Helping Young Readers To Get The Picture Sam Byrd Has Done Huge Murals And Now Lends His Art To Books For Small Fry.

Posted: November 24, 1991

Sam Byrd is an artist accustomed to a bit of elbow room. He had little trouble, for instance, painting the full-length portrait of singer Patti LaBelle, three stories tall, that towers over the corner of 34th Street and Mantua Avenue. And the semiabstract mural that sprawls across all four walls surrounding the West Philadelphia YMCA swimming pool wasn't too tough for him, either.

But when the West Mount Airy artist was asked to illustrate the children's book Dancing With the Indians, he was stumped.

"It was a real challenge because I never have worked small," said Byrd, who spent three months on the project, painting hunched over a cluttered dining room table while his upstairs studio was being renovated. "It was difficult, too, because I had never used watercolors. I was afraid of the medium. Everything was brand new for this book.

"I was worried: 'Am I doing this right?' "

Holiday House, the New York-based children's book publisher, apparently thinks so and has big plans for Byrd. In addition to illustrating the recently released Dancing With the Indians - a tale by Angela Shelf Medearis about a runaway slave who found asylum with the Seminole Indians in 1862 - Byrd will be doing the watercolor illustrations for other books, all designed for 4- to 8-year-olds.

A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman, written by David Adler about the abolitionist and underground railroad "conductor" who ferried slaves to freedom between 1840 and 1861, will be published in the spring. Let Freedom Ring: A Ballad of Martin Luther King, written by poet Myra Cohn Livingston, is scheduled for release later next year. Holiday House also is planning to publish Adler's A Picture of Frederick Douglass, along with a children's book about Abraham Lincoln, in 1993.

Byrd, 45, is one of only a few black artists in an industry that is awakening from a long slumber. During the last decade, sales of children's books more than quadrupled, reaching a peak of $992 million last year, according to the Association of American Publishers and Book Industry Study Group. What's more, Byrd's entry into the field comes while children's publishing is addressing the changing demographic composition of the United States by producing informative, yet entertaining books with multicultural themes.

As the chorus of contention continues in academic circles over whether textbooks are too Western-oriented, or Eurocentric, these books are appearing in a handful of states as a supplement to school curricula, quietly offering a richer, more balanced view of American history.

Byrd doesn't assign a higher calling to his work on books that illuminate the role of blacks in American history. The only requisite for the job, he believes, is heart - the amount of sympathy and understanding an artist can invest in a subject.

He underwent a rigorous crash course in Seminole Indian history in preparing to paint Dancing With the Indians - an undertaking rendered all the more difficult because of the dearth of information about the Florida-based tribe, which was overun and forced to migrate to Oklahoma after the Seminole Indian Wars of 1838.

"Everything is historically correct," said Byrd, an admirer of Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell. "I had to make sure not to dress them like a Sioux warrior or an Apache. The moccasins had to be just right. The drums, too."

And to bone up for the biographies of Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Byrd hunted through bookstores and public libraries - the last place you would have found him as a kid growing up in West Philadelphia, one of nine children.

Other than sports, art was the only subject that grabbed his interest, even though his mother thought it a frivolous and impractical occupation, especially for a black man. But art stayed with him, all the way from Brooks Elementary to Overbrook High and on into the Air Force where, in 1967, he did a stint unloading body bags shipped from Vietnam to his post in the Philippines.

"It made me realize that you have to do what you want to do," said Byrd, ''because life is so short."

Returning home two years later, he sifted through a grab bag of jobs while cultivating his art and accepting the odd commercial-art assignment. A self- taught painter, he abandoned the Philadelphia College of Art in 1976, after two years of study.

Six years ago, his art caught the attention of the October Gallery in West Philadelphia, which specializes in the works of black artists. Today, Byrd shows his art at the Lucien Crump, the Heritage and the Savant galleries, among others. Outside Philadelphia, his work is appearing in exhibitions in Stamford, Conn., and at Lincoln University.

Over the last five years, Byrd has been in demand for his massive murals. In 1983, he created the four-wall semiabstract mural for the West Philadelphia YMCA. Last year, the city's Anti-Graffiti Network commissioned Byrd to create his huge Patti LaBelle mural. Out on the Main Line, the restaurant Montana is decorated inside and out with his murals of the rugged West.

But Byrd's portraits, as well, are very much in evidence throughout the Philadelphia area. In 1984, he was asked to do a portrait of Mayor Goode for a Statewide Community Organization Program expo. A year later, he painted 15 portraits of national black figures for the North Branch YMCA. In 1987, Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park invited Byrd to create 10 portraits of famous black Philadelphia women.

His 1985 portrait of Bill Cosby hangs in Marble Hall of the Fitz-Simons Middle School in North Philadelphia, which the comedian attended. And Byrd's 1987 portrait of the black astronaut Guion "Guy" Bluford Jr. is in the principal's office at Overbrook High, the alma mater of both men.

Byrd's poster art has brought him some degree of recognition not only in Philadelphia but around the country. A 1987 poster was used by Planned

Parenthood throughout the city to raise teen awareness of pregnancy prevention. Another poster depicting modern black heroes, the result of a 1989

commission from Colt 45 Liquors of Baltimore, appeared in schools nationwide. And Scientific Vision, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, enlisted Byrd to design a poster showing the nation's premier minority scientists; it was presented to the National Congressional Black Caucus in September.

The father of six children (only one, 7-year-old Talauren, is at home), Byrd generates additional income by publishing limited-edition prints - among them "Soul Serenade," a Southern scene in which a little boy is playing a guitar to a girl sitting in a window. It caught the eye of Holiday House editor Margery Cuyler while she was perusing a New York City gallery window. Two months later, Samuel Byrd found himself with a new career.

Already, the demands of illustrating children's books have forced Byrd to

put other art projects on hold. During National Children's Book Week, which took place Nov. 11 to 15, the artist shuttled from Henry School and Fitz- Simons Middle School in Philadelphia to Community Park School in Princeton, to speak to children about illustrating books.

"I'm getting so into it," Byrd said, "reading more and more on the subject, drawing some, reading more. I'd be happy if my work had an impact on the way history is taught."

Of his nascent career, he said, "I could see doing this for the rest of my life."

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