At Montclair Art Museum, Jerry Pinkney’s work honoring Black heritage
(PAUL JACOBS PHOTOGRAPHY; COURTESY MAM)
The Montclair Art Museum is putting a spotlight on never-before-exhibited works from the award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney — and elevating that experience by offering visitors the opportunity to become immersed in the artist’s creative process.
“Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” which runs through June 26, features works that express powerful messages from the civil rights movement.
Pinkney’s illustrations honor Black heritage, and they inspire with tales of courage and aspiration from figures such as Harriet Tubman, John Henry and the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm jazz band from Mississippi.
His creative career broke barriers and left a lasting impression on the children’s book market, as he illustrated over 100 books. He also created works for the White House and a portfolio of Black Heritage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.
MAM’s exhibit includes start-to-finish work from nine of those children’s books, spanning 1979 to 2020.
Watercolor pieces from those books pop off the walls with vibrant colors, rich texture and a strong sense of identity and place. Yet, the exhibit does not stop there.
The show exposes Pinkney’s near-religious use of graphite, both as a stand-alone medium and with others.
The works are also evidence of his obsession with detail and with his habit of immersing himself in his subject matter.
Pinkney was an artist who would literally dress up to personify the characters he created. He also used his wife, children and grandchildren to embody subjects for his work.
In a “CBS Sunday Morning” interview, the artist said that if he was painting a tiger, a wolf or a lion, he became the animal. “It becomes a part of Jerry Pinkney. I find myself,” he said.
Using the example of “Goin’ Someplace Special,” a book involving segregation in the South, he said, “I couldn’t connect to that book until I had in my mind walk[ed] under a sign that leads you to the back of the bus.”
Pinkney’s approach to research is noteworthy, said Gail Stavitsky, chief curator at MAM. He could do hundreds of preparatory drawings, and he had quite a lengthy process, she said.
The design of the exhibit aims to ensure that no one misses that point. The show carries visitors beyond museum-ready works into Pinkney’s studio, process and mind.
Sixteen sketches on legal paper are included. “This is how he always starts out,” Stavitsky said. He called it teasing out the ideas, she added.
Two large panels are suspended from the ceiling and hang at eye-level. One displays a completed piece of a scene at the Edmund Pettus Bridge from “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation.” The other is a planning-phase sketch of that scene.
The two elements are “a central part of the show,” Stavitsky said, and they also complement the reading area, which Pinkney was excited to have.
Generally, if reading areas are included in an exhibit, they are done in a very simple way, she said. In this case, the reading area is enhanced by the focus on an immersive, visual experience.
Visitors can grab a book and walk throughout the exhibit, seeing the transition of the work that the book contains. This includes legal pad sketches, next-to-final drawings, finished illustrations, mock-up books and, finally, the completed hard copy.
The suspended panels are placed so that visitors can stand between them, turning from work-in-progress to completed work like an artist in his studio. Meanwhile, completed works from within the book serve as a backdrop on the surrounding walls.
Visitors also get a taste of what the creative process is like through the lens of dyslexia, which Pinkney battled his whole life. Works are displayed without matting, allowing viewers to see his displays of artistic skill with notes at the margin that include misspelled words.
Pinkney, who died in 2021, wanted to emphasize his condition as part of his experience, Stavitsky said. “It is amazing and wonderful that he went on to be a children’s book illustrator, to do a lot of reading, to do interpretation of his reading, and to do some writing himself,” she said.
The artist named the show. He felt that the thread between the pieces and the spirit that they embody is tenacity and resilience, Stavitsky said, adding that she thought that facing obstacles and having the strength to persevere was the story of his life.
Preparation for the exhibit began in 2019. Putting it together during the pandemic presented challenges, such as the need for Stavitsky and Pinkney to collaborate remotely. Pinkney was finally able to visit MAM in June 2021 and was slated to return that November, before the show’s opening, but he died the month before.
The final work on the show, including details of how the reading area would be incorporated, had to be completed without him, Stavitsky said.
Pinkney often said in interviews that his long-running goal was to be a strong role model.
“I was never a verbal person, but I could show by example. And I still try to do that,” he said in the “CBS Sunday Morning” interview.
“Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” keeps that effort alive.