Watch Them Create: Elmer Brown and Langston Hughes at ARTneo
Saucy camels, side-eyed snakes, and indignant cats are frozen in a blur of graphite and watercolor in A Sweet and Sour Journey with Elmer W. Brown and Langston Hughes, on exhibit at ARTneo now through July 24, 2023.
Brown and Hughes, friends from their time together at Cleveland’s Karamu House in the 1930s, collaborated on “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book” around 1936. And for the next 20 years, they shopped it around to various publishers—with some nibbles, but no commitment to publish. So the sketches and color tests and verses and correspondence languished among Brown’s papers.
And while Hughes’ manuscript was rediscovered and posthumously published in the 1990s, the collaboration between Brown and Hughes was forgotten.
Until now. This exhibit is the first time that the original text and the original illustrations are together. While that fact alone is reason to visit, the show explodes with a vibrant array showing the creative process in its working state. Here hangs messiness and tenacity.
Preliminary sketches in soft graphite and crisp black ink proliferate, their fleeting nature of preparatory drawings dashing out action and thought, showing Brown trying new angles and expressions. His paucity of line manages to convey a range of attitudes and longing, from the cross-eyed determination of a hen (the original Angry Bird?) yanking a worm as she digs in her heels to a monocle-sporting dapper camel, prancing with satisfaction and closed eyes.
Brown and Hughes present animals both content and discontent throughout. Mrs. Snake Content and Mrs. Snake Bothered bookend Hughes’ verse with expressions of long-lashed demure delight that transmogrify into a gritted snarl:
If never bothered,
But Mrs. Snake,
When she is bothered,
And heh, heh, heh, Mrs. Snake’s rattle—a baby rattle curled into the end of her tail—follows suit, its face shape-shifting from sunny smiles to red-cheeked shaking.
The crosshatched ink of “Old Papa Rat Caught in a Trap” and sharp pencil lines of “White Kitten Sleeping” are on two sides of the same piece of paper—a nod to the Depression or just the churning of ideas that demand flip the paper over, Elmer, there’s no time to waste grabbing a new sheet? Old Papa Rat’s left foot is unfinished, and the White Kitten is trying to sleep with the distraction of Old Papa Rat in the background.
These sketches preserve moments of contemplation and action. These are the thoughts that happen behind making something visible: what comes before what comes next. There’s a breathlessness here and time is frozen. Fluid lines form and suggest more; there are bits of could be and what ifs and how about this way?
And then there are the letters. Just enough to frame the story and tantalize, Hughes’ letters—”Sincerely, Lang”—from Los Angeles and Chicago and Paris ramble through the years of showing the book to Knopf, to Houghton Mifflin, to the Rosenwald Fund. “Swell of you to finish the pictures and send them on so promptly. I’m mailing them off to Chicago today . . . Our children’s book is still going around. Editors like it, but object to expense of publication . . .” along with glimpses of a shimmering world: “Hemingway is in China. Dreiser in Hollywood but I don’t know where. At least he was there in the fall.”
The exhibit was curated by a group of high school students as part of the Currently Under Curation program of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Thanks to Logan Fribley, Marin Hunter, Spencer Payton, Claire Pirnat, Shawna Polster, Mia Schmidt, Jacklyn Walker, and Ren Yoshioka for this extraordinary assemblage of a once-forgotten work in process.
The thoughtfulness of the main exhibit–with wall colors lifted from Brown’s illustrations and two of his large social realist paintings that show the range of his talent– is complemented by the whimsy of the adjacent Reading Room, organized by the students along with consultant Susie Underwood. Just follow the blue paw prints down the hall, read some of Hughes’ poetry in the big yellow beanbag chairs, and leave a note about your favorite children’s book. Sweet, indeed.
ARTneo is located at 1305 West 80th Street, Suite 016 (lower level), Cleveland 44102. Open Wednesday though Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.