In his autobiography for children, Chuck Close: Face Book, Chuck Close does two things extremely well. First, he allows readers to take a deeper look at his paintings—thanks to the ingenious flip book at its center, which allows us to look at overlays of dozens of his self-portraits. Second, he also invites us inside his way of thinking and seeing, so we come to understand how Close looks out at the world. It’s a philosophical book, presented in a Q&A format that children can easily pick up and put down, think about and return to again and again.
Recently I got to attend the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium (at Simmons College in Boston), where the theme was “Look Out!” – these two threads to Chuck Close’s book (winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the Nonfiction category) felt even more pronounced as we viewed footage from interviews of Close conducted by 12 fifth-graders from P.S. 8 in Brooklyn. He answers the questions that children wonder about and underscores the idea that we never stop being curious, we never stop looking out and wondering about the things for which we have a passion.
In his book, Chuck Close explains that even as a child, he was aware of how others saw him. His family did not have much money. He struggled in school. There was no term for dyslexia yet, but he had trouble learning to read and solving math problems. He could not recognize faces (a phenomenon called prosopagnosia, or face blindness). His love of drawing and artwork, which his parents encouraged, helped him demonstrate to his teachers that he cared about what he was learning. He made a 10-foot-long illustrated map of Lewis and Clark's expedition for history class; he found memorizing dates and names challenging, and the map proved he was paying attention.
His book shows how his approach to learning led directly to the portraiture for which he is now famous. His artwork helped him recognize the people he loved. “If I can flatten someone's face, I have a much better sense of what he or she looks like," he explains. He takes dozens of photographs and places the face of his subject on a grid of tiny squares. Each square is a tiny painting which, combined with the others, adds up to the representation of a unique human face. A means of coping with his world became an expression of creativity. Chuck Close figured out a way to navigate his world, and in his book, he shares those strategies with his readers. Ultimately, it’s about breaking down the large tasks into manageable steps. His life models the idea that if Chuck Close can overcome all the challenges he faced, then what’s stopping you?