Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney

“I’ve found it interesting to trace how the chapters of my life have knitted themselves into my art.”
—Jerry Pinkney

In its purest sense, the act of artistic creation is a bit like looking at oneself in the mirror and leaving one’s reflection behind. All that an artist is, all that he believes, and the many things that he has witnessed in his time, become one with his art.
Across his fifty year journey as an illustrator, Jerry Pinkney has cast a warm, curious eye on our world to create transcendent images that reflect his passion for life, his love of family and community, and his deep and abiding engagement with the rich complexities of history. A master watercolorist with a distinct personal message to convey, he reminds us that no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted, in elegant images that celebrate life’s small but extraordinary moments, the wonders of classic literature, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
Born of a life-long desire to connect with others through art, Pinkney’s heartfelt icons of living culture have, since 1960, been a part of the American visual landscape in ways that are integral to our lives. Initially created for the covers and pages of periodicals and picture books, postage stamps, greeting cards, product advertisements, and well-traveled historic sites rather than for the walls of galleries and museums, his art is intimately encountered by a vast and eager audience seeking meaning and enrichment in the stories that he tells. In his illustrations, intricately conceived narratives imbue ordinary activities with a sense of historical importance, and exquisite characters and details inspire belief by millions in the vision that he continues to refine.

Born on December 22, 1939, and raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in which African Americans built community among themselves, Pinkney never imagined that a career in art might be possible. In his modest but loving home, he was the middle born in a family of six children, and was recognized for his creativity at a young age. Encouraged by his mother Willie Mae, a homemaker, and his father James, a craftsman with a flair for style who specialized in decorative wallpapers and painting for a regional clientele, Pinkney took full advantage of the wood, building supplies, and paints in his father’s workshop, imagining a world apart from the day to day. Some of the artist’s earliest sketches were made on the backs of wallpaper samples, his father’s tool in trade. “I was drawing to learn,” Pinkney later reflected, “but no one was able to point me to a way of making a living in art.”

Though visits to museums and galleries were not a part of his life as a child, storytelling was treasured oral tradition at home. Pinkney’s parents, who migrated from the South, read and retold classic folk tales in rhythmic cadences that captured his imagination, providing a sense of cultural belonging. The legend of John Henry, Uncle Remus adventures of Brer Rabbit and his cohorts, and the classic story of The Ugly Duckling, all illustrated by the artist later in life, were among his favorites. Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo was treasured among the books in his family’s library, despite its critical reevaluation. “The story of a small boy of color who exhibited courage and wit, and triumphed over something much larger than himself,” was both appealing and affirming for him.

Life in the city provided a tapestry of visual interest for the young artist, who sketched shop window displays and observed passers-by between sales at the newspaper stand where he worked. Among his customers was cartoonist John J. Liney (1912-1982), a native Philadelphian best-known for his forty-four year post as artist for the daily syndicated comic strip, Henry, created by Carl Thomas Anderson in 1933. Impressed with Pinkney’s work, Liney invited him for a studio visit, which offered him a first glimpse into the professional world of published art.

At Dobbins Vocational High School in Philadelphia, Pinkney immersed himself in the commercial art program, taking courses in calligraphy, drafting, and graphic design. He made time to draw from the live model in the evenings, excelling in his classes. Gloria Jean Pinkney, the artist’s wife and then fellow Dobbins student, fondly recalls the intensity with which he went about his work, “with his sleeves rolled up and…a pencil behind his ear.”

Despite his efforts and positive reviews from Dobbins teachers, Pinkney and other African American students were discouraged from applying for available art school scholarships because it was unlikely that they could forge professional careers in the field. Determined to succeed, Pinkney obtained applications for himself and others, and along with a close friend, was accepted at the Philadelphia School of Art in 1957 as a design student and a scholarship recipient.

