Since the upcoming show of Black illustrators of children’s books at Featherstone Center for the Arts is being called “From Caldecott to Coretta Scott: Award Winning Black Illustrators,” I am somewhat reluctantly beginning this article with a list of awards. Jerry Pinkney, who has illustrated over 100 books for children, has won the Caldecott Medal and five Coretta Scott King awards. Bryan Collier is a four-time Caldecott honor recipient and has six Coretta Scott King awards. Pat Cummings, an illustrator of over 40 books for children, is also a Coretta Scott King award recipient. The list of illustrators whose work will be shown also includes Diane and Leo Dillon, Ekua Holmes, E.B. Lewis, Brian Pinkney, and Eric Velasquez, as well as groundbreaking work by Ezra Jack Keats, whose book “The Snowy Day” won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. The list of awards these remarkable artists have garnered continues with more Caldecotts and more Coretta Scott Kings. Impressive, absolutely, but what is truly extraordinary is the artwork which will be on display at Featherstone from August 8 to Sept. 6. Guest curated by R. Michelson Galleries, this is the first in-depth show on the Vineyard of Black children’s book illustrators.
The R. Michelson Galleries, located in Northampton, was the first gallery in the country to exhibit work from children’s books alongside fine art. Rich Michelson, owner and founder of the gallery, admits that he only started showing work from children’s books because the very first artist he represented, Barry Moser, began illustrating picture books. “Barry mostly did these dark sexual portraits, then he got a contract to do a children’s book and I said, ‘What are you going to do, paint little watercolor bunnies?’” said Michelson. In fact, the contract was to illustrate “Brer Rabbit.” So yes, he painted watercolor bunnies.
Over the past four decades Michelson’s gallery has taken on dozens of children’s book illustrators — you could say from Maurice Sendak to Mo Willems or Marc Brown to Kathryn Brown, or Jerry Pinkney to Brian Pinkney. “Little by little we got our art collectors interested and we hit this boom of what I think is considered the golden age of children’s book illustration,” said Michelson, a seasonal Oak Bluffs resident who became so enamored with children’s books that he also began writing them.
Jerry Pinkney, who will be at the opening of the show on Sunday, August 8, speaking with Michelson, grew up in a tight-knit community of Black families on a small dead-end street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia “Everyone looked after everyone and we needed each other and had to provide those things that were not offered by the white community, and you see that seeping through in my work,” said Pinkney in a recent phone call. Pinkney’s work incorporates the images from stories that he says “fired up his imagination, like Aesop’s fables and Hans Christian Andersen” with “a strong pull and need to express my own heritage.”
One of Pinkney’s pieces that will be in the show is the book jacket for Carolyn Meyer’s “White Lilacs,” which is about a town in Texas that relocated a Black community to serve white interests. “It is an important piece to me artistically because it speaks to both the strength and vulnerability of Black communities,” said Pinkney. “I use my artistry to speak to those very things that move me, and that is legacy and heritage.”
Pinkney, who has been illustrating children’s books for over five decades, is the first African American illustrator to win the Caldecott Medal for his gorgeous book (published in 2000) inspired by an Aesop tale, “The Lion and the Mouse.” Pinkney says that while he sees more challenging topics being covered in children’s literature, “there is one piece that is still sort of stuck — we still need more books about people of color.”
“I thought it would be a great time to put a show together showing the most important and prominent Black illustrators in the country,” said Michelson. “The great challenge, which is always the case, is the people you have to leave out. So I made the decision I would rather show fewer artists in depth than a wider range with two to three pieces each.”
The exhibit will include a never-seen-before piece from the Ezra Jack Keats original “John Henry,” as well as a piece from Pinkney’s “John Henry.” Also of note, given the timing of the show, are images from Bryan Collier’s book “Barack Obama: Son of promise, Child of Hope” — no doubt the perfect birthday present for the president, who will be celebrating his 60th over the weekend.
“Certainly in this time I wanted to emphasize the social justice work, but I also wanted to show their other work — funny work, happy work,” said Michelson.
“From Caldecott to Coretta Scott: Award Winning Black Illustrators” at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Opening reception, Sunday, August 8, 4 to 6 pm. Pat Cummings, Ekua Holmes, and Bryan Collier will all be speaking during the course of the show. Visit featherstoneart.org for more information.