Montclair Art Museum exhibit shows depth of children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney’s work

jerry pinkney review

This illustration, for the book “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation,” is part of the “Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum.

Anybody who hangs out in public libraries knows that the most emotional and immediate stuff is often hidden in plain sight in the children’s section. In part, that’s because authors need to make bold, simple, straightforward statements in order to inscribe their themes on young minds. But mostly, it’s because children’s books have pictures, and pictures go straight into your bloodstream.

For more than half a century, Jerry Pinkney was a reliable source of those pictures, and while the tone of his work was unremittingly pleasant and age-appropriate, he could be quietly incendiary when he wanted to be. The artist, who died in October at the age of 81, illustrated more than 100 books, including fantasies, tall tales, adaptations of classics, slices of youthful life and a few histories meant for kids. For his labors, he was richly rewarded: the Horn Book Award, the Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” an exhibition featuring more than 80 of the artist’s illustrations, offers visitors to the Montclair Art Museum a lightning run through a deep and provocative body of work. Curator Gail Stavitsky grants centrality to what may be the most overtly political image Pinkney ever did: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, arm in arm with other civil rights marchers, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

The illustration, from “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation” (Holiday House, 2019), hangs right in the middle of the special exhibition gallery. While it is a little more specific and pointed than the many other images that surround it, it is by no means unrepresentative of the artist’s motivations. Through his art, Pinkney spent much of his life pushing for equality. His entire body of work is a gentle but firm demand for dignity and respect.

Jerry Pinkney’s cover illustration for the book “Goin’ Someplace Special.”

Sometimes he animated black folk heroes. Sometimes he rhapsodized in graphite and paint about actual historical figures. In “Sweethearts of Rhythm” (2009), he commemorates an all-female World War II-era jazz band from Mississippi; in “God Bless the Child” (2003), he traces the struggle of the Great Migration; in “Goin’ Someplace Special” (2008), his heroine is an ordinary, adorable, behatted teenaged girl, forced to endure the humiliations of the Jim Crow-era South. In her grudging, heartbreaking retreat to the back of a segregated bus, there is more than a trace of Rosa Parks’s slow-burning outrage.

Even though “Tenacity & Resilience” will be displayed at the MAM until June 26, it is entirely appropriate to call this a Black History Month showcase. Yet while the influence of storytelling African American artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence is felt throughout this lively, winning show, Pinkney’s apparent models were not African American, or American at all. Anybody possessing a reasonably deep collection of children’s literature will recognize the refracted light from the twin lanterns of E.H. Shepard and Arthur Rackham, illuminators of a thousand British childhood visions. Shepard and Rackham worked at the beginning of the 20th century, and their pictures reflected an emergent English view of childhood as a time of softness, innocence and hazy dreams, with a subtle undercurrent of danger and temptation. There is a yielding, twinkling, faerie-light quality to many of Pinkney’s illustrations, too — even images of the city are often full of rainbows and north stars, beautifully smeared skies and butterfly-wing textures.

Pinkney even works as Rackham did, combining the precision of pencil with the luminous, otherworldly quality of watercolor. His foregrounded characters are meticulously rendered; his backgrounds are often an evocative blur of suggestive shapes.

Jerry Pinkney’s cover illustration for “The Little Mermaid.”

Because of this, Pinkney’s work often feels far older than it is. Even a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” completed shortly before the artist’s death, is much closer in tone, spirit and richness to Eulalie Banks than a modern children’s artist like Alejandro Mesa (or the less amazing, but awfully popular, Darth Vader and Son). Pinkney never succumbed to the urge to get cartoonish; Disney, Marvel and the movies don’t seem to have affected his style at all. The tidal tug of computerized art didn’t nip at his heels. The retrospective sweep of “Tenacity & Resilience” reveals an oddly unbudgeable artist.

Even the incorporation of collage — one small innovation — in the MLK series contributes little to the effect of the images, generated instead by impeccable technique honed during long practice. Pinkney minted a style that was already old-fashioned when he began, won plaudits for it, and rode it for decades.

At their most sentimental, Rackham and Shepard (and Banks) presented childhood as adults wanted children to experience it. In Pinkney’s dreamier pieces, he falls into the same trap. There is not a drop of treacle in his work, but he can get carried away with a relentless pleasantness that feels more encouraging than accurate. But when Pinkney focuses, and allows his sense of injustice to guide his brush, his illustrations can shock the complacent straight out of their slumber.

Sometimes it is in the facial expressions of young people encountering the blunt edge of discrimination, sometimes it is in the body language of ordinary African Americans who have already been damaged enough for a lifetime, and sometimes it is a burst of color that is liberating in its intensity and sudden clarity. A single stare from a Pinkney character can cut straight through the mist and make its meaning frighteningly manifest.

This is most palpable in the show’s two finest segments: one devoted to “John Henry” (1999), and the other, “Minty” (2000), a chronicle of the young Harriet Tubman. Here Pinkney was at the height of his powers, and doing what he did best — mythologizing legendary figures from the African American past to make subtle points about the African American present.

John Henry, of course, is a made-up character, and the artist is free to imbue him with all the strength and courage he can muster. In “A Hammer on Each Shoulder,” Henry is pure Black American superhero — weary, sweaty, thoroughly honorable, and crowned with Pinkney’s trademark rainbows. He has dashed the unbreakable boulder into pieces and paved the straight road to the searing sun, and done so without an ounce of acrimony or boastfulness. He just is; he’s a human manifestation of force and will correctly applied. He’s the same naturally noble individual he was in his infancy, shown here in “When John Henry Was Born,” in which the already burly character, seated on an African American patchwork quilt, hoists his cradle above his head.

Harriet Tubman, a real person, ought to be harder to depict. But Pinkney sure seems to catch her measure. The young “Minty,” as she was called, is wily, pained, resourceful and committed to the cause of liberty. In the book, she’s whipped for setting muskrats free — and though her elders warn her not to antagonize her slavemasters, she knows she’s right, and remains unrepentant. Shrewdly, Pinkney continually depicts her in liminal states, in between worlds, one foot fettered by forces beyond her control and another stepping into an uncertain future. He exercises his virtuosity in the gorgeous “You’re Doin’ Fine,” in which Minty, learning to swim, keeps her head above the surface while her body twists and glides through the water. It’s a pure showoff piece, and it’s great to see Pinkney strut his stuff. Better still is “Just Look at the Moss”: Minty’s father, shielding his wary daughter from the glowering woods, explains to her how to find her way north.

Should you want to see these images in the form in which they were first published, the Montclair Art Museum has provided the books, too. They sit on a circular table in the middle of the gallery, just like they might have in your elementary school. You can’t take these out and do a book report on them, but you can sit awhile and get lost in them.

It is notable that the “someplace special” that the teenage heroine goes in “Goin’ Someplace Special” turns out to be a library. Jerry Pinkney’s optimism may have been unflagging, but it was never unearned. He believed in the liberating power of literacy, and storytelling. He believed in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. And he believed in drawing pictures, with the tenacity and resilience of John Henry, all his life long.

“Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” runs at the Montclair Art Museum through June 26. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.

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