Where Are You, Agnes?
Where Are You, Agnes?
Agnes felt something tingling inside.
“Can everyone see that?” she asked.
Her grandfather thought for a long time until it
seemed he had forgotten the question.
“I don’t exactly know,” he said.
Agnes looked from the straight horizon to her
grandfather’s crooked eyebrows and back again.
And the next day, she picked up her favorite pencil
and began to draw.
Each day, she watched the sky that went on and on
and on in the distance and drew the lines she saw.
Agnes Martin was a famous abstract artist of the twentieth century. Born in Saskatchewan in 1912, she spent a great deal of time with her beloved grandfather on the prairies before moving to Vancouver.
This luminous picture book imagines the relationship between Agnes and her grandfather as she discovers her artistic talent. The two share a quiet walk on the farm when they see a rainbow. Her grandfather asks her, “What do you think?” Agnes tells him that the rainbow is beautiful. Then her grandfather covers her eyes and asks her the question, “Is it still beautiful?” At first Agnes is puzzled, but she quickly realizes that the rainbow is still beautiful because she has experienced its beauty. The very next day, Agnes starts to draw what she sees to share her experiences.
Agnes is enchanted by the wings of birds, the feeling of the sun, the shapes in the wheat, and the diamond-shaped lines on snakes. “She tried to follow the lines to see where they would lead her.” Her mother’s calls go unheeded as Agnes follows “the criss-cross lines in her mind.”
And then her grandfather decides to sell the farm in order to move to the busy city. Agnes worries that she has lost her magical natural world. Now she spends time staring at insects. She loves writing on the blackboard at her new school but worries about the question, “Why do things have to disappear?” She discusses her fears with her grandfather, and he tells her that things may disappear, but they can always live in your heart. Soon afterwards, her grandfather passes away, and Agnes must deal with a new reality. She is devastated but comes to realize that her art will help her cope. “It was the feeling of beauty, and beauty became the mystery she traced her whole life.”
Tessa McWatt has adapted the biographical details of Agnes Martin’s life in order to write an exceptional picture book about a young girl exploring her artistic inclinations. Her thoughtful grandfather’s encouragement leads her to discover her talent. Her love for the beauty of nature is born on a farm but continues throughout her entire life.
The illustrations by Zuzanna Celej are remarkable! She has used delicate watercolor and colored pencil and a muted color scheme of earth tones on the farm and grays and browns in the city environment. There is lots of empty space which inspires readers to imagine what is going on in the text. Perhaps the most beautiful and memorable page in the entire book is the one describing the young girl’s grief. The text is simple, “Then one day, when she came home, everything was different.” However, the empty chair and the abandoned cane on a gray background tell readers everything they need to know.
Proficient young readers can read Where Are You, Agnes? on their own, but it can definitely be used as a read-aloud. This picture book will encourage young readers to think about art, nature, intergenerational relationships, aging, grief, imagination, and creativity.
A literacy advocate and author, Myra Junyk resides in Toronto, Ontario.