This month, STAIR At Home students and Book Club volunteers are reading Harold and the Purple Crayon. Published in 1955, this timeless classic has helped generations of children discover the beauty and power of their own imaginations.
One night, young Harold decides to go for a walk in the moonlight, but there's no moon! He brings along his favorite purple crayon and draws himself an entire world full of wonder and adventure. Harold and his crayon travel through the forest, across the sea, and even past a fearsome dragon before going back home to a nice, warm bed. This delightful story is full of fun twists and surprises, and STAIR students have really enjoyed reading and discussing the book with our volunteers.
Harold and his beloved crayon represent the boundlessness of a child's imagination, so it may be surprising to learn that Crockett Johnson, Harold's creator, spent the final decade of his life making art defined by the precision of advanced mathematics.
Johnson had built his career as a popular cartoonist and children's author/illustrator. It's tempting to see his work as simple or minimalistic, but Johnson was actually a meticulous planner, even in drawing his Harold books.
"Each book is in fact one giant drawing that Johnson figured out in advance, and then had Harold draw, revealing his progress a page at a time. Harold does not erase, and only rarely crosses out," says Philip Nel, who maintains an extensive website dedicated to the life and work of Crockett Johnson.
After the publication of his final Harold book, Harold's ABC in 1963, Johnson turned his attention to the world of fine art. In 1965, he began work on a series of paintings inspired by the laws of geometry and mathematics.
Using an old math textbook, Johnson painted equations and mathematical proofs in bright, geometric representations. Because he wasn't an experienced fine artist, he used materials he could find easily, like boards made of pressed wood and house paint mixed at the hardware store.
Despite not having any formal mathematical training or advanced education, Crockett Johnson was eventually able to publish two original mathematical proofs in scholarly journals just by experimenting with math problems through his artwork.
“He would paint versions of a problem until he arrived at a solution, and when he arrived at a solution, he would correspond with mathematicians to try and get the algebra,” says Nel.
By the time of his death in 1975, Johnson had produced more than 100 mathematical proof paintings. Much like his illustrations for the Harold books, he intended for the paintings to be viewed as a single, cohesive piece rather than a collection of separate works. He also never sold a single one.
Today, most of Crockett Johnson's mathematical paintings are held in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. You can view them here.
Artwork: Proof of the Pythagorean Theorum (Euclid), Crockett Johnson, 1965.
Source: "The Artful Precision of the Creator of 'Harold and the Purple Crayon,'" Atlas Obscura.