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December 29, 2011 - Image 48

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2011-12-29

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arts & entertainment

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The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, 1962


The Snowy Day,
the first full-color
picture book to
feature a
black protagonist,
highlights an
ongoing exhibition.

Ezra Jack Keats in 1973.

Robert Gluck
JointMedia News Service


aving experienced anti-Semitism
and poverty during his Brooklyn
tenement childhood, Ezra Jack
Keats (1916-1983) gained sympathy for
others who suffered prejudice and want
— leading his work to transcend the per-
sonal and reflect the universal concerns of
"The fact that Keats used urban set-
tings in his books was an innovation and
became an important contribution to the
field," said Claudia Nahson, curator for
the current Keats exhibition at the Jewish
Museum in New York. "A lot of what he did
emanated from his own experiences grow-
ing up poor. Since early childhood he took
walks in his neighborhood to get away
from the oppression of home. This comes
to life in his work!'
Running through Jan. 29, 2012, "The
Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack
Keats" is the first major exhibition in the
United States to pay tribute to the award-
winning author-illustrator of children's
Born Jacob Ezra Katz to Eastern
European Jewish immigrants, Keats
illustrated many books by other authors
and observed that none had a black pro-
tagonist. His resulting work, 1962's The
Snowy Day, paved the way for multiracial
representation in American children's lit-
erature. Its 50th anniversary is marked in
the New York exhibit.
Nahson said Keats continues to receive
praise for the consistency with which he

28 December 29 • 2011

transmutes the everyday existence of poor
American children living in seedy apart-
ments to something rich and teeming with
Historian Leonard Marcus noted that
Keats was one of the first artists to work
in collage.
"Keats wanted children to feel like par-
ticipants in his books and that they could
go on and also make collages',' Marcus
According to Marcus, Keats was influ-
enced by and identified with a painting by
Honore Daumier of poor people on a train
in France.
"He was thrilled that art could be about
ordinary people like himself' Marcus said.
Award-winning illustrator Jerry
Pinkney also shared his reflections on
Keats' work and the role of diversity in
children's literature.
"Keats' role in giving an African
American a central part in the story was
a benchmark in mainstream publishing:'
Pinkney said.
"Using his skill as a painter and his
compassion as a humanist, he enthralled,
entertained and educated children as well
as adults!'
The Snowy Day introduced Peter, a
black boy who traipses alone through the
snowy, wondrous sidewalks of the inner
city. Picture books had rarely featured
such gritty landscapes before. But most
significantly, The Snowy Day was the
first full-color picture book to feature a
black protagonist.
"My book would have him there simply
because he should have been there all

Dreams, by Ezra Jack Keats, 1974

along:' Keats wrote of Peter in his mem-
oirs. The book received the prestigious
Caldecott Award for the most distin-
guished picture book for children in 1963.
Peter appears in six more books growing
from a small boy in The Snowy Day to
adolescence in Pet Show.
The exhibition features more than 80
original Keats works, from preliminary
sketches and dummy books to final paint-
ings and collages for the artist's most
popular books. Also on view are examples
of Keats' most introspective but lesser-
known output, inspired by Asian art and
haiku poetry.
Following its New York City showing at
the Jewish Museum, "The Snowy Day
and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats" will travel
to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book
Art, Amherst, Mass. (June 26-Oct. 14,
2012); the Contemporary Jewish Museum,
San Francisco, Calif. (Nov. 15, 2012-Feb.
24, 2013); and the Akron Art Museum in
Ohio (March-June 2013).
Keats used lush color in his paintings
and collages and strove for simplicity in
his texts. He was often more intent on
capturing a mood than developing a plot.
His preferred format was the horizontal
double-page spread, which freed him to
alternate close-up scenes with panoramic
The exhibition, Nahson explained,
explores Keats' multifaceted oeuvre in six
sections, preceded by an introduction and
followed by an epilogue.
"The introductory gallery presents a
selection of works that can be construed
as self-portraits of the artist:' she noted.

"Throughout his career Keats often
cast himself in his work posing as dif-
ferent characters, from the immigrant
violinist Janos in Penny Tunes and
Princesses to the exuberant junkman
Barney in Louie's Search.
"Coming of Age in Brooklyn" features
seminal works inspired by memories of
Keats' tenement childhood. On view are
final drawings for Dreams (1974), where
color travels out of the Brooklyn win-
dows and into the night as the tenement's
inhabitants begin to dream and darkness
turns into incandescence.
In "Bringing the Background to the
Foreground:' the artist's early identifica-
tion with the downtrodden is reflected
in his 1934 award-winning painting,
Shantytown, created by Keats during the
Great Depression.
The section on The Snowy Day pres-
ents a wide selection of illustrations for
the 1962 landmark book as well as for
Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter's
Chair (1967), featuring Peter as he
grows up.
In "Keats at Work," Keats' actual pal-
ette, brushes and materials used in his
collages, along with samples of marbled
paper he created for his illustrations, are
The exhibition ends with books made
by Keats late in life, bringing him full
circle to where it all began — his old
Brooklyn neighborhood.
"Keats' books are about universal expe-
riences in childhood:' Nahson said.
"There's something hopeful in his sto-
ries, and they are truthful!'

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