For more than 50 years, Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations have lured children into reading. He is the celebrated illustrator of more than 100 children’s books, including The Lion and the Mouse, a wordless depiction of Aesop’s fable, for which he won the 2010 Randolph Caldecott Medal. The Germantown-born artist, a 2012 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the subject of the Woodmere Art Museum’s new exhibition, The Storybook Magic of Jerry Pinkney.
The show explores Pinkney’s art through two collaborations. Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story (1998), is the tenth book he created with his friend, the author Julius Lester. In Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (2009), he illustrated a series of poems by Marilyn Nelson.
Pinkney works in watercolor, and this exhibition provides an in-depth companion to the wide-ranging survey of the medium currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Stories worth telling
“I am always searching for projects that connect with my culture and the experience of being black in America,” Pinkney has written, and both works at the Woodmere reflect that pursuit.
Black Cowboy tells the story of Bob Lemmons, a formerly enslaved man who became famous for herding wild mustangs in Texas. In the endnotes, Pinkney mentions that in Lemmons’s day, one out of three cowboys was African American or Mexican and wonders if knowing that as a child would have made a difference as he played cowboys with his friends.
Sweethearts explores a similarly obscure corner of history, the first mixed-race female swing band, which performed in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. Pinkney’s illustrations do more than follow the women, however, sketching African-American life in the period -- including segregation, music, and World War II.
The palettes are very different. Cowboy features bold subjects in browns and blacks, with splashes of red to direct the eye. Muscular horses and angular riders twist and strain, speed up, and slam to a stop, struggling to contain the wild herd. Around them, a melting corona of pale beige, green, and blue suggests sunlight, sagebrush, dust, and sky.
In Sweethearts, the images are as varied as photos in an album, from sepia snapshots to spotlit performances washed in dramatic reds, blues, and oranges. Trumpets gleam, dancers spin, and fragments of sheet music float in from the edges. Pinkney puts us in the story, hearing the music and feeling the release it gave to people weary of the Depression, racism, and war.
Drawing centered him
Pinkney started drawing on the back of wallpaper scraps that his father, a paper hanger, brought home. It was an antidote to reading, which was challenging for him because of learning difficulties that in the 1940s were neither formally recognized nor accommodated by schools. “Drawing shouldered the weight of my deficiency,” he has said. “I was putting marks on paper to learn and make peace with myself.” Working at his studies and using drawing to cope, Pinkney became a good student, winning a scholarship to what is now the University of the Arts.
Though best known for children’s literature, Pinkney’s career also included commissioned work for the National Park Service and the United States Postal Service, usually involving African-American history, such as the Booker T. Washington National Monument, the Underground Railroad, and stamps honoring Harriet Tubman, Scott Joplin, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Benjamin Banneker, and Sojourner Truth, among others.
Though he has long resided in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and has received prestigious national recognition, Philadelphia counts Pinkney as a local. This makes his art a perfect fit for the Woodmere, which showcases the work of Philadelphia artists. In 2010, the City of Philadelphia awarded Pinkney the Liberty Bell Citation and declared June 26, 2013, Jerry Pinkney Day, coinciding with an exhibition of his work that summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It’s bittersweet when young readers make the transition away from books with finely wrought illustrations, when they are expected to create worlds in their heads for the words they read. If lucky, they’ll revisit the heroic cowboys and high-spirited sweethearts someday. But the luckiest are those who never leave picture books behind. They create what the rest of us can only imagine.