The art school experience was rich for Pinkney, and it enhanced his awareness of opportunities in the visual arts. “Once the illustration department gave the design department an illustration project to work on,” he recalled. “Our work was fresh and indicative of what was going on in the commercial art field at the time. After that, I found myself solving design problems through drawing.” A designer with an emerging interest in the art of illustration, Pinkney took his first professional step in 1960, at The Rust Craft Greeting Card Company in Dedham, Massachusetts, the second largest publisher of greeting cards in the nation at the time. Before being hired, he prepared a portfolio of drawings appropriate for the company’s line, and realized then that illustration was the path he wished to pursue.

At the time, Boston had an active publishing industry that nurtured emerging artists. In the years that followed, Pinkney further explored the art of illustration at Barker-Black Studio, where he created imagery for advertising, annual reports, and text books. While at Barker-Black, he produced his first illustrated picturebook, The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst, published in 1964. The artist’s playful, stylized drawings traced the antics of the West African trickster and reflected his love of design, storytelling, and the language of line—the first of many artworks for picture books to come. While in Boston, he co-founded Kaleidoscope, an independent art studio serving a diverse client base, and deepened his commitment to illustration in 1965, when he made the bold decision to launch a career as a freelance artist.
Boston had much to recommend it for Pinkney. A sizeable but intimate city, it inspired growth and change through exposure to other talented creators, including those of color. “A sense of community has always been important to me,” he said. “I understood very early that I could not evolve as an artist or as a person without being connected to institutions that served the community.” He designed catalogues and posters for the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and recalled the power of his first exposure to original artworks by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979), Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), and Horace Pippin (1888-1946) in the exhibition Five Black Artists, which previewed there.

As his interests turned toward imagery and its relationship to literature, the wonders of narrative storytelling were also brought to life by encounters with the work of legendary illustrators. Original paintings for literary classics by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) captured his attention in a publisher’s waiting room where they were on display, and he was “impressed by the scale of Wyeth’s worksand by what he expressed, the drama, the sense of place, and the narrative.” Studying Wyeth’s paintings up-close proved inspirational, and gifts of books like The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle (1853-1911), and Aesop’s Fables and The Wind in the Willows, both illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), sparked his imagination, instilling in him a desire to create expressive pictures. “These books…spoke to the whole manner of creating art—the surface, the texture, and the richness—that I had not understood.”

As he and Gloria Jean raised their young family, opportunities to illustrate picture books illuminating the folk tales and fairy tales of diverse cultures emerged, and the artist challenged himself to create true authenticity in his art. During the 1960s, the unwritten conventions of mid-century that avoided depictions of ethnicity in published art began to fall away, inspired by public demand for more inclusive cultural representations. As a father, and as an illustrator striving to avoid stereotype and convey cultural resonance, he began to understand art’s power to construct perceptions about race and society. His empathetic depictions reflected his own compassionate nature, and his dream of being “a strong role model for my family and other African Americans” was becoming a reality.

By the time he moved west to the New York metropolitan area in 1970 seeking additional outlets for his art, he had already received high professional accolades and public recognition. Book publishers increasingly engaged his artistic abilities to illustrate stories inspired by the realities of the African American experience, like Mildred D. Taylor’s 1975 Song of the Trees, a poignant reflection on the challenges of life during the Great Depression, and Childtimes: A Three Generation Memoir by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little, published in 1975.
In addition, corporations offered high-profile commissions, carrying historical conscience more deeply into popular culture. A lover of music—from jazz and blues to classical—Pinkney has collected books its visual interpretation for years, and enjoyed the chance to illustrate album covers for RCA Records and calendars honoring jazz greats of the Harlem Renaissance for The Smirnoff Company. Distributed widely by Seagram Distillers in the mid-1970s, Pinkney’s exquisite series of calendars and posters, illustrated in watercolor, look back on significant people and events in African American history, from the arrival of the first African slaves to the Great Migration and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Originally among Seagrams’ corporate art collections, the thirty-five original paintings in Pinkney’s African American Journey to Freedom series are now preserved and interpreted by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

In 1978, the United States Postal Service invited him to create the first of thirteen postage stamps, including a series of Black Heritage portraits honoring the contributions of notable African American freedom fighters, statesmen, athletes, and musicians, the first nine in an ongoing series that places palm-sized pieces of history into millions of hands. On behalf of the Postmaster General, he served on the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee for ten years, from 1982 to 1992, charged with providing a breadth of judgment and depth of experience that influenced the subject matter, character, and beauty of American postage stamps.

