Kid’s book illustrator Pinkney at High Museum

Caldecott Medal winner’s work subject of 50-year retrospective

Growing up in the 1940s in the working class Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, there was always enough for Jerry Pinkney and his five siblings, but never a lot of extras.

There was no neighborhood swimming pool, no Boys and Girls Club or other outlets that served the black children of his block. The family never went to museums or galleries. And yet, all around Pinkney was a wealth of creative tools.

Pinkney’s grandfather worked in a pencil factory, so the family row house was always filled with No. 2 pencils. The basement was piled with left-over cans of paint because Pinkney’s father was a house painter. And most of all there was the encouragement of his parents to be creative, put the surplus to good use and create art for the family home.

“They saw art as a positive way to keep all of us out of trouble,” Pinkney said.

What those kitchen table projects also wound up doing was launching the career of one of the nation’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators.

While none of those early drawings or paintings will be on display, many of Pinkney’s distinguished watercolors form “Witness: the Art of Jerry Pinkney,” which opens Oct. 12 at the High Museum. The 50-year retrospective of Pinkney’s work is the first time the museum has devoted an exhibition to the work of a children’s book illustrator.

Curator Julia Forbes, head of museum interpretation, said COO Philip Verre was taken aback when he saw a blown up image of Pinkney’s “The Passage of the Red Sea” during a docents meeting. “Oh my goodness, this feels like John Marin,” he said.

To be compared to one of the great American abstract Expressionists is not altogether unusual for Pinkney, 73, at this stage of his life. It has as much to do with Pinkney’s use of color and space as is does his mastery of his medium, watercolor. Much of Pinkney’s work illustrates classic fairy tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Little Match Girl” and “The Lion and the Mouse,” for which he won the Caldecott Medal in 2010, the nation’s highest honor for a kids book artist. But it is his rendering of the African-American experience — from the life of a young Harriet Tubman, to black cowboys, to the tale of African slaves off the Georgia coast — that have distinguished him among visual storytellers.

“Look at Winslow Homer’s work and tell me Jerry’s work is not as fine,” said Rita Auerbach, chair of the 2010 Caldecott award committee. “Jerry’s an exceptional colorist and the details in his work are so distinctive and refined. And his style is very distinctive because you can see the pencil through the images, which gives the images a very vibrant and lively appearance. But with art meant for children’s books, it can’t just look beautiful on the wall, it has to convey meaning to young children and he does that masterfully.”

Pinkney spent his early teen years sketching street scenes while working at a newspaper stand downtown. His father thought drawing was a fine hobby for his son, but not one that would support him or a future family.

A customer took notice of Pinkney’s work one day and bought a few. He was John Liney, cartoonist of the long-running comic, “Henry.”

“He asked to see the rest of my sketches,” Pinkney said. “I showed them to him and he invited me to his studio to see his works in progress. This was my first connection that this could be a vocation, but as an African American I didn’t think for certain that it would be open to me.”

Liney encouraged Pinkney to keep at it and he did, becoming good enough to get a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. As someone who battled with dyslexia, drawing was something he could excel at and his confidence rose with each well-graded sketch. He and his high school sweetheart Gloria Jean married and started a family, and for a time Pinkney got sidelined as a florist to make money for his young family. But a move to Boston for a chance to work at a greeting card company and later as a graphic artist at an advertising start-up provided him with the chance he needed.

He illustrated his first book in 1964, “The Adventures of Spider.” The commercial work kept rolling in, as did opportunities to illustrate album covers for recordings of Mahler and Beethoven, jazz albums for Coleman Hawkins and R&B groups such as “The Whispers.”

All of this was coming at a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the interest in African-American history was growing, and there was a demand for those stories to be told with more agency and empowerment than in the textbooks of the past. Throughout the late 1960s, Pinkney built a reputation as a visual translator of common fairy tales, but it was with black history and fables that Pinkney found his niche.

At the recommendation of a librarian, children’s book author Julius Lester decided to retell the racially fraught “Uncle Remus” tales.

“As an African American I had grown up hearing the tales and I knew that on one level they were great stories, but that fact was being lost because of other versions that told them in a dialect many of us found offensive,” said Lester.

He knew he’d have to partner with an artist as adept at drawing animals as humans, and one who shared his sensibility. This was the early 1980s and by then Pinkney had solidified his reputation as an artist who researched his subjects before drawing the first line, whether that meant studying taxidermy, visiting zoos to watch how animals moved or watching his own four children play.

Pinkney signed on to the project and produced four books. Purists who preferred the original dialect rendered by author Joel Chandler Harris complained. But others welcomed the books, saying they neutralized Harris’ incendiary take on black dialect and allowed the traditional black folk tales on which the stories were based to shine through. Pinkney and Lester went on to collaborate on at least four other books, including a retelling of the controversial “Sambo” stories, which the pair retitled and reimagined as “Sam and the Tigers.”

“Publishers don’t like for authors and illustrators to meet because they think the authors will tell illustrators what to do,” Lester said. “But Jerry’s the only illustrator I’ve ever worked with that I can say we are friends. He has a wonderful sense of play in his work, which you can see in ‘Sam and the Tigers,’ and a deep sense of gravity and history, as in ‘The Old African.’”

Images from “The Old African,” based on a fable about enslaved Africans who walk under water from the Georgia coast back to Africa and freedom, are among those in the High show. The misery of a slave ship’s hold is an aching image rendered in extreme beauty. But then, in the folk tale section of the show, which includes “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” “The Little Match Girl” and “John Henry,” is an image of Little Red Riding Hood, sweet, warm and clever.

“He can take a story like ‘The Tortoise and the Hare,’ which has been around for 1,000 years, and illustrate it in such a way that you’re on the edge of your seat trying to figure out who will win,” said Auerbach.

For his part Pinkney said each new book is an opportunity to learn something new, whether it’s about the ecosystem of the Serengeti plain, where he set “The Lion and the Mouse,” or how to impart dignity to a character in his images of early African-American life for National Park Service projects.

“But then I try to see the story through my own lens,” he said.

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