Editor’s Note: High School students Olivia Hehir, of Woodward Academy, and Omari Matthews, The Westminster School, recently sat with renowned artist and illustrator Jerry Pinkney and filed this report.
“Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” is the first major exhibition featuring drawings and watercolors by acclaimed illustrator Jerry Pinkney. With more than 140 pieces of work, the exhibit has been displayed in places such as Philadelphia, New York and Michigan. The Caldecott Award winner has a career spanning an impressive 50 years. Since beginning in 1964, Jerry Pinkney has illustrated more than 75 children’s books ranging from classic folktales to African-American history.
Pinkney began his career on Earlham Street in Philadelphia on an all African American block that Pinkney describes it as his “entire universe.” He learned to create art from objects that he already had. His father would bring home pieces of wallpaper that Pinkney could draw on. From a young age, his family encouraged him to have a creative outlet, which he enjoyed doing but never expected to become a career. Another influence included one of his school teachers, who recognized his talent and appointed him the class artist. Other aspects of school were a struggle because of his dyslexia, but because of his artistic talent he maintained a high level of self esteem and he stood out in front of many others.
“I have been talking lately about the sense of being safe… the pursuit of art was the pursuit of feeling like I was someone, that I had value,” Pinkney said.
Later, he graduated high school with a full scholarship to the University of Arts. Interestingly, during his college years, he never studied illustration, but was a design student. Even when he graduated, he initially became a flower delivery man, but never gave up on his art.
If he hadn’t become an artist, Pinkney says that he would have pursued a career along the lines of music, particularly jazz. Having played an instrument in middle school, music had become a prevalent part of his life.
Pinkney describes his neighborhood as a close-knit one, in the sense that everything outside could be heard inside his home and vice versa. Over the course of his career, he worked on several album covers for jazz artists, but those aren’t the only non-illustrative works he has produced. He also creates independent artwork which he finds to be a great medium to channel his interests. Along with that, he has also commissioned work for National Geographic and the National Parks Service.
No matter what initially inspires a new body of work, Pinkney believes two things should happen during a project: Growth as an artist and growth as a person. Both notions are equally important to him as he believes both make a great artist.
When beginning a project, the Philadelphian draws inspiration from research and text and begins to sketch out his ideas. Afterwards he compiles all his thumbnail sketches and eventually comes up with a dummy book with refined images. During this process, he fine tunes aspects of his story pertaining to character development to add further meaning to his illustrations. Pinkney compares his artistry to film-making, creating different “takes” of each picture and selecting the one that fits the story the most.
Pinkney’s recently completed one-man exhibition fulfilled his dream and brought him back to the museum that he once aspired to be a part of, The Philadelphia Museum of Art. As he opens his exhibition in Atlanta, he has words of advice for young artists, “find that part of yourself that you believe is worth sharing… with any young person, [art is] the sense of dedication and this skill and ability, but it’s also the dedication and the belief in what event has value.”