Sweet and Sour: The ABCs of Rediscovery

Elmer Brown, Polly Wants a Cracker, watercolor, graphite, pen and ink on paper. Gift of
Anna V. Brown, ARTneo Collection.

Logan Fribley, a seventeen-year-old high school student from South Euclid, was signing up last summer for the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Currently Under Curation (CUC) program, when he recognized the subject matter he and other students would work with this year. It had something in common with a book he has had at home since he was a child: The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, an abecedary by Langston Hughes. The preeminent African American writer’s collection of 26 short poems makes its way through the alphabet one animal at a time, letter by letter. Fribley remembers that his favorite was the letter C, for Camel.

There was a camel
Who had two humps.
He thought in his youth
They were wisdom bumps.
Then he learned
They were nothing but humps–
And ever since he’s
Been in the dumps.

The Cleveland Museum of Art program Logan was signing up for—Currently Under Curation—exposes high school students to the process of curating art exhibits in a museum context. Each year the students have a curatorial project, culminating with an exhibit in a public space. In 2022 for example, the class curated exhibitions as part of CAN Triennial at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, The Sculpture Center, and Cleveland Institute of Art. This year, their project has a bit of historic intrigue: they are working with Hughes’ alphabet poems. But the images that will go with the text, in this case, have been tucked away in storage, never published. In fact, very few people have ever seen them.

Elmer Brown, Old Papa Rat Caught in a Trap, graphite, pen and ink on paper. Gift of Anna V. Brown, ARTneo Collection.

The version of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book that is familiar to Logan Fribley was published in 1994 by Oxford University Press, after Nancy Toff—Oxford’s executive editor for children’s and young-adult books—discovered Hughes’ manuscript among his papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. In an article in the journal Education Week, Toff supposed that after Hughes tried for twenty years to get the book published, it was “stuck back in a drawer” and forgotten.

She recognized the treasure for what it was, organized illustration by first, second, and third grade students of Harlem School of the Arts in New York, and brought it into the world under the aegis of the famous publishing house. That’s the book Logan Fribley knew.

The images he and the other CUC students are working with, though, were actually the ones familiar to Langston Hughes. They were created by Cleveland artist Elmer Brown, who collaborated with Hughes on what must have been among the first picture books for children created by an African American writer and artist. Hughes and Brown were friends, having met at Karamu House where Brown worked as a set designer.

Elmer Brown was an important artist in Cleveland. Born in Pittsburgh, and having attended school in Columbus, he moved here in 1929 and studied with Paul Travis at the Cleveland School of Art. He got involved at Karamu House in his early twenties, and there he befriended Hughes. As his career advanced, Brown created several WPA murals, including one for the City Club of Cleveland and two for the Valleyview Homes public housing project, which—when that building was razed—were removed, restored, and re-installed at Cleveland State University. The City Club mural has been moved with the organization more than once, and also restored. Brown exhibited several times in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show. He became the first African American artist at American Greetings, and worked there for eighteen years.

Elmer W. Brown (American, 1909-1971), Mrs. Snake Bothered, crayon, graphite, pen and ink on paper. Gift of Anna V. Brown, ARTneo Collection.

Despite the prominence of both the poet and the artist, their twenty-year effort to get The Sweet and Sour Animal Book published ultimately did not succeed.

“If you think about who was running publishing then and who the audience was—not a black audience—it’s not surprising,” Toff told Education Week.

While the 1994 book brought Hughes’ poems out of obscurity, the original art by Elmer Brown was left to languish. Sabine Kretzschmar, who manages the Cleveland Museum of Art’s education collection and leads the CUC program, says there is a complete set of the watercolors at Emory University, but they have not been published, and the collaboration between Hughes and Brown remains largely unknown.

That’s where Langston Hughes’ connection to Cleveland comes in. Hughes died in 1967, and Elmer Brown died in 1971. But a trove of Elmer Brown’s work—including a mimeograph copy of Hughes’ poem and some of the animal watercolors Brown had created for it—were donated by Brown’s wife, Anna Brown, to the organization that became ARTneo. Anna Brown died in 1985.

Staff at ARTneo had been aware of the collaboration by Hughes and Brown for years through the existence of those papers, and the organization has long held the dream of creating an exhibition—at least since the pre-pandemic tenure of former curator Christopher Richards, who discussed such a project with his friend Christopher Busta-Peck. They were excited about the prospect, but didn’t bring it to fruition, and then the pandemic intervened.

But in addition to leading the Currently Under Curation program, Sabine Kretzschmar is also president of the board at ARTneo. Now that art programs have emerged from the pandemic lockdown, that connection is a unique opportunity for the students to create an exhibit at ARTneo this spring.

The exhibit will have a well-placed preview as a pop-up installation at Kent State University’s Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth, April 28 at the KSU Design Innovation Hub. The conference is the longest-running event in the United States focused on multicultural literature for children and young adults.

Kretzschmar says curating this exhibit differs from last year’s CAN Triennial exhibitions in that The Sweet and Sour Animal Book Exhibition is a historic show. “Actually, it is in some ways like what [the CUC students] think a museum is, or should be. They want to know more about the life of Langston Hughes and the life of Elmer Brown.”

Kretzschmar says in addition to the poem and watercolors, ARTneo has some original pencil drawings, including preparatory drawings for [works] not in the Emory University set. There are also some letters from Hughes to Brown. Along with the original material, the exhibition will include some reproductions from the Emory University collection. Adjacent to the exhibition itself, the CUC fellows will also create a reading space, inviting the public to engage personally with the words and pictures. Installation and performance artist Susie Underwood will be working with the CUC fellows on the interpretive space.

In a sense, presenting Elmer Brown’s watercolors and Langston Hughes’ words together is validating the two men’s artistic intent in a way that has never before been done: It was a collaboration between two friends—specifically, two Black men in the 1930s.

Logan Fribley says there was a nuance of the work that stuck out to him. “I feel like it is a different kind of ABC book. As a message, it seems all the animals have been misled a little bit, and they seem to get disappointed and kind of sad. I believe the bee was upset that he could not find honey. The monkey Jacko was upset when he ran out of peanuts. There was also a workhorse that was pulling a fire truck, and the fire fighters got a motorized truck, and the horse was kind of depressed. And I think humans can connect to that feeling. Maybe things don’t always work out the way they are planned.”

Kretzschmar adds that the students—who entered high school early in the pandemic lockdown, attending class from home via their computer screens—are especially enthusiastic. “The idea of working on something joyous and significant is really hitting these teens,” she said.

Fribley adds, “the main thing that keeps coming up is that we want it to be an exhibit for everyone. We don’t want adults to think this is just for kids. We want it to be relevant for everyone.”

The Sweet and Sour Animal Book Exhibition

May 18–July 24

78th Street Studios

1305 West 80th Street, Suite 016
Cleveland, Ohio 44102

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