Illustrating history

Two VCU School of the Arts professors talk about the nuances of solemnly illustrating children’s books.

Illustration from Sterling Hundley's "O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, ...
Illustration from Sterling Hundley's "O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War." (Courtesy photo)

As professors and practitioners of communication arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, Stephen Alcorn and Sterling Hundley focus on the powerful and timeless relationship between art and narrative, image and story. They know that this connection allows artists to embrace their unique experiences to add to humanity’s ongoing evolution and unfolding.

That understanding has led both award-winning artists to enriched undertakings as illustrators on numerous books, where they must bring visual life to another person’s words. Their most recent works deal with historical narratives comprising serious content. While treating the subject matter respectfully, they also had to take into account the target audience: children. 

Hundley, a 1988 alumnus of the VCU School of the Arts, illustrated Robert Burleigh’s “O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War,” which came out this month. Hundley will present work — including original paintings, sketches and research — from “O Captain, My Captain” at the Library of Congress in June for the bicentennial anniversary of Whitman's birth.

Hundley is working on his next body of work, a compilation of his personal drawings and sketchbooks through which he seeks to reveal the influence of time through the observation of daily routines and habits.

Alcorn, who illustrated his first book at age 15 — a version of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” — has illustrated 45 books for a variety of age groups.

His latest, “Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, was released in January and has been selected for inclusion on EmbraceRace's list of 26 most notable Children’s Books to Support Conversations on Race, Racism & Resistance.

“The breadth and scope to the audiences for which my books are conceived is something I am especially proud of, encompassing as it does very young readers, young adults, adults and finally, books for all ages,” he said.

An illustration of Rosa Parks, who is seated atop a bus and holding a chair.
Image of Rosa Parks by Stephen Alcorn from "Let in Shine." (Courtesy photo)

VCU News spoke with Alcorn and Hundley about their illustrating experiences and their latest works.


Did you have a favorite children’s book or picture book when you were young?

Alcorn: Conrad Aiken’s “Cats and Bats and Things with Wings,” designed and illustrated by Milton Glaser.

Hundley: I grew up with a deep affinity for comic books, exploring outdoors and treasures my dad would find. “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak holds a special place in my heart.


How did you become interested in illustration?

Alcorn: I was fortunate to have come of age as an artist in a culture that fostered a holistic, humanistic approach to art education. When I was 12, my family moved from the U.S to Florence, Italy, where I enrolled in the Istituto Statale d’Arte. My first drawing instructor, sculptor and painter Marco Lukolic, was a seminal influence for me. … I have come to value work that is at once modern, ancient, sophisticated and naïf — in short, that lends itself to being appreciated on multiple levels, and ranges from the organic to the clinical and the imaginative to the literal. Perhaps most importantly, I learned early on to value tradition and recognize tradition, not as nostalgia, but as knowledge passed from one generation to another. I am grateful that his example encouraged me to see my artistic development as a microcosm of the larger history of art with a sense of belonging to a larger whole.

Hundley: Even though I grew up in a creative home with a father who writes and collected Civil War and Native American artifacts and a mom who draws, writes, designs and illustrates, it wasn't until my sophomore year as a Communication Arts and Design major at VCU that I truly understood what illustration was. It was the perfect pairing of drawing and problem solving that appealed to my creative and logical interests.


Book cover reading "Andrea Davis Pinkey - Let It Shine - Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn" With an illustration of a figure in chains at bottom, and a woman looking upward at top
Stephen Alcorn's most recent work, "Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters." (Courtesy photo)

How did this collaboration with the authors come about?

Alcorn: “Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters” is an outgrowth of the long-standing professional relationship I have enjoyed with award-winning author Andrea David Pinkney, and of my equally long-standing endeavor to interpret and celebrate the African American experience. Another outgrowth of said professional interaction of which I am proud is the picture book I wrote, designed and illustrated celebrating the life and times of legendary folk singer Odetta Holmes, and titled “Odetta: The Queen of Folk.”

Hundley: With picture books, they generally don't let the authors and illustrators speak during the process. I was put forward by the editor, Howard Reeves, and the art director, Chad Beckerman. I was thrilled with the amount of design and creative control over the project that I was given. Once completed, the author, Robert Burleigh, reached out to me and expressed his enthusiasm for the work and he and I have been sharing ideas about next projects.


A book cover reading "O Captain, My Captian" Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War" with illustrations of Lincoln and Whitman.
Sterling Hundley's latest work, "O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War." (Courtesy photo)

What is your book about?

Alcorn: A collective biography, “Let it Shine” aims to celebrate 10 important women in the historic struggle to win freedom and civil rights. Through it, the author tells the remarkable stories of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. Other women such as Biddy Mason and Dorothy Irene Height are in the history books but are perhaps less familiar. The 10 extraordinary subjects span the 18th and 19th centuries, from Sojourner Truth, born into slavery circa 1797, to Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005). Each story contains essential demographic and biographical information written in an accessible, informal style, which provides a vivid picture of the women’s lives, their personalities, backgrounds, and the brave and noble actions for which they are remembered.

Hundley: “O Captain, My Captain” tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. It is written from the perspective of Whitman and utilizes his poetry as a narrative tool to empathize with the commander in chief. 


How did you approach developing your designs?

Alcorn: The creative processes I employ as an illustrator involve confluence of research followed by the creation of preliminary preparatory studies, followed by a series of further articulated and increasingly refined studies, which in turn led to the creation of 21 oil-on-canvas paintings.

Hundley: Each illustration is a response to the text. That said, I enjoy bringing an element of magic through the illustrations, deviating from a literal interpretation whenever possible.


An illustration of seven adults and a child, the center five are standing.
Image by Sterling Hundley from "O Captain, My Captain." (Courtesy photo)

These are heavy subjects for children. How did you navigate coming up with compelling drawings for this young audience while keeping an appropriately respectful tone?

Alcorn: The series of highly symbolic and stylized portraits created for “Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters” stem from my belief that through our shared humanity, no matter how we may self-identify, we can learn to transcend the limits of socially constructed realities and see our reflection in others. As such, the series is emblematic, by extension, of my underlying teaching philosophy. Indeed, the work I encourage my students to conceive is, by design, heterogeneous. By fostering a syncretic culture, I have found that a classroom can become a virtual crossroads of the rich and varied civilizations from which we all descend. I hope that the absence of segregation in their work reflects the cultural diversity they thrive upon, and which I seek to celebrate at Virginia Commonwealth University and beyond.

Hundley: There are some heavy passages that are appropriately challenging, given the subject matter and the state of the nation at that time. I leaned heavily on metaphor, scale and designed graphic elements to address particularly challenging passages.