Montclair Art Museum exhibition shows the depth of children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney’s work

This illustration, for the book “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation”, is part of the exhibition “Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” at the Montclair Art Museum.

Anyone who frequents public libraries knows that the most emotional and immediate things are often hidden in plain sight in the children’s section. That’s partly because writers need to make bold, simple, and direct statements in order to put their themes in the minds of young people. Most importantly, it’s because children’s books contain pictures, and pictures go straight into your bloodstream.

For more than half a century, Jerry Pinkney has been a reliable source of such imagery, and while the tone of his work was relentlessly pleasant and age-appropriate, he could be quietly incendiary whenever he wanted. The artist, who died in October at the age of 81, illustrated more than 100 books, including fantasies, tales, adaptations of classics, slices of youthful life and a few stories for children. For his work, he has been richly rewarded: the Horn Book Award, the Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” an exhibition featuring more than 80 illustrations by the artist, offers visitors to the Montclair Art Museum a whirlwind journey through profound and provocative work. Curator Gail Stavitsky gives center stage to what may be the most overtly political image Pinkney has ever made: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, arm in arm with other civil rights marchers, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

The illustration, from “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation” (Holiday House, 2019), hangs right in the middle of the special exhibition gallery. While it is a bit more specific and pointed than the many other images that surround it, it is in no way unrelated to the artist’s motivations. Through her art, Pinkney has spent much of her life advocating for equality. All of his work is a gentle but firm demand for dignity and respect.

Cover illustration by Jerry Pinkney for the book ‘Goin’ Someplace Special’.

Sometimes he hosted black folk heroes. Sometimes he raves about graphite and paints over real historical figures. In “Sweethearts of Rhythm” (2009), he commemorates an all-female WWII-era jazz band from Mississippi; in “God Bless the Child” (2003), he traces the struggle of the Great Migration; in “Goin’ Someplace Special” (2008), its heroine is an ordinary, loveable, obsessed teenager, forced to endure the humiliations of the Jim Crow-era South. In her reluctant and heartbreaking retreat to the back of a separate bus, there is more than a trace of Rosa Parks’ slow-moving outrage.

Even though “Tenacity & Resilience” will be on display at MAM until June 26, it’s only fitting to call it a Black History Month showcase. Yet while the influence of African-American storytelling artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence is felt throughout this lively and winning show, Pinkney’s apparent role models were not African American, or American at all. . Anyone with a reasonably rich collection of children’s literature will recognize the refracted light of the twin lanterns of EH Shepard and Arthur Rackham, illuminators of a thousand visions of British childhood. Shepard and Rackham worked in the early 20th century and their images reflected an emerging English view of childhood as a time of sweetness, innocence and misty dreams, with a subtle undercurrent of danger and temptation. Many of Pinkney’s illustrations also have a fairytale, shimmering, ceding quality of light – even the city images are often full of rainbows and northern stars, beautifully coated skies and wing textures. of butterfly.

Pinkney even works like Rackham, combining the precision of pencil with the luminous, otherworldly quality of watercolour. His foreground figures are meticulously rendered; his backgrounds are often an evocative blur of suggestive shapes.

Cover illustration by Jerry Pinkney for “The Little Mermaid”.

For this reason, Pinkney’s work often looks much older than it is. Even a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” completed shortly before the artist’s death, is much closer in tone, wit, and richness to Eulalie Banks than a modern children’s artist like Alejandro Mesa. (or the less amazing, but terribly popular, Darth Vader and Son). Pinkney never succumbed to the urge to become cartoonish; Disney, Marvel and the movies don’t seem to have affected his style at all. The computerized art tidal tug did not bite its heels. The retrospective sweep of “Tenacity & Resilience” reveals an eerily unchanging artist.

Even the incorporation of collage – a small innovation – in the MLK series contributes little to the effect of the images, generated instead by impeccable technique honed over long practice. Pinkney hit a style that was already out of fashion when it started, won plaudits for it, and rode it for decades.

At their most sentimental, Rackham and Shepard (and Banks) presented childhood as adults wanted children to experience it. In Pinkney’s more dreamy plays, he falls into the same trap. There’s not a drop of molasses in his work, but he can be swept up in a relentless friendliness that seems more encouraging than precise. But when Pinkney concentrates and lets her sense of injustice guide her brushwork, her illustrations can shock the complacent straight out of their sleep.

Sometimes it’s in the facial expressions of young people facing the brutal edge of discrimination, sometimes it’s in the body language of ordinary African Americans who have already been damaged enough for a lifetime, and sometimes it’s a shard of color that liberates in its intensity and sudden clarity. A single look from a Pinkney character can cut through the haze and make its meaning chilling.

This is all the more palpable in the two most beautiful segments of the series: one devoted to “John Henry” (1999) and the other, “Minty” (2000), a chronicle of the young Harriet Tubman. Here, Pinkney was at the height of his powers and doing what he did best – mythologizing legendary figures from the African-American past to make subtle remarks about the African-American present.

John Henry, of course, is a made-up character, and the artist is free to infuse him with all the strength and courage he can muster. In “A Hammer on Each Shoulder,” Henry is a pure black American superhero – tired, sweaty, utterly honorable, and crowned in the signature Pinkney rainbows. He shattered the unbreakable rock into pieces and paved the straight road to the scorching sun, and did so without an ounce of acrimony or boastfulness. He simply is; it is a human manifestation of force and will properly applied. He’s the same naturally noble individual he was in his early days, shown here in ‘When John Henry Was Born,’ in which the already burly figure, seated on an African-American quilt, hoists his cradle above his head. .

Harriet Tubman, a real person, should be harder to describe. But Pinkney really seems to be taking his measure. The young “Minty”, as she was called, is cunning, pained, resourceful and committed to the cause of freedom. In the book, she is whipped for freeing the muskrats – and although her elders warn her not to antagonize her slave masters, she knows she is right and remains unrepentant. Cleverly, Pinkney continually depicts her in liminal states, between two worlds, one foot chained by forces beyond her control and another stepping into an uncertain future. He exercises his virtuosity in the magnificent “You’re Doin’ Fine”, in which Minty, learning to swim, keeps her head above the surface while her body twists and slides through the water. It’s a pure show piece, and it’s great to see Pinkney strutting around. Better yet, “Just Look at the Moss”: Minty’s father, protecting his wary daughter from the glowing woods, tells her how to find her way north.

If you would like to see these images in the form in which they were first published, the Montclair Art Museum also provided the books. They sit on a circular table in the middle of the gallery, as they might be in your elementary school. You can’t take them out and do a book report on them, but you can sit down for a while and get lost in them.

Of note, the “somewhere special” the teenage heroine goes in “Goin’ Someplace Special” turns out to be a library. Jerry Pinkney’s optimism may have been unwavering, but it was never earned. He believed in the liberating power of literacy and storytelling. He believed in the dream of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. And he believed in drawing, with the tenacity and resilience of John Henry, all his life.

“Tenacity and Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” is on view at the Montclair Art Museum until June 26. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.

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