Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler

Confession: I’m not a fan of abstract art. I regularly get into semi-serious shouting matches with a coworker about Mark Rothko. But I did find myself smiling throughout this feast for the eyes and the heart. I’m even tempted to pick up a paint brush and try to abstractly represent the varied springtime shades of green I’m enjoying from my back porch (if the aforementioned colleague ever finds out about that, I’ll never hear the end of it). Born in 1928, Frankenthaler was expected by society to behave as a proper young lady, and that included producing cookie-cutter artwork with her peers. But her artist’s soul could not be contained, and thankfully she had two forward-thinking parents who encouraged her unique creativity. Frankenthaler would go on to become a respected member of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s and develop the technique of Color Field painting, which involves pouring paint onto a canvas and manipulating it with different tools – including mops! Elizabeth Brown’s text is lyrical at times and brims with beautiful imagery: “As she walked through the fields, colors swirled around her. Cerulean blue and coral cascaded down mountains of saffron and gold. Rose, pink, and lavender rippled across the sky. Spring green and vermilion gushed through the sea waves.” Passages like this enable the reader to catch a glimpse of the world through Frankenthaler’s eyes and understand why she was compelled to paint the way she did. Aimee Sicuro’s stunning illustrations (a favorite of mine is posted below), done in watercolor, ink, and charcoal pencil, gently mimic Frankenthaler’s style and invite the reader to linger over each page and soak up her lovely work, much like Frankenthaler’s canvases soaked up paint. One of the most endearing spreads shows a young Frankenthaler on a walk with her family, drawing a chalk line alllllll the way from the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Central Park to their home, physically connecting the two things that meant the most to her. The substantial back matter includes instructions for a poured paint/soak-stain activity, making this book perfect to use with a cross-curricular lesson plan incorporating language and visual arts. Students can attempt Frankenthaler’s technique and also “paint” pictures with words, as Brown so wonderfully does. On an individual level, this book has an important message about following your heart and celebrating your viewpoint. Go ahead – color outside those lines.

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