could not sleep. I had to cancel my exciting trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in April, where I was to sit on a panel of African American authors and illustrators! Everything on my “to do” list went onto my “not in the foreseeable future” list. I came to a full stop. 

I was sitting on the bench in the game of life. And that gave me time to think, to reflect, and to measure. 

At my first orthopedic consultation my doctor, Arvind Von Keudell, said, “The most important thing for you is to keep a positive attitude. This is going to take awhile.” 

* * *

It was also the key to illustrating The Stuff of Stars, the book project that brings me here today. 

The idea of doing this book was presented to me by my agent during a very busy time in my life. When I first read the manuscript, I thought — Oh, what a lovely story, so lyrical and exciting, but what’s this got to do with me? My work is urban, figurative, grounded, and contemporary. It’s got sidewalks and basketball courts and double-dutch kids; mothers and teachers; neighborhood stoops and church ladies. 

In contrast, this Stuff of Stars was otherworldly, expansive, ephemeral. This manuscript described galaxies, nebulae, and other space destinations. This was science! And I had flunked science, pretty consistently, from grammar to high school. (Thankfully, in art school I was free of that subject.)  

But here it was again presented to me — not only science, but the formation of the universe as expressed in this brilliant manuscript that asked me to describe something that is not yet formed. (Even the book’s author, Marion Dane Bauer, asked, “What gave you the courage to take on this project?”) Well, I had done two other books with Candlewick, which I loved, and so I decided to try. Why not? 

For weeks I did just that. I tried. Each idea seemed less successful than the one before. Every sketch seemed clunky, heavy, earthbound. Not at all divine, spacious, and light. 

So one day, following my mother’s sage advice, I decided that my studio needed to be cleaned, as it often does. She used to say, “Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just do the next thing, whatever that may be.” For any of you collage and mixed-media artists, you can relate to the piles of paper that seem to grow on their own. My studio not only needed to be cleaned and swept, but my sweepings had to be inspected lest I throw out some poetic scrap of color or texture. 

While sweeping the floor this time, I came across a rectangular piece of marbleized paper. It was a deep blue color with swirls of gray and red, and I thought: This looks like the universe! All of a sudden I was in Deep Space Nine, and I realized I could show the depth, breadth, beauty, and transforming nature of the universe through this ancient technique, which dates back to 957 AD. 

I took some classes on marbleizing, and the resulting papers became the palette, inspiration, and material for the illustrations in The Stuff of Stars. 

In the book, as the text goes on and the universe is formed, representational shapes such as butterflies and horses begin to appear within the abstract paintings. The final illustration shows two figures side-by-side, lovingly touching, and each filled with stardust. 

In addition to bringing an aspect of science to children at a young age, this story reminds us that we all come from the same place and are made from the same stuff, no matter how divided the world may seem. 

The story begins with the empty void of the universe and comes down to the simple reality that love fuels everything. 

My own earthbound journey starts with the sense of home on the familiar streets of Roxbury — the pavement that provided me stability, comfort, and support. In a community where my art was embraced by the inspirational family and friends who shaped me, nurtured me, and set me free to fly. This same pavement was a setting for the footsteps of luminaries Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, and Fannie Lou Hamer — who expanded from there into the universe of the spirit and love. 

So as I sat on the bench of life to think, reflect, and measure, I found that because of The Stuff of Stars, my view of home had expanded and been redefined as I realized that the universe is my home and we live — truly live — most vibrantly in love.   

This fiftieth-year celebration of the CSK Book Awards began with a conversation between two Black women who asked, “What if?” and answered “Why not!” Two women who kept a positive attitude because they knew, “This is going to take awhile.” And two women who just kept doing the next thing until they succeeded in creating these Coretta Scott King Book Awards to celebrate and recognize the work of African American authors and illustrators like myself. It has been humbling to sit on this podium with artists and authors, young and old, whom I admire and whose books sit on the shelves in my home. 

With profound gratitude to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, author Marion Dane Bauer, my agent Rubin Pfeffer, the amazing Candlewick Press; to my family who made the trek to be here with me today; and all of you who are present here today. As I look out at you this morning, I can truly see that all of us are the beautiful, brilliant, sparkling, and transforming stuff of stars at work right here on Earth. Keep shining. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this very special moment and for this wonderful recognition. 


Ekua Holmes is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and published by Candlewick Press. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Washington, DC, on June 23, 2019. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.
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