Columbus Dispatch  (November 12, 1992):  p. 8 B.

“Love for Folk Artist Behind ‘Elijah’s Angel’.”
By Nancy Gilson


The making of Elijah's Angel is a tale of friendship.

The writer and illustrator of the children's book were inspired by their mutual friend - Columbus woodcarver and barber Elijah Pierce.

Michael J. Rosen, literary director of the Thurber House, met Pierce as a teen-ager and later transformed the experience into a story. Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson met Pierce when she was a young mother, then became his student and friend. Rosen and Robinson have known each other 12 years.

Their new picture book, Elijah's Angel (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $13.95), not only embraces multiculturalism but also lovingly recalls the city's most famous folk artist.

Although publishers usually select the artists for children's books, Rosen knew he wanted Robinson.

''No one else would have known Elijah,'' he said. ''I didn't have to describe the heater and the pipes in Elijah's studio to Aminah. She knew more about it than I did.''

Pierce, who died in 1984, worked in a small studio on E. Long Street, where he told stories and preached as a lay minister; carved wooden figures, often biblical in subject; cut hair; met with friends; and visited with children.

Rosen met him through friends Howard and Mimi Chenfeld, who gave Rosen the angel that became the subject of the book. Pierce had given Rosen, who is Jewish, a cross, but Rosen thought the angel better suited his story.

It concerns a young Jewish boy whom Elijah befriends and who struggles with the Christian gift of an angel. The story takes place during Christmas and Hanukkah. While the adults seem to live easily in a world with diverse cultures and beliefs, the boy feels guilty for accepting the angel.

''I think the world to a child is more discrepant than harmonious,'' Rosen said.

The incident that sparked the story occurred when he was older, but Rosen made the character a 9-year-old.

''I knew this was going to be a picture book, and in many ways . . . my relationship with him was like that of a 9-year-old. I was agog at his stories and art.''

As a young artist, Robinson spent hours drawing with Pierce at his studio. She owns several works by Pierce and once sketched a lion that he carved as a gift for Robinson's mother.

Robinson - who often uses unconventional paints and found materials for her paintings, assemblages and sculptures - created the illustrations for Elijah's Angel with house paints, natural dyes and rag cloth. The frayed edges are visible in the book's full-page illustrations.

''Just as Elijah used chewing gum to stick the base to my angel, Aminah has a wonderful way of using common objects in her art. There's no interference, no artifice,'' Rosen said. ''Another wonderful, sophisticated, children's book illustrator wouldn't have gotten close.''

Although Robinson has created numerous fabric ''books,'' Elijah's Angel is her first traditional book with a major publisher. While meeting with Robinson, a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich editor discovered Robinson sketches that accompany Negro spirituals. They have become Robinson's second book, The Teachings ($26.95).

The original paintings for Elijah's Angel will go on exhibit Dec. 6 at the opening of the Thurber Center, next to the Thurber House.

Rosen and Robinson plan another children's book, about a self-sacrificing former slave.

''I've always been committed to stories for all ages,'' Rosen said, ''and I'm interested in unlikely families and friendships.''

''Elijah's Angel is not about being black or being Jewish,'' Robinson said. ''It's about being Christian or Jewish. But the book is more than a collaboration. It has to do with the love we both felt for Elijah Pierce.''  

Caption: Michael Rosen and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson make Elijah's Angel real.
Cameron Craig/ Dispatch


Copyright 1992 The Columbus Dispatch