In African-American culture, the broom represents a rite of passage and an act of ceremony.
Before African-Americans were legally allowed to marry in the United States, couples jumped the broom to signify their union.
Portland artist Daniel Minter has used wooden brooms in his art for many years. He has carved them, painted them and otherwise employed them in symbolic ways in his paintings, prints and three- dimensional wooden pieces.
His predisposed interest in brooms led him to react favorably when his book publisher forwarded a manuscript for a children’s book, “Ellen’s Broom.” Minter readily agreed to illustrate the book, creating two dozen linoleum block prints.
Minter, 51, recently got word that he has won a national award for his illustrations for “Ellen’s Broom.” This summer, he will receive an Illustrator Honor in the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, administered by the American Library Association.
The award recognizes outstanding African-American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and human values.
“It’s a great honor, and hugely exciting,” said Minter, who has illustrated a handful of children’s books. “I never expect to win any kind of honor or anything like that. I was floored.”
The book by Kelly Starling Lyons tells the story of former slaves living as husband and wife, who after many years together are given the chance to have their union legally recognized. Minter used his hometown of Ellaville, Ga., as a setting for the illustrations.
The manuscript could not have arrived at a more agreeable time for Minter. He has long been interested in the cultural implications of the wedding broom. Indeed, examples of the brooms that he uses in his art are scattered about his Portland home.
And at the time his services were requested for the book, Maine voters were debating the merits of same-sex marriage. The ballot measure passed at the polls in November, and has since become law.
But when Minter was approached, the debate was raging and the outcome uncertain.
Marriage was very much on his mind.
“I didn’t know the author, but I loved her story,” said Minter, who has been married for 21 years. “It really resonated. I know a lot of people who are married in spite of not being married by the law. When something is right, the law cannot really keep you from doing it. The act of being married is something you do yourself.”
The book explores that notion, and explains the significance of the broom in African-American culture.
The Coretta Scott King Award, named for the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is the latest honor for Minter, and brings attention to one of Maine’s most accomplished contemporary artists.
He previously won a Best Book Award from the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, which recognizes outstanding children’s media, and an honor award from the Carter G. Woodson Awards. In 2004 and 2011, the U.S. Postal Service tapped Minter to illustrate its annual Kwanza stamp.
It also comes at a busy time for the artist.
Minter is the founding director of Maine Freedom Trails Inc. He created the markers for the Portland Freedom Trail, which identifies sites related to the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad in Portland. He is in the process of creating a self-guided audio tour of the trail, which he hopes to launch this summer.
Minter, who teaches illustration at Maine College of Art, is preparing a solo gallery show in New Orleans. In April, his work will be part of a figurative group show at Greenhut Galleries in Portland.
In addition, he is coordinating an exhibition at the Museum of African Culture in Portland that will involve three contemporary African-American illustrators working in Maine today: Himself, Ashley Bryan of Isleboro and Rohan Henry of Portland.
Minter wants to call the show “Lions Converge, Colors Dance.” It will honor Bryan, whom he views as a pioneer in African-American illustration. “He opened the door for illustrators like me to work in the industry,” he said.
Minter and his wife, Marcia, have lived in Portland for nine years. They occupy a John Calvin Stevens-designed home on Deering Avenue.
They came to Maine because Marcia took a job at L.L. Bean. But after he had been in Maine for some time, Daniel realized he might have been called here artistically.
When he was in elementary school in Georgia, Minter laid eyes on a reproduction of Winslow Homer’s painting “The Gulf Stream.” The original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The dramatic oil painting made a huge impression. It shows a man in a rudderless fishing boat, its mast broken. The boat is struggling against the sea, and open-mouthed sharks stalk the troubled vessel waiting for their chance to pounce.
Homer made the painting at his studio at Prouts Neck in Scarborough, just south of Portland.
Minter was reminded of Homer and his influence when he saw the Portland Museum of Art’s major Homer exhibition last fall in conjunction with the opening of the artist’s restored studio at Prouts Neck. “The Gulf Stream” was not part of the PMA show, but Minter nonetheless spent a lot of time looking at the many seascapes hanging in the gallery.
That act of viewing forced him to reconsider his own work. Looking back, Minter realized he had included water in many, if not most, of his works over the years. In some paintings, the water is obvious and readily apparent as a theme. In others, it is more subtle, perceptible perhaps only to Minter himself.
But it’s almost always present.
He attributes that to Homer.
Minter would not be the artist he is, or even an artist at all, if not for that jaw-dropping moment when Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” stirred awe in his third-grade imagination.
“I credit Homer with sparking my interest in painting,” he said. “That’s the painting I was first curious about. How could I paint like that? I was no longer satisfied with my crayons after that.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: