Jan Spivey Gilchrist was a young child when she discovered how art can touch the human soul.
"I feel I can get to anybody through my art, and I always have," she said. "It's a language of its own."
The award-winning illustrator and author -- an Eastern Illinois University art graduate who recently was appointed to serve her alma mater on the EIU Board of Trustees -- relishes any opportunity she has to use her artistic ability to reach out to others.
As a young girl often relegated to a wheelchair, Gilchrist -- one of 14 children -- would sit on her family's porch on the south side of Chicago, watching her siblings and other neighborhood children play. Her nine younger siblings were the subjects of her earliest drawings.
Soon, instead of ignoring her, the busy children were stopping on the porch, asking Gilchrist to draw them. The talent that brought her so much personal joy had become the bridge connecting her to the other children.
"Kids aren't jealous of the artist or the basketball player. They're all in awe of you," she said. "I had something that people loved."
She doesn't remember when she first thought of herself as an artist.
Booth Library Exhibit
A Booth Library exhibit showcases some of the many books and illustrations by EIU's own Jan Spivey Gilchrist, who was named a Distinguished Alumna by the EIU Alumni Association in 1992.
The exhibit in the third-floor reference hallway will be in place throughout the summer.
"It's about as far back as my name," she said. "I was the artist on the street, in the classroom. You're just obsessed. It's just the way it is. You are you, and you draw."
She was surrounded by encouragement from her friends, immediate and extended family, a neighborhood artist who took her under his wing, and teachers and classmates at the Spalding School for the Physically Handicapped.
"I drew and drew and drew," she said. "I entered every contest. I remember when I got my first Scholastic award, and I thought I was Rembrandt."
Her father, a Baptist minister, provided both support and wise guidance: "You can dream, but you gotta work."
At age 14, she began working for the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which partnered with St. Brendan Roman Catholic Church. The priest, recognizing Gilchrist's potential, gave her the opportunity to teach art at Saturday school. In a sense, she learned right along with the students, as the school provided various media that allowed her to push her boundaries.
She learned early that every child has special gifts, and sometimes those who don't succeed in a traditional school setting thrive when given an opportunity to express themselves in art, drama and music.
After graduating from high school, she set her sights on a career in art education. Drawn in by the beauty of the small campus, she chose to attend EIU. Art teacher Karen Brown was warm, young and nurturing, and the flexibility of the art program -- allowing students to work in the studio whenever inspiration struck -- was important. She and her first husband lived in married housing, and when their daughter was born, "I put her on my back and went to class," she said.
She went on to teach in schools in Massachusetts, Illinois, Iowa, New York and South Carolina. Along the way, she earned a Master of Arts and, much later, a Master of Fine Arts in writing for children from Vermont College, as well as a doctoral degree in English from Madison University.
She regularly sees the fruit of the seeds she planted in her classroom years ago. Just this month, Gilchrist walked into a restaurant, when a former student she hadn't seen in three decades approached her.
"This is my teacher," the woman told a friend. "This is why I am who I am."
The reunion brought Gilchrist to tears. Those moments, she said, are more rewarding than the plethora of prestigious accolades she has accumulated.
"That is the biggest award you could ever get," she said.
Though she is no longer a classroom teacher, Gilchrist often speaks to children, particularly at-risk groups who are thirsting for a positive role model to show them that they, too, can achieve their dreams, no matter their circumstances.
"I know how powerful it is for them to see, touch and feel an artist," Gilchrist said. "Those kids are geniuses, and they will become productive citizens if they can be who they are. It's my mission, and I love it."
For the millions of students she'll never get a chance to look in the eye, she illustrates and writes books -- 73 and counting. She is careful to only participate in projects with a message she fully supports.
"I will never do anything I don't believe in -- ever," she said.
Her long list of accolades includes the Coretta Scott King Award for “Nathaniel Talking” and a Coretta Scott King Book honor citation for “Night on Neighborhood Street.”
Her most recent work is the soon-to-be-published “The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can,” a picture book autobiography written by Tererai Trent, Oprah Winfrey’s “all-time favorite guest."
Gilchrist’s works have also appeared on national television, and her illustrations have been featured or reviewed in the New York Times, Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Ebony Magazine and others.
Fans at book signings and other public appearances often express disbelief that they're getting to meet the person who has had a hand in crafting some of their favorite childhood books.
"I'm thinking to myself, I'm just me," she said.
Her drive to publish books is pushed, in part, by a sense of urgency to reach as many people as she can while she still has the opportunity. She's lost her parents and six siblings to diabetes.
"If I'm gone, my books will be my gift," she said. "I realize how short life is. I'm trying to do what I can while I'm here. The reward is that you leave here having left something that's good. And then others will keep passing it forward."
Gilchrist and her husband, fellow EIU graduate Kelvin Gilchrist, will soon celebrate 30 years of marriage. They live in Olympia Fields and have two children and two grandchildren.