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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.

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."

 

5. It sounds like your parents were very supportive of your artwork. How important is this, do you think? And how did your parents' support impact you?

"My mother became my muse, simply because it was a time when no one understood that there was potential in making art, so it's good to have someone encourage you in (the face) of things that told you the opposite. My father was great; he was always trying to find me some sort of Saturday or Tuesday evening art class for me to get some kind of instruction, especially in my junior high school years. But he was terribly disappointed when I got a scholarship to art school, because no one knew the potential to make a living through art. He knew what he knew. You go into the service, you learn some sort of trade and you become a plumber or an electrician. You became something that was secure employment. So the idea of parents supporting their children, even though I understood where my father was coming from, my mother was the champion—and she just said, 'If you have a dream, then go for it.'"

6. Did any of your kids show interest in visual arts or writing?

"All of them. My daughter is the director of Child Life at Bank Street College, and part of that Program is Art Therapy. My son Brian has illustrated over 40 books and authored about 10, winning two Caldecott honors. My middle son, Scott, is a creative director as well as a painter, and my youngest son is a photographer. They grew up in an art culture. Our friends were artists and we would often find ourselves, on Sundays and Saturdays, in museums. They studied the arts at a very young age, and I understood the impact the arts could have on young people's lives."

7. Why is research so important when it comes to illustrating?

"Well, for me, if you're looking at the place—the time and place is important to all of my stories, and that's even if it's fiction or folktales. Fairytales often have a place or a setting. What I want you to lean from my pictures is that they not only interpret text but also give a sense of place. In order to establish a sense of place, research becomes important. And in regards to time, research becomes important because of wardrobe or costume. It is also a way to get to know your subject."

8. Why is it important for you to show diversity in your illustrations?

"I think it has a lot to do, in many ways, with how I grew up. It also speaks to a sense of the world we live in. What I try to do with my art is speak about my feelings or express my feelings about the world we live in. We live in a country that, happily, is very diverse. And even though we've had some rough patches, really horrific patches, we're a country made up of lots of different people, and it's important for me to express that in the work that I do. One of the things I talk about a lot, especially to elementary schools, is that once you get to know and understand your own culture and appreciate your own culture, then you can celebrate and honor other cultures. I grew up with the tales of Uncle Remus and the legend of John Henry, but my mother also read to us the classics: Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Ugly Duckling.' So a lot of my work speaks to what caught my attention when I was growing up."

9. People say your illustrations are easily recognizable. What do you think makes your work unique to you?

"It's the style, and it's also the technique of watercolor. I think it's that combination of realism or representational art with real narrative story telling. The work is researched, and it speaks to time and place. I think there're not a lot of artists working that way. If I'm doing the Uncle Remus tales, you know it's post-Civil War in the south by the costumes or what surrounds the environment. And you also know, for instance, with 'The Little Match Girl,' that it's also taking place in an American city during the 1930s and '40s. My work gives that sense of place and that sense of time, and also that technique of watercolor that's signature to me."

10. You have been illustrating children's books since 1964; what is your favorite piece that you've done?

"There is no favorite piece. Well, in a way, I think 'The Lion and the Mouse'—but then there's also 'John Henry,' which is a book that's dear and close to my heart because of the role John Henry played in my growing up years. These projects that I do all have a personal connection and sometimes, when I look at a project, I think about what drew me to that particular project."

11. What do you hope people take away from viewing your work at the exhibit?

"I think more than anything, I want them to have an understanding—especially in the area of African American history—some understanding of our contribution. I've always worked in a way, when I speak on African American culture, that we get a sense of its debt as well as its contribution. I want people to take away my interest and my passion and hope that that's inspiring to them—and you'll see there's a wide range of subject matter. I want them to also walk away, hopefully, with some kind of possibility. My story is coming from a place when I did not have the same kind of potential and possibilities presented to me as a young child, so I want them to also be able to have a dream."

12. What advice would you give a young aspiring artist or illustrator?

"First of all, for them to try to expose themselves to as much as possible in all areas. Illustration is interpreting a subject or interpreting a narrative, and you can bring to that interpretation a fuller sense of possibility in what you do when you have a sense of what's being done and what has been done. Exposure to all of the arts is only going to amplify whatever you have to say about something."

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