The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice With Art by Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk

Hello, Cynthia Levinson! Welcome back to Watch. Connect. Read.! The last time you were here you shared the cover for The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist. Today, you’re here to share The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice With Art’s stunning cover. What ran through your heart the first time you saw the finished cover?

Cynthia Levinson: It’s so dear, so childlike!” That was my instantaneous response. Evan captured Shahn’s big eyes and hands (those are sub-themes in the book) and his look of concentration in a completely childlike way. Plus, those gorgeous doves, which are perfect since, at the end of his life, Shahn drew for peace. And the back of the jacket is at least as wonderful as the front with a child’s drawing of Ben, his baby sister, Mame, Tate, and Zayde. Front and back, this is a book to hug.

Scenario: A 5th-grade teacher in Camden, Maine, asks you to record a 30-second booktalk about The People’s Painter. What would you say in your video message?

Cynthia Levinson: The People’s Painter is a book for kids and teachers who care about fairness and how to show what they care about through art. Ben Shahn, who immigrated to America from Lithuania in 1906 when he was eight years old, was bullied as a child and grew up to become an artist for justice. You can practically track major issues in American history from the early 1900s to the 1960s through his work. Using an amazing variety of techniques—paintings, sculptures, drawings, murals, photographs, stained glass, stage sets, and lettering—he told true stories about immigration, poverty, hunger, child labor, workers’ rights, racism, civil rights, voting rights, peace, and health care. He would urge children today to draw what they see and feel, too.

Please finish the following sentence starters:

Evan Turk’s art channels Shahn’s art! Through his mixed collages and often disorienting perspectives, he captures not only Shahn’s style but also the turmoil and injustices that Shahn focused on in his political works. At the same time, Evan, like Shahn, cares deeply about children, and you can see that concern and love in the illustrations.

Ben Shahn once told Tomie dePaola, ”Being an artist is not only what you do, but also how you live your life.” I love that. Shahn not only drew but also lived his values.

Story is life, edited.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me… “Do you have a connection to Ben Shahn?” Why, yes, I do—and so do Evan, in a way, and even our editor, Emma Ledbetter. I met Shahn’s second wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, who went to the same school I did about forty years before me. Evan did a project about Shahn’s most famous series when he was just in fifth grade. And, when Emma was a child, she went a synagogue that had a stained glass work by Shahn.

Look for The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art on April 20, 2021. 

A lyrically told, exquisitely illustrated biography of influential Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn

“The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.”

As an observant child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees—and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too.

So when Ben and the rest of his family make their way to America, Ben brings both his sharp artistic eye and his desire to fight for what’s right. As he grows, he speaks for justice through his art—by disarming classmates who bully him because he’s Jewish, by defying his teachers’ insistence that he paint beautiful landscapes rather than true stories, by urging the US government to pass Depression-era laws to help people find food and jobs.

In this moving and timely portrait, award-winning author Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Evan Turk honor an artist, immigrant, and activist whose work still resonates today: a true painter for the people.


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