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Q&A with Jerry Pinkney, Famed Kids Book Illustrator

The artist's work is on display in 2012 at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Read his exclusive B.L.A.C. Detroit interview.

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The works of award-winning children's book illustrator Jerry Pinkney are on display at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in the exhibit, "Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney." The exhibit starts June 14 and is on display until Sept. 9, 2012.

Pinkney has won countless awards for his illustrations, including five Caldecott Medals and five Coretta Scott King Book Awards. In an interview with B.L.A.C. Detroit, Pinkney gives a peek into his childhood, his grueling journey to becoming a professional artist, and what he hopes you take away from the exhibit.

1. At what age did you become interested in art?

"I started drawing, and was encouraged, at a very young age. I grew up in a time when there was no TV and only one radio in the house, and I think that my brothers and myself, especially, used simple things—materials and tools to make images. I started as far back as I can remember. What I found out recently that sort of paralleled is the fact that my grandfather worked at a pencil factory, so we had tons of pencils around the house, and we used the simplest materials to mark on. I started very early but, unlike my brothers, I found that it was something that I could do well, and my family encouraged it. Later in elementary school, I became the class artist. With that, it was not only something that I loved doing, but I had a particular gift and ability and at that point; recognition. It was a very comfortable zone for me. In elementary school, I discovered that I had huge challenges in reading and spelling, and I'm dyslexic—which, of course, that word wasn't used then. It also gave me a sense of balance. It gave me a way of being unique. I could do something that the other students couldn't do."

2. Did you always know that you wanted to pursue art?

"I didn't know what art was. I knew I loved the idea of making pictures. My family did not visit museums or galleries. I didn't know that this was something that I could do. I grew up in a time where most kids made things, period. Things weren't store-bought. There was always this sense that if you wanted something, you would carve it or you would find ways to make it. So I knew about making things, and I knew that I was very comfortable creating images or interpreting something—because I drew, oftentimes, from photographs. But I knew nothing about what a professional artist did. If you had asked me at that time, I would have been lost to describe that there was a possibility of making a living as an artist. It was just something that I loved doing."

3. Who inspired you when you were growing up?

"There's this story that I tell when I met my first professional artist. When I was working at a newsstand at the age of 12, I met a cartoonist by the name of John Liney. I sold papers daily to Mr. Liney, and one day he saw me sketching at the newsstand and he asked if I would share my sketchbook with him. After that he invited me up to his studio. Now, having said that, I think it was that experience with John Liney that gave me a sense that you could actually make a living by doing something that you loved doing, because he was doing the same thing that I was doing. But the context of pursuing art as a goal in mind was not there. Of course, this was the '40s and '50s, and people of color were told that there were no opportunities there, so it was kind of a new place for me. It was more about this thing that I loved doing, it was more about of this journey of me doing what I loved doing."

4. I understand that you teach at the University of Delaware and SUNY Buffalo. Was Mr. Liney your inspiration to do that later in your career?

"No, not really. What happened with Mr. Liney was sort of that seed. It was one or two visits with Mr. Liney, and then he continued to buy newspapers from me. It was more of seeing and hoping for opportunities for doing what I loved doing. All along that way, there was always this side of me wanting this gift that I had to be recognized—and the other side was saying, 'Think about something else,' and I guess I just didn't listen. My sense of becoming and artist that could actually provide for his family, and give back in the way of teaching, came not until I was in my 20s. But again, this concept of making images as a way of expressing oneself, that came when I was entering college, Philadelphia Museum School of Art, going to galleries, going to museums certainly became my inspiration, even though I wasn't sure if I could carry it out."

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