Enter the North DeKalb Mall where Lawrenceville Highway splits from Stone Mountain Parkway in Decatur. Do not be deterred by the off-brand tracksuits, shuttered food stalls or the clearance sale signs cluttering the windows. Keep looking and you’ll find Gas-Art Gifts, the bright gem of a shop owned by artist and children’s book illustrator R. Gregory Christie.
The brilliant hues of his art punctuate the simple white space. On display are nearly two decades of boundary-pushing illustrations, ranging in subject from the angry face of an enslaved Sojourner Truth to the gangly limbs of a young girl walking on stilts. Featuring bold brush strokes and bright colors, Christie’s paintings contain intimations of his influences: Romare Bearden, Picasso, Jacob Lawrence. He plays with form and color, mixing realism, abstraction and folk art in a single piece.
Heavy subjects, like The Lost Boys of Sudan, are rendered in almost cartoonish innocence, while some depictions aimed at young readers contain surprising depths of emotion. Christie has been recognized with three Coretta Scott King Award Honors.
“He’s a star in children’s books,” says Melissa Manlove, the Chronicle Books editor who chose him for When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, their forthcoming compendium by the Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis. “His art is playful, it’s smart and it’s very fresh…People should be lining up to learn from him. Really.” Now Atlanta-area children have that chance.
Christie aims to create more than just a bookstore; he wants to build a gallery, studio, art school, and gathering place all in one small space. He offers $5 drop-in art classes on the weekends from 1p.m. until the mall’s closing because he is on a mission to foster literacy and a love for what he calls the “tangible arts.”
As he says, “I’ll lose if I try to compete against technology, but this can be a counterbalance to it. I know I’m not going to get every kid in here to sit down and start reading books, but I can get them to come in, look and say, that’s a cool shop, and realize I don’t have to go buy this t-shirt, I’m full of ideas and I’m young and I feel like I’m going to change the world, and I’m going to start by doing a drawing and put it on a t-shirt.”
That youthful drive to create and inspire began for Christie in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. As a shy child, he began copying his favorite comic books, and found his voice in art. His passion led him to the School of Visual Arts in New York, but his big break came not from a gallery, but from a nightclub. Like Toulouse Lautrec in 19th century Paris, Christie worked his way into New York’s hot spots by painting himself into the scene.
In the ‘90s, while music pumped in the dark clubs, Christie would project his colorful pieces, or paint the scenes live. Soon he landed gigs in London, Sweden and Malaysia. After the band Justice System signed him up to paint the cover for their first single, “Summer in the City,” the image of a young boy playing a saxophone caught the attention of a children’s book editor. A new career path was born. The first book he illustrated was a compendium of poetry by African-American children called The Palm of My Heart for which he won his first award. Forty-four books later he continues to travel and win praise for his work.
This new venture marks a shift that began two years ago when he moved from Brooklyn, New York to Mableton, Georgia to care for his ailing father who subsequently passed away. Christie felt rudderless, and the shop is what made sense. He says, “My mind works like that. Let’s take a chance, let’s help society and let’s help yourself.”
So ignore the neon ads blinking in the corridor and watch Christie paint himself into a new scene. This creative pioneer hopes that as with patrons who flocked to Soho or St. Germain, those seeking beauty will find it here in this small white space, in the quiet corner of a shopping mall in Georgia.