GREENSBORO — Back in the fall, Paul Baker received a phone call from a representative for Arthur Primus.
Primus, well-known manager of entertainer Tyler Perry and a major collector of African American art, wanted to donate works to N.C. A&T, where Baker teaches and directs the University Galleries.
Primus has donated and displayed works elsewhere as well.
“He seemed to be very engaged in making sure that the art is used for the betterment of the community,” Baker said. “That’s definitely what we try to do.”
To A&T, Primus gave 35 original works of art from children’s book illustrators Curtis E. James and Bryan Collier.
James’ 18 works illustrate the 2006 book “Freedom Ship,” by Doreen Rappaport.
Collier’s works decorate the 2005 book “Rosa,” by poet Nikki Giovanni.
“It’s always a really great opportunity to enrich your collection with a gift of that magnitude,” Baker said. “We were totally excited about it.”
The artworks arrived in January. Now the public can see all of them.
“We wanted to make sure we exposed that art to the community, on campus and off campus, as soon as possible,” Baker said.
Starting April 1 and continuing through June 30, University Galleries will display in person “Freedom Ship: The Works of Curtis James.”
Collier’s artworks already are on display in a virtual format in “Rosa: The Works of Bryan Collier,” at www.ncat.edu/cahss/gallery/collier/exhibit.php.
No end date has been set for the Collier exhibition.
James is originally from Albany, Ga. Collier grew up near the southern border of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Both artists attended the Pratt Institute in New York, one of the country’s leading art schools.
Both have won major awards in their field.
“Freedom Ship” focuses attention on the African American struggle during the Civil War.
Rappaport bases her tale on the slave ship pilot Robert Smalls and the all-slave crew of the Confederate munitions ship Planter, which carried them to freedom.
She inserts into these actual events a fictional family whose young son, Samuel, narrates the tense journey. The ship narrowly makes it out of Charleston Harbor, past several Confederate forts, to Union warships offshore.
“Full-bleed images cross the gutter, filling 2/3 of each spread, backed with vivid blue or midnight black sky,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “Close-ups capture both the determination and fear on the passengers’ faces.”
“This inspiring, spare read sheds light on how a few brave families helped turn the tide of their fates and the war,” Publishers’ Weekly said.
James’ illustrations for “Freedom Ship” on display at A&T are in oil on board.
James’ art has garnered several honors, including the Albany Georgia Museum Purchase Award, Gold Key Award from Savannah College of Art and the Gold Medal for Outstanding Artist from Georgia’s State Board of Education.
Aside from A&T, his work is in the collections of Tyler Perry, the late Johnny Cochran, Susan Taylor, Holly Robinson-Pete, Kordell Stewart, former pro football players Oliver Gibson and Al Wash who played with the Houston Oilers, and The Albany Museum of Art in Georgia.
“Rosa” is a compelling children’s story of how Rosa Parks kept her seat on the Montgomery, Ala., municipal bus when asked to move. The event became a tipping point for the civil rights movement.
Collier has won the Coretta Scott King Award, as illustrator, and the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for Uptown (Holt, 2000), the first book he wrote and illustrated.
He has won six King Awards as illustrator and is a four-time Caldecott honor recipient, including for his work on “Rosa.”
Collier’s illustrations for “Rosa” are mixed media collage, Baker said, “which are really beautiful because you see the different textures and the different layers and dimensions that he can recreate with one dimensional materials.”
On Feb. 24, Collier spoke virtually to A&T’s students and community.
“He was so enthusiastic about his work and just an overall great artist,” Baker said.
Baker is a history professor who runs the university’s H.C. Taylor Gallery and the Mattye Reed Gallery.
He speaks enthusiastically about exhibiting the artwork “because it crosses so many different elements of the university” — including, of course, history.
“It impacts visual arts majors,” Baker said. “But because it’s based on illustrations for children’s books, it touches elementary education majors, it touches the English Department with English majors and the African American literature component to that.”
“It also touches marketing because you have a project that is a children’s book that is built on the talent of an illustrator and the talent of a writer putting it together and publishing,” he said.
He wants to leave James’ works hung in H.C. Taylor Gallery until June 30, because he wants to ensure that younger children can visit when school lets out.
“It would be a good family opportunity to come over with small children as a learning opportunity and a cultural opportunity,” Baker said.
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.