Interview with Nikki Grimes

By Brad Dupray

New York Times best-selling author Nikki Grimes is nationally renowned for her children’s works and poetry. Nikki was the recipient of the 2006 National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the American Library Association Notable Book What is Goodbye?, the Coretta Scott King Honor Books Jazmin’s Notebook, Dark Sons, and The Road to Paris, as well as The Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade. Additionally, she is the creator of the popular Danitra Brown series of children’s books. At press time, her book Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope is No. 2 on the New York Times best-selling children’s books list. Nikki attends Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California. You can read more about Nikki at www.NikkiGrimes.com.

Do you consider yourself an author or an artist or both?

Both. I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was 6 years old. I do card making, book making, jewelry, and I’ve started to paint in the last couple of years. I’m looking for ways to marry my art and literature. One informs the other.

That’s interesting. How does one inform the other?

Because of my writing background I’m drawn to narrative in visual art. That’s the art that most often attracts me. I’m very story oriented. At the same time, art informs my writing, too. My work is said to be especially visual.

What was your early inspiration?

When I was young my father encouraged me to pursue all the forms of art I was interested in. Usually you’ll be advised to choose one form and focus on that. My father freed me to explore theater and music, dance and writing. As a result, one of the strongest aspects of my artistry now is my voice—I’m known for the strength of my characters and the authenticity of their voices. In addition, all of my poetry is musical, so the rhythms of music and dance have found their way into my writing. Nothing is separate. One thing definitely informs the other.

Does your artistic expression inform your experience, or is it the other way around?

I use my art to express my experience, to capture it, to communicate it.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

Truth be told, all inspiration worthy of the word comes from God. After all, he is the first author. To the extent I have that gift it is a reflection of his larger gift. He is the Creator, He is the author of the universe. First and foremost, all inspiration comes from him.

How would you characterize yourself as a writer?

I get asked the question, “Are you a Christian writer?” by which they mean, am I writing books that are overtly Christian in nature? I’m a Christian and Christianity is the grid through which I look at the world and how I comment on it, and that is true for all Christian artists and writers.

How is that reflected in your writing?

My characters have faith. My books all have the assumption of and the character of God. There’s always an element of hope in whatever story I’m telling. It’s important. I want my readers to pick up on that hope, to be encouraged by it, to be blessed by it. Hope is the seed I want to plant. In that sense I’m definitely a Christian writer.

How does a Christian express faith through artistry?

There’s not a simple answer. First and foremost, there’s a need to be responsive to the call, recognizing the call God has placed on your life and then responding to it and creating out of that sense of call.

Is it the role of Christian writers and artists to influence the culture?

I don’t think we can help but influence the culture if we are true to ourselves and our faith—if we look at the world in a way that is different. By doing that, we will influence those in our sphere. Whether an artist or not, we’re all ambassadors of Christ.

How do art and literature play into a Christian’s experience?

Art has the power to enhance all of our lives. It is a vehicle for us to learn about each other, to discover the ways in which we are more alike than different. It is a vehicle that allows us to communicate with each other and it opens up places in us that allow the Creator God to speak to us so that when we go out on a hike and we pause to watch a sunset, perhaps we appreciate it in a new way—the beauty of it.

Can a person strengthen his relationship with Christ without that kind of influence?

It’s going to be limited without that. Literature challenges our thinking and builds new pathways in our minds and allows us to think about God in different ways. It shows us how he relates to us in different ways. It expands who we are and who we are able to be. We definitely miss something when we miss out on art and literature. If beauty were not important I don’t think God would have filled the world with so much of it. And if story were not important, he would not have used it to teach us about himself.

Can artistry be expressed without an element of faith?

People do it all the time. The question is: what is the quality of the art? Does it have any life? There’s a lot of dead, dark art being created. It has no life, no hope, no energy. You don’t have to be an art expert to pick up on that. If there is light in a piece, you pick up on the joy in it. So you can create something that has some dimensions and may have some interest, but it is dark and it is dead. I’m not interested in that.

When you say dark, are you speaking beyond the simple color?

I’m talking about the spirit of it. Sometimes the subject is hopeless. There’s no positive aspect to the story. It’s very bleak and there’s no way out. An artist of faith deals with difficult subject matter, but you look at a piece that such an artist creates, and even if three-quarters of the painting is dark, somewhere in that painting there is light because that artist is coming from a place of light. That’s the same whether you’re talking about visual art or literature.

How can a person use the arts to guide her in worship or reflect her Christian experience?

As far as literature is concerned, there are some wonderful pieces of fiction that are historically based that help people explore the Bible in ways they haven’t thought of before. They have a lot of “aha” moments. There are opportunities to view Christian visual arts at various exhibits. If you don’t know of art exhibits in your area, you can go to www.civa.org (Christians in Visual Arts). They have art events around the country. Image (www.ImageJournal.org), a journal of the arts and religion, carries some of the art of the most renowned Christian artists in the world. One of the things we do at my church is artistic expressions of the stations of the cross during the week of the Passion. Ordinary people who don’t often go to an art show have been deeply moved and been grateful to have art draw them into a newer, deeper experience of meditation and reflection.

Are the arts as influential in Christian life and worship as they were in the past?

It’s sort of swinging back in that direction. For a long time art became a stepchild of the church. I’m happy to see art being embraced once again by the church and being brought into the center of worship. Initially artistic gifts were used as a means of worship: items to go into the temple, dances that were performed before the Lord for his pleasure, to celebrate him. Music, of course, was part of that, too, which is why we have the Psalms. The connection between art and faith is as old as faith itself. Slowly, but surely, the modern church is coming back to that, to which I say, “Hallelujah!” because Christian artists are able to feel less on the fringe.

Is artistry caught or taught? Can a person with no artistic talent develop an artistic persona?

Both. It’s a bit like, in school you learn to write your name. You learn the alphabet. You learn to do basic writing. But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to become Shakespeare. Visual art is also a language. Not everyone is going to become Picasso, but everyone can learn the basics and certainly enough to enhance their own lives.

How does a person discover who he is artistically?

By doing a bit of experimenting, trying different things, and seeing what fits. Remember that every single person has a gift and a talent—at least one. Remember also that no talent is better than another. They’re just different. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we try to compare ourselves. Draw on your natural leanings. You’re the best “you” you can ever be, and nobody can ever be a better “you” than you.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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