The Jewish Artist Who Painted a Picture of Diversity

“The Snowy Day,” which in 1951 was the first full-color picture book to feature a black protagonist, highlights an ongoing exhibition on the work of renowned children’s book author-illustrator Ezra Jack Keats.

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Ezra Jack Keats in 1973. Credit: Beverly Hall.

(Click photo to download. Caption: Ezra Jack Keats in 1973. Credit: Beverly Hall.)

Having experienced anti-Semitism and poverty during his Brooklyn tenement childhood, Ezra Jack Keats gained sympathy for others who suffered prejudice and want—leading his work to transcend the personal and reflect the universal concerns of children.

“The fact that Keats used urban settings 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 growing 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 January 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 books.

Born Jacob Ezra Katz to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Keats illustrated many books by other authors and observed that none had a black protagonist. His resulting work, “The Snowy Day,” paved the way for multi-racial representation in American children’s literature. Its 50th anniversary is marked in the New York exhibit.

"The Snowy Day," by Ezra Jack Keats, 1962. Credit: Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

Nahson said Keats continues to receive praise for the consistency with which he transmutes the everyday existence of poor American children living in seedy apartments to something rich and teeming with possibilities.

Historian Leonard Marcus noted that Keats was one of the first artists to work in collage.

“Keats wanted children to feel like participants in his books and that they could go on and also make collages,” Marcus said.

According to Marcus, Keats was influenced 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’s work and the role of diversity in children’s literature.

“Keats’s 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 along,” Keats wrote of Peter in his memoirs.

The exhibition features over 80 original Keats works from preliminary sketches and dummy books, to final paintings and collages for the artist’s most popular books. Also on view are examples of Keats’s 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-October 14, 2012); the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, Calif., (November 15, 2012-February 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 views.

The exhibition, Nahson explained, explores Keats’s 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 different characters, from the immigrant violinist János in Penny Tunes and Princesses to the exuberant junkman Barney in Louie’s Search.”

"Dreams," by Ezra Jack Keats, 1974. Credit: Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

“Coming of Age in Brooklyn” features seminal works inspired by memories of Keats’s tenement childhood. On view are final drawings for “Dreams” (1974), where color travels out of the Brooklyn windows 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 identification 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” presents 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’s actual palette, brushes, materials used in his collages, along with samples of marbled paper he created for his illustrations, are displayed.

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’s books are about universal experiences in childhood,” Nahson said. “There’s something hopeful in his stories and they are truthful.”

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under Arts, U.S..