Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings

An Artist’s Exploration of Images and Words

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About the Exhibition

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.

Initially created for the covers and pages of periodicals, postage stamps, greeting cards, product advertisements, and well-traveled historic sites rather than the walls galleries and museums, Pinkney’s artworks have also appeared in more than one hundred illustrated books, garnering well-deserved acclaim. Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings explores the artist’s lifelong engagement with literature, and the process of creating meaningful visual solutions that expand and enliven the narrative for readers of all ages.

The Lion and the Mouse (2009)
Cover illustration for The Lion and the Mouse
Watercolor on paper. Collection of the artist

Artist Statement

I have a strong interest in why artists choose particular forms through which to express themselves. I chose book illustrations because I thrive on creating thought-provoking and engaging solutions for a text. In addition to enlivening the narrative visually with my artwork, it’s important to me to provide an opportunity for the reader to appreciate different ways of living, widening the sense of a place, and often, its historical context.

By grappling with my own interpretation of the world the writer creates, I grow as an artist and individual. This exhibition speaks to the meaning of the paintings themselves, and to the bookmaking process—from selecting projects that fit my artistic yearnings, to research, developmental sketches, photographing models, preparatory drawings, the finished illustrations, and at last, the bound book, which serves as both a historical object and work of art.

About Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney is an award-winning artist who began his creative journey in the field of illustration in 1960.

A native of Philadelphia, he studied at the Philadelphia College of Art, began his career as a graphic designer and greeting card artist, and has been illustrating children’s books since 1964. His art has appeared in more than one hundred books, garnering well-deserved acclaim. The recipient of a Caldecott Medal, five Caldecott Honor Medals, five Coretta Scott King Awards and four Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, Pinkney has received many commendations for his outstanding body of work, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators in New York and an Artist Laureate Award from the Norman Rockwell Museum. His illustrated books have been translated into many languages and published in fourteen different countries.

In addition to his work in children’s books, Pinkney has created illustrations for a wide variety of clients, including the U.S. Postal Service, National Park Service, and National Geographic. He served on the U.S. Postal Services Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee for ten years, from 1982 to 1992, and in 2003, was appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts/NEA, a prestigious position held by the artist for six years. A gifted educator, he has mentored aspiring illustrators at Pratt Institute, the University of Delaware, and the New York State University at Buffalo. The recipient of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, he has created artworks that are among the collections of The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Delaware Art Museum, and the Brandywine River Art Museum.

Jerry Pinkney in his studio.

Jerry Pinkney in his studio.
Photograph of Jerry Pinkney by Thomas Kristich, 2008
©2008 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.

Jerry Pinkney in his studio.

Jerry Pinkney in his studio.
Photograph of Jerry Pinkney by Thomas Kristich, 2008
©2008 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.

Bringing Classic Stories and Folk Tales to Life

During his childhood, Jerry Pinkney’s parents, who migrated to Philadelphia 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 tales and the adventures of Brer Rabbit, 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 tale of a small boy of color who exhibited courage and wit, and triumphed over something much larger than himself,” was both appealing and affirming. These stories most often had a lesson, and they were told with the whole body, animated by laughter or punctuated with frowns, each teller embellishing tales told many times before. “I needed those stories—they filled a place in my daydreaming world and fired up my imagination. With no television or other modern entertainment, reciting stories to one another was a beloved pastime, and one shared by parents, relatives, neighbors…my whole community.”

In the 1970s, the artist began creating imagery for the Franklin Library, illustrating thirteen novels from the cannon of English literature, including Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Covenant by James A. Michener, and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. They are featured here alongside Their Eyes Were Watching God, “ which I consider the exhibition’s centerpiece. The art is all about the drawing—my passion—and it served as a vehicle to express my interest and deep respect for its author, Zora Neale Hurston, and her groundbreaking work.

Digital Gallery Tour

This exhibition features an 18-stop digital gallery tour that includes 12 audio overviews with music soundtracks narrated and curated by Jerry Pinkney.

Jerry Pinkney Digital Tour
Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings Family Guide
Download the Now!

Family Guide

Across his fifty-five-year journey as an illustrator, Jerry Pinkney has cast a warm, curious eye on our world to create images that reflect his passion for life, his love of family and community, and his deep engagement with the rich complexities of history. His award-winning illustrations have appeared in more than one hundred books. Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings reflects the artist’s love of literature, and the process of creating meaningful visual solutions that expand and enliven a narrative.

We hope you will enjoy this guide to Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings, which features artworks inspired by classic and contemporary literature, and by well-loved folk tales and fairy tales. It includes looking, writing, and drawing activities to experience in the galleries and at home.

Stephanie Haboush Plunkett
Deputy Director/Chief Curator
Norman Rockwell Museum

Family Traditions

Jerry and Gloria Jean Pinkney raised their young family, opportunities to illustrate picture books 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, he began to understand art’s power to construct perceptions about race and society.

Family loomed large in important mid-career works that opened a window onto the everyday lives of African Americans, and Pinkney’s empathetic depictio