“A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet is a remarkable journey of discovery about art and language through painting, collage, and sculpture by Caldecott Honor artist Stephen T. Johnson. With literal renderings of each letter, complete with witty titles and playful, alliterative captions, Johnson’s abstract art forges connections between words, objects, and ideas.
Can you find the hidden letters? Look closely and you will see a letter C made of colorful candy, a letter H hidden in a hook, and an S in a soft shadow. From A to Z, each stunning, original work of art will stimulate the imagination and creativity of children and adults alike.”
Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Trim Size: 9 x 12 inches, Hardcover, 40 pages
ALA Notable Award
A New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year
Cooperative Children’s Book Council Award
2009 NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
“Open the doors and walk in. This can be the best of times. Stephen Johnson’s brilliant A Is For Art will enchant you.”
– Marilyn Stokstad, PhD, author of the definitive textbook Art History
“Stephen Johnson’s A is for Art is at the avant-garde of alphabet expressionism…. Through painting, collage, sculpture, and ready-mades, Johnson’s A is for Art is playful, questioning, and profound.”
– Philip Nel, author of The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks and The Annotated Cat: Under the hats of Seuss and his Cats
“Dear Mr. Johnson: I think you have amazing artwork! I wanted to eat the candy structure. I love the names that you call them. Thank you!!!”
– Anna, fourth grader, Woodlawn Elementary, Lawrence, Kansas
“Stephen Johnson’s latest body of work, An Abstract Alphabet consists of twenty-six pieces that explore the dynamic and varied relationships between language and culture. In his creative constructions, Johnson’s work acknowledges the arbitrariness of language and juxtaposes the absurd with the overlooked. He alters the natural state of familiar objects in order to create original pieces that fit into a schema governed by the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. By fusing objects linked only by their starting consonant, such as “typewritten text” “triangles” and “tarnished thumbtacks,” Johnson generates cohesive works, each inspired by one letter. Johnson’s work incorporates everyday objects in a playful manner and creates a new way of viewing the world. His “Meditation on the Memory of a Princess” makes a bold statement with an oversized magenta mattress juxtaposed with a mini mauve marble. Through re-contextualizing, Johnson’s innovative creations make viewers think about language and its relevance.”
- David Cateforis & Emily Ryan, Professor and curator, the Spencer Museum of Art
“At ALA, I discovered Stephen T. Johnson’s soon-to-be-released A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet. No stranger to the alphabet book as a unique medium of expression, Stephen won a Caldecott Honor for his spectacular Alphabet City in 1996.
Six years in the making, A is for Art is a monumental achievement. To help illustrate the point, I will admit a false assumption my lazy brain made when I first saw the book: “Oh, how cool! He’s exhaustingly searched through thousands of pieces of contemporary art to discover connections with the alphabet.” Not quite. It’s even more amazing than that. Imagine if a letter had the power to dictate an artist’s creation. “X” instructs the artist to use “x-rays and xerographs of xylophones,” and, of course, the x-rayed and xerographed xylophone images must themselves form the letter “x.”
What is so fresh about Stephen’s set of alliterated constraints is that they are not restricted to subjects (nouns) alone. Descriptors (adjectives) and action words (verbs) also inform the creation of his pieces. For example, in “Ice Cream Floats,” the “imitation” ice cream cones are “individually illuminated, isolated, immobilized, immersed, inverted, identical, and insoluble.”
In his own words, Stephen had been, “exploring the English dictionary, selectively choosing and organizing particular words from each letter of the alphabet and, based solely on the meanings of the words, developing a visual work of art.”
Back to my lazy brain. Where I had originally thought that Stephen searched for these alphabet connections in pre-existing art, he, instead, created all of the art pieces after having worked within a set of self-imposed, alphabet-based constraints. The results reveal startling symmetries, that to a casual observer remain hidden. I use “symmetries” in the broadest sense of the word. Stephen’s compositions display a harmony and order that invoke an almost mathematical beauty.
“Golden Sections” is a painting based on the letter “G” that depicts a visual representation of the “golden ratio” (think nautilus shell chambers). The letter “G” can be clearly discerned as we follow the fractal through several recursions. In its color palette and use of media, “gradations of green, gray, and gold…rendered with gouache, graphite, glitter, granulated gunpowder, and glue,” “Golden Sections” creates such a harmonic effect that one better understands Soviet scientist’s V. Vernadsky’s assertion that “a new element in science is not the revelation of the principle of symmetry, but the revelation of its universal nature.”
Finally, I must comment upon Stephen’s observation that “the self-imposed limitations and restrictive nature of using only words from each letter of the alphabet to generate an original creation have turned out to be truly liberating.” As someone who works with constraints myself (I’m currently working on a 32-page picture book that tells a story using only words that begin with the letters “qu”), I am in complete agreement with Stephen on the power of constraints to unleash creativity. It’s a paradox, but that is probably why it works.
I encourage other writers and artists to play with constraints and then get ready to get the heck out of the way as they witness works create themselves. There is much inspiration on this path to be taken from the Oulipo, the French group of writers and mathematicians who undertook serious work in this direction starting in the 1960’s.
Stephen’s work is concept art at its most meaningful and accessible, ready to tickle the brains and eyes of children of all ages. His work truly exemplifies the notion of “ideart,” in which the concept (idea) and its artistic expression are one and the same.
A Is for Art will provide plenty of eye candy, even literally (one needs only to look at the book’s cover); but it will also provide a richness of layered symmetries, like a set of nesting Russian dolls, on each page. I applaud Stephen on his genius creation and the bold support he received from Paula Wiseman and Rubin Pfeffer to help make it happen.”
- Author Candace Ryan