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A People's History Through Picture Books

This semester, the Miami University Art Museum opened "Telling a People's Story," the first-ever exhibition of artwork found in children's books about African American history.

The exhibition features about 130 original illustrations created by 35 African American artists.

Due to the scale of the exhibition, it fills three galleries of the Art Museum. The walls are lined with oil paintings, graphite sketches and even some three-dimensional mixed media pieces. Shelves below the artwork hold all of the books that the illustrations come from so visitors can peruse them at their leisure while resting in comfy chairs placed throughout the galleries. The books included in the show are written for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Sherri Krazl, marketing and communications coordinator at the museum, said that the subject matter of the exhibit is very salient in America's current political and social climate.

"For me it's a really pertinent topic," Krazl said. "The timing is incredible with what the country is dealing with, with so much division between races, so I think that it's very important."

Jason Shaiman, the exhibit curator, has been coordinating the exhibit for three years, although the idea to create an exhibit of this nature came to him about a decade ago. Most of the pieces are borrowed directly from the original illustrators or from the book publishers.

"I think, in many ways, people have a hard time talking about sensitive topics such as slavery or segregation," Shaiman said, "and these books don't make light of those topics, but they do provide the textual and visual understanding of those historical periods in a way that is more approachable."

The exhibition provides a timeline of African American history from times of slavery to present day, and includes a biographical section of artwork covering the greatest sung and unsung heroes in African American history. The educational exhibit is designed for all audiences -- from children, to history buffs, to curious Miami students and members of the Oxford community.

Caroline Bastian, a senior at Miami majoring in art history and art management, did research and planning for "Telling A People's Story" in its early stages, which included paring down the original 600 possible books to a little under a hundred.

"No museum has ever exhibited children's illustrated literature as a means of conveying African-American cultural identity," said Bastian. "Because of this, and also the racial injustices still seen in today's culture, I believe an exhibition of this nature is vital in continuing on as a society."

Krazl has formed a Facebook group in connection with the exhibit called "Telling A People's Story: African-American Children's Book Explorers," which is meant to spur discussion about the subjects brought up in the books.

A conference will be held April 20-21, in which involved illustrators and faculty members will hold lectures discussing the topics covered in the exhibition.

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"Telling a People's Story" is free and open to the public and will run until June 30.