Limited edition releases by The Franklin Library, then the nation’s largest distributor of classic books designed for the collector’s market, featured Pinkney’s work in the late 1970s by aligning his art with texts by acknowledged literary giants. Gulliver’s Travels, a full-length satirical work by Jonathan Swift charting the escapades of the fictional surgeon and ship captain Lemuel Gulliver; and These Thirteen by William Faulkner, the author’s first mass release short story collection, were welcome projects. Despite struggles with dyslexia since childhood, the artist has always taken time to read manuscripts carefully, and credits his slower paced reading with an ability to absorb and portray details that might otherwise go unnoticed.

In the 1970s, Pinkney’s art for contemporary works of historical fiction helped establish engagement with the experiences of people of color, particularly for middle grade readers. Book jackets for the Newbery Medal winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, a story of an African American family’s Depression-era experiences, and Steal Away: Stories of Runaway Slaves by Abraham Chapman, among others, became the face of living, breathing characters who moved through their pages. These and other commissions, including a powerful and methodically researched series of artworks for National Geographic’s 1984 “Escape from Slavery: The Underground Railroad,” were important visual documents for the artist. “I was trying to use these projects as vehicles to address the issues of being an African American, and the importance of African American contributions to society,” he said. “I wanted to be a strong role model, and to show my children the possibilities that lay ahead for them. That was very important.”

Family loomed large in important mid-career works that opened a window onto the everyday lives of African Americans. His illustrations for The Patchwork Quilt, Valerie Flournoy’s poignant 1985 reflection on the intergenerational bonds within an African American family, were pivotal for the artist. The book’s appearance on PBS television’s Reading Rainbow, which promoted independent reading by featuring quality literature for children, brought its message to an appreciative audience and signified success. The 1990 book Home Place by Cresent Dragonwood re-imagines an abandoned rural home and the family who once lived there. Pinkney’s warm, humanizing portrayals of people from the past, joyful views of nature, and interiors replete with floral wallpapers remembered from his childhood, establish a positive, empathetic view.

In the 1990s, Back Home and The Sunday Outing , two books written by Gloria Jean Pinkney and illustrated by the artist, brought family memories and traditions to light. A captivating storyteller in the oral tradition, Gloria was encouraged to develop narratives for publication by her husband and family, who had always enjoyed the richness of her rememberings. “She had a great understanding of story structure having read so many of the manuscripts that came across my desk,” Pinkney said, “and she had many interesting childhood stories to tell.”

Another enduring collaboration between gifted creators was launched in 1987 when Pinkney was invited by his publisher to illustrate The Tales of Uncle Remus, retold by American author, educator, and musician Julius Lester. “Another artist was working with Julius initially but could not complete the project,” he said. “In my youth, Uncle Remus tales were read and told to us,” but as enthusiastic about the opportunity as he was, he also understood the book’s controversial nature. “Working for the first time on stories that really had bruised people” was concerning for him, but he maintained the goal of capturing the spirit within each piece, leaving the stereotypical behind. Fascinated by wildlife, he established the anthropomorphic qualities of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, and many others by emphasizing their humanistic characteristics and portraying them in natural settings. The artist’s reference library on nature and animals came in handy, as did a full length mirror in which he could act out his own interpretations of creature behavior.

