Inside the Remarkable Partnership of
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

by Catherine Reef

Jan Greenberg
Jan Greenberg
Sandra JordanSandra Jordan

For Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, distinguished authors of Ballet for Martha, Action Jackson, Andy Warhol: Prince of Pop and other notable books for children on art and artists, the news that they would receive the 2013 Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award came as a thrilling surprise. "I felt very honored," Jordan said. She admitted, though, that it was hard to wait for the official award announcement, because she wanted to blurt out, "Hey, you'll never guess what!" But, she added, "Luckily when I felt that way I could call Jan."

"Sandra and I love working together on our arts-oriented books for young readers," Greenberg said. "But it's wonderful to receive validation for all the years we've been doing projects that are sometimes eccentric, always challenging--and infrequently best sellers."

Established in 1977, the Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award recognizes outstanding contributions to nonfiction literature for young readers. It honors authors or author-illustrators for their bodies of work. Recent winners include Peter Sís, Kathleen Krull and Sy Montgomery. This year marks the first time that the award will be presented to a writing team.

For Greenberg and Jordan, researching, writing, revising and even answering questions are collaborative efforts. "We write about what interests us," they said. "This gives us the opportunity to call people we admire and ask questions about how they work. Visiting artists in their homes and studios is always exciting and gives us a personal connection to our subjects. Since neither of us can dance (Jan admits to being hopeless, and Sandra regrets having no sense of rhythm), talking with members of the Martha Graham troupe gave us a stronger sense of her technique."

Speaking about their goals as writers, Jordan explained, "We want our readers to realize artists once were kids. Artistic creation doesn't arrive in a golden chariot from the goddess of inspiration--though if you're lucky that's a piece of it. Hard work is a big part of the process. Failure and discouragement happen to everyone, and the important thing is trying again until you get it right."

Both women were introduced to art early in life. "My mother was head of advertising at a department store in St. Louis," Greenberg said. "As a little girl, I loved going to her office, where the advertising illustrators would give me my own desk with colored ink and paper. I would copy pictures out of magazines, just like young Andy Warhol did when he spent months in bed with St. Vitus Dance. I can still draw shoes and dresses but, alas, not as well as Andy did!"

Jordan, whose mother was an artist, grew up surrounded by painting. "I took studio art in high school and art history classes in college, worked as an editor on many picture books and photographed a few of my own. But it was a lunch with Jan, at which she explained a process of how to look at a work of art, that electrified me and made me want to share that process with the world." That lunch led Jordan and Greenberg to write their first book together, The Painter's Eye: Learning to Look at Contemporary American Art, which was published in 1991.

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrail of an ArtistMore than ten books followed, on well-known subjects like Jackson Pollock and Vincent van Gogh as well as people whose names are less familiar to the general public, such as Chuck Close and Frank Gehry. Yet they all appeal strongly to children, as Jordan has observed firsthand when taking visiting family members to the museums of New York City. "Children have much more open minds about art than adults, perhaps because when they're young they don't have Frank O. Gehry Outside Inpreconceived ideas about what art is or should be. Very contemporary and experimental art tends to be fine with young children, so we usually don't worry that our readers won't get it." She and Greenberg face other challenges when selecting subjects. "One of the big ones for us is choosing a subject whose work translates well from the original medium (paint on canvas, marble sculpture, etc.), into a book," she explained. "Making a book is an art form in and of itself. We try to have great photographs and design so the energy of an artwork doesn't get lost in the process. That being said, I especially enjoy writing about living artists, because we are able to ask questions that shape a book for our particular audience."

Their forthcoming book, The Remarkable Tale of George E. Ohr: The Mad Potter of Biloxi, presents the life and achievements of an artist whose work fell into obscurity, only to be rediscovered by chance fifty years after his death. "The architect Frank Gehry designed a museum for Ohr's work in Biloxi, Mississippi, which was leveled during Hurricane Katrina," Greenberg said. "Now, through the generosity of many individuals and organizations, the museum has been rebuilt."

Writing tends to be a solo pursuit, yet Greenberg and Jordan have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration. "I've always loved the solitary activity of writing, spending hours at my computer totally immersed in the problem-solving process of turning words around," Greenberg said. "However, the kind of nonfiction Sandra and I write together requires research."

Commented Jordan, "We both do all the reading and research, so with two of us there's someone at the other end of the phone (or the email) who is equally interested in every new discovery, every riveting insight, every tiny detail of the subject's life and work."

For these writers, research involves not only reading books and articles, but also watching videos, conducting interviews and visiting museums, galleries and artists' homes and studios. "We take many 'field trips,'" Greenberg said. "We were friends in our forties when we first started collaborating. We'd set out on these excursions filled with enthusiasm. We knew we were covering new ground. Sometimes driving to see an artist or a museum, we took a wrong turn. Once we ended up in New Jersey instead of Connecticut. Hilarity resulted. We called ourselves Thelma and Louise. Don't ask which one of us was which. In our fifties, taking trains, cars and planes to places as far away as Los Angeles or closer to the New York area, we'd always stop for wonderful meals (and wine). We'd joke that we had become 'ladies who lunch.' In our sixties, we're still having fun. We're working harder than ever, but we are taking more time choosing subjects."

One reason the partnership works, Jordan noted, is that "we are both very, very picky. We fuss and rewrite and change words right up until the book is in press. Occasionally we alter a word or phrase in the second printing. If only one of us were like that, murder would be committed, but we both do it, so we get along. Possibly we even urge each other on. Our editors deserve a combat medal."

Jordan continued, "Once we start writing, we pass the text back and forth dozens of times. If we are doing a book like Christo and Jeanne-Claude or The Remarkable Tale of George E. Ohr, we lay the manuscript with photocopies (art or photographs) out on the floor of Jan's study in St. Louis (it's a tradition), to get a sense of how it works as a book. Then we cut, shuffle the material, rewrite and rewrite again." She acknowledged that "it is a long, often intense process, which may make it surprising that I like Jan even better now than I did when we started writing together back in 1989."

Greenberg could only respond, "Thank you, Sandra. I feel the same way about you."

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