The City of Brotherly Love could be called the City of Pinkney Love on Wednesday, June 26, which both the city of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have declared to be Jerry Pinkney Day. On June 28, a touring retrospective of the much-lauded children’s book illustrator’s nearly 50-year career, “Witness: the Art of Jerry Pinkney,” will open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the exhibition will be on view in Philadelphia through September 22 before moving on to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Also this summer, the nearby Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Parkway branch is hosting “Drawing on the Reverse Side: The Art and Life of Jerry Pinkney.” The Free Library’s exhibition opened June 24 and will run through September 1.
It’s no surprise that Philadelphia would honor Pinkney, who was born in the city in 1939, and spent the first two decades of his life there. His artistic talent became evident early on; as a child, he would draw on the backs of wallpaper scraps that his father, a wallpaper hanger, would bring home. Pinkney moved from Philadelphia to Boston in 1960, after completing his studies at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He has illustrated more than 100 picture books since the 1964 release of Adventures of Spider, written by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst. The list includes The Lion & the Mouse, his wordless version of Aesop’s fable, which won the 2010 Caldecott Medal. To date Pinkney has received five Caldecott Honors and has won five Coretta Scott King awards for his work, among many other honors.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
“Both exhibitions really build upon each other,” Pinkney told PW by phone from his studio in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. He described the museum exhibit as 100 finished pieces of art, most of them originals, dating back to the early 1960s. The works on display include advertisements, book jackets, and record album covers, as well as the picture book illustrations for which he is best known. A press release from the museum describes the exhibition as being anchored by his illustrations of folk and fairy tales, as they “have long been Pinkney’s signature work,” but also including such adult-oriented pieces as a series of calendar illustrations honoring famous jazz musicians that he was commissioned to create for Smirnoff.
The Free Library exhibit uses documents and photographs to trace Pinkney’s Philadelphia roots, beginning with his grandparents’ move there from the South during the early 20th-century Great Migration. The exhibition also explores Pinkney’s childhood and youth through the lens of his family’s history on Earlham Street in the city’s Germantown neighborhood, which experienced an influx of African-American residents during the first half of the 20th century. Besides the historical artifacts, the library exhibit includes materials created during the process of producing four of his books, as well as a mock studio modeled on his current workspace.
“Audiences will have a full understanding of not just the creative process, but also of the person, through these two shows,” said Pinkney, who took an active role in conceptualizing both exhibitions.
Though Jerry Pinkney Day won’t include a marching-band led parade along the Parkway between the art museum and the Free Library, the day’s highlight will be a parade of dignitaries honoring him. Pennsylvania First Lady Susan Corbett, as well as elected officials representing the city and the state, are scheduled to present Pinkney with letters of commendation from U.S. Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz and Governor Tom Corbett. The ceremony will take place at the museum and will be followed by a reception.
Both exhibitions will feature related programming throughout the summer. Panel sessions will include Pinkney discussing his youth in Philadelphia, the roots of his artistic career, and the backstories to his books and illustrations at the art museum on July 7 and at the Free Library on July 15. Family members – his sisters, son, daughters, niece, and his wife of 53 years, author Gloria Jean Pinkney – will also make appearances on July 7 at the museum: they will read passages from their favorite of his books before giving their views of his life and work.
When asked if he ever thought during his childhood that the city of Philadelphia would one day celebrate him, Pinkney laughed, clearly delighted. “I’m excited and a bit overwhelmed to be honored like this by my hometown,” he responded, recalling how, while in his early teens, he was encouraged to pursue a career as an artist by another Philadelphian, the cartoonist John Liney. The two met when Liney observed the 12-year-old Pinkney drawing in between serving customers at a newsstand on Cheltenham Avenue, near Liney’s studio. “When I was growing up, there was little opportunity for a person of color to succeed,” Pinkey said. “Philadelphia was not segregated, but it was not integrated.”
Even now, Pinkney continues to break barriers with his art. While the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection contains children’s book illustrations by prominent artists, “Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” is the first time it has hosted a retrospective devoted to a children’s book illustrator. In fact, it’s also the first time the museum’s curators have worked with its education division to devote an entire building in the museum complex to children and families. “Witness” is one of five family-friendly exhibitions set up in the Perelman Building this summer that the museum is calling “Artsplash.”
“The Pinkney exhibition is the centerpiece of the suite,” explained Emily Schreiner, the museum’s associate curator for education and community learning. “Knowing this little boy grew up in Germantown and now his art is up on the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will resonate with children in Philadelphia.”
The museum’s goal is to inspire local families to regard the museum as a family destination, Schreiner said. Not only is the museum reaching out to churches, schools, and community organizations to promote “Witness” and the four other Artsplash exihibitions, but museum interns will visit 25 of the city’s 50 public library branches this summer, to introduce Pinkney’s books and art to children. Each child in attendance will receive free passes to the museum for up to eight people. Schreiner anticipates that this program will draw in more than 3,000 first-time museum visitors.
“Philadelphia is a big city; this gets us out to neighborhoods where people aren’t likely to stumble across the museum,” Schreiner said. “Our larger goal is audience development and civic engagement.”
Such an emphasis by art museums on reaching out to children when building audiences makes a great deal of sense, Pinkney notes. “After all,” he says, “a child’s first experience with art is in a children’s book.”
Photo of Jerry Pinkney and reproductions of his art courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.