As a child in Little Rock, Barbara Ann Higgins Bond drew and painted all over the place. But she didn't believe it was possible to make a living off her art.
Fast forward to now. Bond, 67, who goes professionally by her maiden and married names, is a celebrated artist whose works have been shown in several of the country's most noted museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Chicago's DuSable Museum of African-American History; whose creations have adorned numerous books and magazines; who has lent her talents to a campaign that celebrated the kings and queens of Africa; and who became the first black woman to illustrate a United States Postal Service stamp.
Paint and pencil images bearing her name have run the gamut in subject matter and mood ... portraits of historical figures. A sobering image of an antebellum-era slave being sold away. Smile-inducing images of dogs, cats, children. Peeps into undersea life and outer space. Famous landmarks. And, nature itself: Her art has graced "A Place For ... " nature books by Melissa Stewart for Peachtree Publishing Co.
In April, Bond -- now a Nashville, Tenn., resident -- returned to her native city for a reception and book signing at Hearne Fine Art as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival. Bond also partook in festival events at the Clinton Presidential Center and the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library and Learning Center.
Coming home and presenting during the 2019 Arkansas Literary Festival "was a very humbling experience," Bond says.
"I spent more time away from Arkansas than I lived here. I got to visit all the schools I attended, except Booker. It was nice to come back to my roots and share what I have learned."
Despite her accomplishments, this Arkansas Black Hall of Fame inductee puts on no airs.
Joyce Spiller of Florissant, Mo., one of Bond's friends from Dunbar Junior High School (now Dunbar Magnet Middle School), speaks of the "peaceful aura" that she says surrounds Bond.
"She is a very soft-spoken, sensitive and caring person," Spiller says. "She has a profound ability to stay focused and is very dedicated to her work."
The Rev. Robert Palmer would agree. The pastor of Little Rock's Cross Street Church attended Dunbar and Central with Bond.
"I have a sketch she did of me in my office at my home, and two of her works she sent me when I became pastor of Cross Street in 2000," he says. "She is one of the most intelligent, kind and hard-working people I have ever known.
"There are people who fit in the top 10, or 5% of great people you have come in contact with in this life -- and there are those like Barbara, who rank in the greatest of all time."
The daughter of Henry Drew Higgins and Edna Washington Higgins, Bond grew up in Little Rock and began drawing and painting at the age of 12. For two years in a row, she won first place in the annual Black History Month poster contest sponsored by Booker Junior High School, which she also attended. "One [entry] was a portrait of Frederick Douglass, and another portrait was of Harriet Tubman," she says.
One of Bond's early -- and longtime -- mentors was Lee Anthony, whose art classes she took. Anthony is best known as the owner of Little Rock's iconic Soul Brothers Record Shop and head of True Soul Records. "He was one of my favorite teachers," Bond says. "He taught me the meaning of professionalism .... He [also] taught me how to listen to your own voice in expressing your art. He was an inspiration to me."
At the urging of her mother, Bond went on to study painting at the Arkansas Arts Center. "My parents were not rich, and I imagine it was somewhat of a sacrifice for them to let me take the classes," she says. "One thing it did was to show me that my parents cared about my interest."
After graduation from Central High School in 1969, Bond enrolled in Phillips University in Enid, Okla., as a psychology major. She had no aspiration to be a commercial artist. That changed once she took an art class as an elective. After taking a good look at other students' work, along with her own, Bond says she thought, "Maybe I've got something here." By the end of that school year, she was considering art as a career. She decided to transfer to University of Memphis College of Art.
In 1973, Bond graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, advertising design. That year, she also married Benny Hayes Bond, whom she'd met while he was visiting relatives in Memphis. After her marriage, the artist who'd signed her name as "Higgins" while in art school changed her moniker to Higgins Bond. She moved with her husband to Teaneck, N.J., where Benny worked as a recreational therapist and Higgins went to work for New York advertising agency Stanley Arnold and Associates.
When she'd first transferred to the Memphis College of Art, Bond's goal was a practical one: She'd major in advertising design so she could get a job at a graphic design company or advertising agency. "Which is exactly what I did," she says. "It was only after I found I was going to have a child that I saw the possibility of becoming a freelance illustrator, so I could stay at home with my child."
After the birth of the couple's only child, Benjamin, Bond took the leap: She resigned from the ad agency and hung out her shingle as an illustrator.
"I actually had to send my son to a baby sitter sometimes when I had a tight deadline," she says. "And I remember other times I worked with him in one hand, and a brush in the other." Bond's work began to show up in publications such as Black Enterprise and The Crisis magazines.
It also showed up on collectible plates sold by the Bradford Exchange and the Hamilton Collection. How popular were these plates? She can only judge by her royalty checks, she says. "I can say for sure that the Treasured Day series for the Hamilton Group was quite successful."
Then there was the Great Kings and Queens of Africa, a series of 30 works commissioned in 1975 by Anheuser-Busch to foster black history and culture and to showcase black artists. The collection, which reflected 23 artists' work over 25 years, adorned calendars with depictions of African leaders who ruled throughout the history of the African continent.
Bond's first work for the program, a painting of the Mali ruler Mansa Musa, came about through her agent. It was so successful and popular that, four years later, she was asked to do a second painting: Akhenaten, pharaoh of Egypt and his queen, Nefertiti.
The ad agency, Bond says, preferred working with illustrators instead of fine artists because the former are trained to do research, to work within guidelines, size, specification, and to meet time deadlines. "I think they came back to me because they knew what to expect." Having served as resident artist, teacher and lecturer at various schools, Bond says she has always told her students that, "If you don't do a good job the first time, an art director won't come back a second time."
