Legendary Columbus artist Elijah Pierce comes to life on the page

Writers Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet joined with illustrator Jennifer Mack-Watkins (pictured) to create the new children’s book ‘You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!’
Illustrator Jennifer Mack-Watkins
Illustrator Jennifer Mack-WatkinsElizabeth Brooks

“Your life is a book and every day is a page,” reads the text in one of Elijah Pierce’s wood carvings.

Now, the celebrated Columbus artist, barber and Baptist preacher has been further immortalized in his own children’s book: You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!, from writers Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet, working alongside illustrator Jennifer Mack-Watkins. Released in late January, the book tells the story of a son who is taken by his father to get a haircut at Pierce’s barbershop and is forever changed by his run-in with the local legend.

“I love the carving that shows that [quote], because it reminds you that your life is important, your life matters, and how you live every day makes a difference. And so, you should live in such a way that when you look back at it, you'll be pleased with the life that you lived,” Lee said. “Elijah Pierce's stories speak to justice and equality, and the need to develop that and not ignore the painful past that all of us have experienced. And when we talk about those things, when we listen to people talking about those things, then we realize we have a responsibility.”

Lee said she learned about Pierce shortly after she moved to Columbus in 1987, recalling how the city tore down his Long Street Barbershop, which displayed his carvings, despite it being listed in the National Register of Historic Places. She said she remembered thinking at the time that it was terrible how this great artist’s space had been razed, and she hopes that her book will help people recognize how talented, prolific and profound Pierce was in his work.

Lee said that Pierce has influenced her in a powerful way, and that she considers him a major role model in her life. Lee is also the playwright for “Pierce to the Soul,” which brought Pierce’s life to the CATCO stage in 2010. Lee and Van Vleet first met through a performance of the play in Powell about eight years ago, and Van Vleet, a published children’s author, asked Lee if she’d have any interest in collaborating on a book.

Cover art for "You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!"
Cover art for "You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!"Courtesy Penguin Random House

After working on the story together for about five years, Lee and Van Vleet landed a publishing deal with Kokila Books in 2020. Shortly thereafter, Mack-Watkins joined the project, creating the art via a process known as Mokuhanga, or Japanese woodblock printmaking. Mack-Watkins said the technique fascinated her because it allowed her to tell Pierce's story through wood in an intricate and detailed way, and one that is also lovely to look at.

For the illustrator, the process took about 18 months from conception to the page, beginning with extensive research on Pierce’s life and work. From there, the artist sketched each page so that it could be approved for printing, enlarged the drawings for transfer to the wood, carved the wood, pressed the image from the carving onto the paper, added mixed media, scanned the image, created test samples to finalize colors authentic to the 1970s time period, and then shipped each of the 34 pages for printing. 

In studying Pierce, Mack-Watkins said she would investigate his process for creating a carving, trying to imagine what he was thinking as he worked. From this, she learned to embrace Black imagination and her own sense of curiosity, which helped bring the illustrations to more vivid life.

“I wanted that barbershop to feel, okay, yeah, it's a place to get your haircut but also it's an art gallery," Mack-Watkins said. "Stop, take a look, slow down, look closer. What do you see?”

The eight-year journey of taking You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce! from concept to the bookshelf speaks to the importance of dedication, which is a lesson that the creators hope children are able to pull from the work.

“Even when there's challenges, you still will never give up,” Mack-Watkins said. “[Pierce] had many challenges in his life, you know, but he never gave up. He persevered.”

Chiquita Mullins Lee (left) and Carmella Van Vleet at the Columbus Museum of Art
Chiquita Mullins Lee (left) and Carmella Van Vleet at the Columbus Museum of ArtTwinkle Panda

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