In addition to three other volumes continuing their popular series of Uncle Remus adaptations, Pinkney worked closely with Lester on other important works inspired by cultural narratives, including John Henry, a childhood favorite that offered the opportunity, in 1994, to “create an African American hero that would inspire all.” Familiar, too, was the story of Ybo Landing that inspired Lester’s masterpiece, The Old African—a stirring legend infused with magical realism that he and Pinkney brought to life more than five years later, in 2005.
“I remember vividly my first reading of The Old African, conscious of the possibility that it could be my next illustration project. I was stunned at the power and poetry of its creative language. But is seemed to me that Julius’s masterful text was complete in itself,” Pinkney said. “I couldn’t help but ask myself, What role could I play?” He visited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to immerse himself in information about the enslavement of the Ybo, and reached out to John Oriji, an African historian of Ybo origin. With research in place, he entered the story’s time and space to inhabit each character, drawing and redrawing over and over again. Illustrations for The Old African took two years to complete—a labor of love in tribute those whose struggle is remembered.

Published in 1998, Black Cowboys, Wild Horses: A True Story brought Pinkney and Lester together to highlight the contributions of people of color on the frontier. An African American cowboy and a former slave, Bob Lemmons was known for his horsemanship and his gentle way with wild mustangs. The artist’s dynamic, textural paintings provide sensory depictions of Lemmons’ struggle and triumph over the unforgiving plains. “As a boy growing up in the 1940s, Westerns were huge. We all played cowboys, practicing our quick draw with toy holsters and guns,” remembered the artist. “I found out later that many cowboys were black and Mexican, as were stagecoach drivers, saloon proprietors, laborers, and explorers.” Pinkney’s exquisite depictions of horses in every posture and gait came through careful observation, and their behavioral patterns were gleaned from experts with an understanding of horses who willingly shared their knowledge.

In other books like Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder, Pinkney use the few known facts about historical figures to bring their stories to life, a skill he has brought to site specific commissions, of which he is rightfully proud. Among them, a series of powerful life-size figures give presence to documented northern slaves at the African American Burial Ground Interpretive Center in New York, in 2008. For the artist, the project unleashed the notion that slavery occurred only in the south. “My role was to individualize the people who were buried there, to give a face to history.” He received brief descriptions of well and little-known figures, all of whom were buried at the site. A slave named Mary is shown tending a garden outside of the city, carrying her eight-month-old son in a cloth sling on her back. Her only mention is found in a will from around 1707, and additional facts pertaining to the clothing that she wore are surmised from historical knowledge of her time. Portraits of Pinkney’s subjects were not extant, so likenesses were inspired by those of others who came as slaves from similar regions in Africa.

“As I worked on these figures,” Pinkney said, “I could not speak their names. Only after completing the art was I able to make the connection that they were real people, especially the child, who is without hope.” Frail and work-worn, young Amelia (c.1762) was a particularly wrenching subject for the artist. Amelia’s mother Belinda, whom he also portrayed, is seen with her well-fed charge rather than her own child.
Among several National Park Service projects was a series of site brochure illustrations documenting slavery at Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee and his family in Virginia. Pinkney visited the site and researched the lives, responsibilities, and treatment of Arlington House slaves, establishing recreations based in fact. His artworks, published in 2007, provide a visual record that is essential to historical understanding, made possible only by the heart, mind and hand of the artist. Other site experiences that have been enhanced by his imagery include the Booker T. Washington National Historic Site in Virginia and the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri.

“I am a storyteller at heart,” Jerry Pinkney reminds us, even after a half century of imagemaking. “There is something special about knowing that your stories can alter the way people see the world, and their place within it.” Always rooting for the underdog, he continues to make images that bear witness to his underlying belief that all things are possible. Whether recreating history or breathing new life into classic tales, his art is always about much more than just the appearance of things. Reaching beyond their aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings, his illustrations reveal larger truths that offer invaluable insights into who we are, and who we might become.

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