Anheuser-Busch not only came to her for a second painting, they tapped her for a third. "On the 20th anniversary of the paintings in 1995, I was asked to do the third painting" -- Yaa Asantewaa, queen of Ghana.
When did Bond feel she had, as an artist, truly arrived?
"I guess when Anheuser-Busch asked me to be in a TV commercial advertising the paintings that were shown during the airing of [the TV miniseries] Roots: The Next Generation ...," she begins. "No, on second thought, I think more significant for me was when I was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1997" -- the highlight of the collection of kudos she has received.
The work that Bond is most proud of is the series of Black Heritage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service -- portraits of W.E.B. DuBois, Jan E. Matzeliger and Percy Lavon Julian.
"I used to collect stamps as a child, so they interest me," she says. "One day, I saw Thomas Blackshear's beautiful stamp of John Baptiste DuSable in the newspaper. And it made me want to illustrate one. I was already familiar with [the] stamps in the Black Heritage series done by Jerry Pinkney. It turns out Blackshear, Pinkney, and I were all part of that first group of artists hired for the Great Kings and Queens of Africa poster series.
"So, I wrote to Pinkney and asked, 'How do you go about getting such a commission?' Turns out he was now the art director of the Black Heritage series." Pinkney took some of her work to Washington to show the Stamp Advisory Committee. She was subsequently hired to do the first stamp in 1991, then the other two.
Of the museums in which Bond's work has been shown, her favorites, and most explored venues, have been the Metropolitan, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, also in New York, and the DuSable in Chicago. In Little Rock, Mosaic Templars bought several of her original paintings and drawings for its permanent collection.
Then there are the books ... of which Bond has illustrated 44.
She says she was never more honored than when she was chosen to illustrate a special 30th-anniversary collectible edition of Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of An America Family for the Danbury Mint. "I have also thoroughly enjoyed working on the "Place For ... " series," she adds. "The subjects are my first love: nature, science and wildlife." The most recent was A Place for Turtles. When she paints nature and wildlife, Bond says, it's her way of giving honor to God -- who, she says, has created so much beauty in the world.
"But I have never had an experience like I had when I illustrated the book Lorraine: The Girl Who Sang the Storm Away.
"I had no idea until well into the project that the author, Ketch Secor, was a celebrity," she says of the Grammy-winning musician. "None of my other books have been promoted like this one. Ketch is a fantastic musician, singer and songwriter, but this is his first book. He is young, about the same as my son. Our presentations together have been a blast."
THE ILLUSTRATING WOMAN
Bond explains the process of illustrating a book:
"In the beginning there is the word: the manuscript," she says. "I read it several times and then start research. I have found reference pictures -- sometimes I take pictures. I try to visualize what the final art might look like. ... Each illustration is like a jigsaw puzzle that I have to put together. Once I have all the elements, then I do pencil sketches. And when the art director approves the sketches and I make any corrections he or she might request, then I start painting [pictures] one at a time, until the book is done."
Spiller, Bond's friend, says it was during a visit several years ago that she fully recognized Bond's dedication to her work and the depth of her artistic talent.
"It was such a wonderful experience and an honor being surrounded by portraits of Malcolm X, Barack Obama to name a few, beautifully illustrated children's books and a plethora of her other pieces of work," Spiller recalls. "What I found amazing was observing her over a two-day period working to meet a children's book illustration deadline. Barbara spent two days working to perfect the mitten a little boy was wearing in an outdoor winter scene. I thought the mitten was great upon first glance, but I realized an artist's mind eye focuses on details necessary to meet their standard of perfection."
There's not a lot that Bond still wants to do careerwise. But, she acknowledges, she's still trying to cross the "difficult, but arbitrary line" between commercial art and fine art and wants to paint more of the things she wants to paint, rather than projects dictated by an art director.
Considering herself as having reached retirement age, she has slowed down a bit. She likes to garden and watch movies. A big music lover, she boasts of an extensive collection of records, audiocassettes and CDs. Bond also likes to spend time with her family. Her son, Benjamin Bond, and his wife, Patricia -- also an artist -- live in Mount Juliet, Tenn. The couple have three children. Bond's mother and two of the four siblings with whom she was raised -- a brother and a sister -- still live in Arkansas. Another sister resides in Florida. (Her father and a third sister are deceased, as is her husband, Benny Bond, who died in November 1996.)
Whatever Bond does, personally or professionally, the reputation she has built will continue to bear fruit for years to come. "Her work is amazing and has reached millions of people," notes Countess Metcalf of Goodlettsville, Tenn., Bond's sister-in-law.
"Barbara exemplifies the finest qualities in her profession. Her dedication to her work, family and those around her never wavered."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dec. 14, 1951, Little Rock
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: The Shack by William Paul Young.
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: When I was married in 1973, I made my own wedding dress.
• I WISH I COULD: Travel around the world.
• MY MOST VALUABLE POSSESSION: A Bible given to me by my brother Henry.
• I AM MOST COMFORTABLE WHEN: Watching TV.
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Going fishing with my dad.
• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO A FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Barack and Michelle Obama; artists Kehinde Wiley and Drew Struzan; and Oprah Winfrey.
• ONE OF THE BEST GIFTS I EVER RECEIVED: Lee Anthony, my former art teacher, gave me my first copy of Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market. It was extremely instrumental in shaping my career as illustrator. I buy a copy ever year.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL: Broiled salmon.
• I AM MOST PROUD OF: My son Benjamin. He works hard, he is a great father and a good man.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Conscientious.
“I try to visualize what the final art might look like. ... Each illustration is like a jigsaw puzzle that I have to put together.” - Barbara Ann Higgins Bond
High Profile on 06/23/2019
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Barbara Ann Higgins Bond's life of art has put her name in books, on calendars, on stamps