Tracing the Creative process Children's book illustrator teaches patience, revision

November 14, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Jerry Pinkney paints rabbits dressed in frock-tail coats and eggs which talk and children who dance the cakewalk and plot to tame the wind. He paints about the power of living the fanciful as much as the factual, about perceiving the world as a complicated web which captures the most astonishing things.

His delicate watercolor illustrations mine the fabric of fables, the rhythms of land and animals, the details of simple wishes.

Acknowledged as one of the top illustrators of children's books in the world, Mr. Pinkney will spend a week working with students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art as part of the college's annual Art Litho Communicator-in-Residence program. The exhibition "Jerry Pinkney: Images on a Page," a show which traces the creative history of some of his illustrations, will run in the Thesis Gallery of the institute's Fox Building through Nov. 29.

(Mr. Pinkney will speak about his books and his career as an African-American illustrator in a lecture at 8 p.m. Monday in the auditorium of the institute's Mount Royal Station building and will also discuss his exhibition at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Thesis Gallery.)

During the past 30 years, the artist has designed more than 40 children's books, including the prize-winning "Mirandy and Brother Wind," "The Talking Eggs," "Pretend You're A Cat," "A Patchwork Quilt" and "The Tales of Uncle Remus." A two-time winner of the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Honor Medal, Mr. Pinkney is the only artist to win the Coretta Scott King Award of the American Library Association three times.

In addition, the 52-year-old free-lance artist has designed a series of postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Series, illustrated limited-edition books for the Franklin Library and worked for a variety of publications including National Geographic.

The institute's exhibition of his work examines his artistic process as much as the results.

"It's important for students to see that these things go through lots of variations before they become a finished piece," says Lew Fifield, chairman of the institute's visual communications department. "Jerry brings a patience to his work that a lot of students don't understand these days. He reworks and reworks and reworks and revises and refines and is still able to maintain that freshness and spontaneity."

Mr. Pinkney's career as a free-lancer took off during the 1960s when the publishing world was beginning to acknowledge the untapped wealth of African-American literature.

"There was a heightened sensitivity that black literature is rich, and why not complement it with work of black artists?" he says.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, the artist recalls turning to art as a way of finding his own voice in a household with six children. He describes his neighborhood as "one big backyard" where friends would swap homey, good-humored stories he suspects inform his work.

After attending the Philadelphia Museum College of Art on a scholarship, Mr. Pinkney and his wife, writer Gloria Pinkney, moved to Boston in the early 1960s. He worked at Rustcraft Greeting Card Co. and at Barker-Black Studio where he developed a reputation as an illustrator. Eventually, he opened his own studio in New York to get more editorial and book projects. He credits the illustrations of Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle with influencing his sense of narrative interpretation.

"Much of the work in children's books is very stilted and very stiff. I think Jerry understands children and people and empathizes with many situations very well," Mr. Fifield says. "And he's able to retain the freshness and aliveness and human quality in his work even though he may redraw the thing three or four times."

The artist considers his most artistically satisfying books to be "Mirandy and Brother Wind" and "The Talking Eggs," stories which blend the real and the abstract in a rural Southern landscape.

Mr. Pinkney uses friends and family -- including himself -- as models for his animal as well as human characters. By drawing a human body in clothes, then adding an animal's head and limbs, he produces figures which seem immediately familiar to readers.

Another show of his work is planned later this year at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"There is an awakening to the art of illustrations and particularly to those in children's books," he says. "A lot of people have found they are good vehicles to introduce both children and adults to fine arts."

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