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Caldecott artist Jerry Pinkney began his love affair with story crowded, along with his five siblings, at the base of his mother’s favorite armchair, tucked into a sunny corner of the family’s row house at 51 East Earlham Street in Philadelphia. He listened, rapt, to his mother tell folk stories and read from Aesop’s Fables and Hans Christian Anderson.
“Those stories have stayed with me. There was adventure, excitement, tension, imagination. There was hope and possibility. We relied on stories to see the world in a bigger way,” said Pinkney.
Pinkney has built a career out of weaving stories for others through his nuanced, warm, and energetic watercolor illustrations.
A gallery show of his award-winning 50-year career as an illustrator, “Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” has returned to the Norman Rockwell Museum after a successful tour around the country; more than 175,000 visited the show in Detroit, Flint, Yonkers, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Dallas. “Witness” features 150 of his watercolors from the more than 100 children’s books he has illustrated: stories of the African-American experience - slavery, the underground railroad, pioneering the west as cowboys, and family life in the inner city - and retold classic tales like the “Ugly Duckling” and “Aesop’s Fables.” His “The Lion & The Mouse” won the ...
More than 50 watercolors and drawings by Pinkney will be on display at the 25th Annual Children’s Illustration Exhibit at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass. | Nov. 9 2014 – January 15, 2015.
prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2010. Pinkney has also illustrated for the U.S. Post Office, designing the first nine stamps in the U.S. Post Office’s Black heritage series, National Geographic magazine, and the White House.
As a young boy, Pinkney began sketching with pencils his grandfather brought home from his job at the nearby pencil factory. For paper, he used the backside of wallpaper fragments from his father’s job hanging wallpaper. Or, he doodled on the wall next to his bed, on the upper bunk. Visits with relatives who had moved out of the city to rural New Jersey introduced him to the natural world – one of the defining themes of his artwork.
His imagination was full up with story. “We listened to these tales of facing down your demons, your fears, your concerns, your trepidations. Those stories stuck,” he said.
It was a chance noticing of his sketches by the cartoonist John Liney, when Pinkney was a 13-year-old newspaper salesman, that first sparked the idea that art could be one’s life work. At his Philadelphia Inquirer& Bulletin newsstand, Pinkney sketched constantly, and hung his sketches up. One customer was John Liney, the illustrator of the popular Henry comic books, who, seeing Pinkney’s work, invited him to his studio. Through his visits to Liney’s studio, Pinkney was able to see an artist work on sketches and then see the final work in the Henry strip in the papers Pinkney sold. After high school, Pinkney committed to art at the Philadelphia School of Art.
As he began to get work, first at a greeting card company, then at an illustration/design studio, Pinkney always responded to the story embedded in each project.
“Story was in my DNA,” he said. “Looking back, seeing the projects I sought out, I see someone struggling and purposeful. These projects helped me understand myself and my culture.”
Pinkney’s studio is the heart of his creative world. Located in Croton-on-Hudson above a garage, its two rooms are filled with two drafting boards, a wood-stove, center islands that allow him to work while standing up and bookshelves filled with more than 2,000 books. Pinkney has left propped on a drawing stool a pencil drawing of the male model sketched in a figure drawing session. Light pours in a window on a broken-in leather chair and a small table of books: Toni Morrison’s “Home,” three volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry, and poetry by Gordon Parks, Samuel Menashe, and Stanley Kunitz, a copy of the Southern Review. Throughout his life, Pinkney said he has been drawn to poetry, in part because of his dyslexia. Pinkney credits his dyslexia and his slow pace of reading for helping him develop the eye for detail that others might miss.
Always, his studio is filled with music; today, the trill of a jazz pianist and the soft swishes of a metal brush on drums compete with a bird’s call from the open window, catching the afternoon’s warm sun.
Each project takes Pinkney between six to eight months. He creates thumbnail sketches in deciding what aspect of a text he will interpret, chose the page turns and find the rhythm of a project. He researches extensively, using his many books or field trips to libraries, local wildlife museums or, for his projects on slavery, consulting the National Park Service. Next, he explores his characters in developmental sketches before creating the final artwork.
It’s all there on the page. The adventure, the yearning. Stories. A glint of light and fear in its eye, a tiny mouse leaps and scrambles from the claws and outstretched wings of an owl. Young Harriet Tubman draped over her mother's lap; Tubman’s face is washed in hurt, anger and release at her mother’s comfort.
As Pinkney tweaks his newest characters – a charismatic, one-man-band grasshopper who has a bit of a comeuppance with a community of let’s say, far more productive ants – Pinkney has a quiet smile. “These fables suggest so much. Readers breathe into them something they have going on inside themselves,” said Pinkney. “I always leave the conclusion open enough so that it’s the readers. I want to keep the story open, to keep it going.”