Aug. 20, 2020

by Alex Joseph

As of this moment, New York has all but shut down. Americans everywhere are finding out what it’s like to live and work in isolation, and there’s definitely a learning curve. 

But for Carlos Aponte, who teaches Fashion Illustration, it’s not quite as difficult to adjust. “When you’re an artist, you stay by yourself all the time,” he says, speaking via Google Hangouts from his home upstate. “Now everyone is living my lifestyle.” 

The transition to teaching online has been demanding, “not in terms of technology but in terms of talking to my students one on one,” he says. “They won’t be drawing from a professional live model and I won’t be there to guide them.” However, facing challenges is a theme of his art.

Aponte’s second picture book for children, Across the Bay (Penguin), recently won the New York Public Library’s Pura Belpré Award, given to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays the Latino cultural experience. (Eric Velasquez, who also teaches in the department, won the award in 2011.) The American Library Association chose the book for its 2020 roster of notable children’s titles. 

Carlos Aponte’s new book, Across the Bay, is about a boy who visits San Juan in search of his father.

Illustrated with irresistibly spontaneous lines and dazzling colors, the semi-autobiographical story concerns a little boy, Carlitos, who lives in the town of Cataño, Puerto Rico. Though mostly happy in a household headed by his mom and abuela, he decides one day to take the ferry across the bay to the capital, San Juan, in search of his father. 

No spoilers here. However, Aponte will say that the theme is, “Don’t look outside to find value in your culture or the beauty of people around you.”

The author pitched a number of concepts to Penguin before hitting on the right one. On a research trip to Puerto Rico, where he spent part of his childhood, Aponte found a country devastated by Hurricane Maria. He also noted, however, the vibrant mood of the San Sebastian parade, which he recreated for the story. 

“The book reflects a memory of a time when, no matter where you were in Puerto Rico, you were with family,” he said.

Aponte recreated the San Sebastian parade in the book.

Where did he learn his magnificent artistry? Aponte laughs: “At FIT of course,” he says. (He’ll graduate with an MFA in Illustration in 2021.) 

Aponte’s previous book, A Season to Bee, depicted a fashion show for which insects strutted their stuff in exuberant, buggy hues, exemplifying self-acceptance. His messages for children sometimes hold true for adults as well. Near the end of Carlitos’s journey, a park ranger makes a hopeful observation: “No matter the storm, the sun always returns.”