Jerry Pinkney: A Promise Fulfilled

Jerry Pinkney, American born 1939

Freedom’s Journal: The Art of Jerry Pinkney

Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia

2/16/19 – 5/12/19

 

 

 

“When you look at my art, you can see my attempt at fulfilling and instilling that promise of light over darkness….Each piece of art that I complete strengthens my connection to black history…to see its shape and form in my imagination, to move forward towards a promise fulfilled.”            Jerry Pinkney

 

 

The Woodmere Museum of the Art of Philadelphia and its Region has mounted a large review of the illustrative art of Jerry Pinkney, master watercolourist and multiply-awarded illustrator:  more than 100 illustrations from 16 of the artist’s projects and books. 

All art shown in this post belongs to the artist.

  

The exhibition is accompanied online at the Museum’s website by a retelling – words and music – of the story of Harriet Tubman, Minty: Story of a Young Harriet Tubman written in 1996 by Alan Schroeder;  and the story, The Old African written by Julius Lester in 2005. 

There is also discussion with the artist online at the same website.

 

The arc of promise and hope is the phrase that the artist uses for this record of the darkest of histories:

the making of slaves:  the forcible removal of peoples – Africans and American-Indians – from their lands, economies, personhoods, ancestors and children;

and from their cultures:  languages, gods, ancient freedoms of religion and movement. 

And the long struggle for liberation and civil rights.

 

 

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The artist, Jerry Pinkney, in the rotunda of Woodmere Museum on February 16, 2019

 

 

This slavery in the form illustrated here is in the past.  We are not living there now, physically.

The there, however, has had its pronounced consequences for individuals and society today. 

And there is still slavery on the earth. 

 

This artist’s work is in the inspirational and didactic tradition of Charles White, 1918-1979, the most famous African American artist of his day, a teacher of several of the foremost African-American artists working today. 

 

The engine of Charles White‘s art was to illuminate the moral character which has allowed people to survive the gravest injustices any people can bear. 

His focus was on the human rights of his people and of all people on their long, dignified road to political emancipation, coherent community and personal autonomy.

 

 

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Five Great American Negroes, 1939, oil on canvas, and detail. Howard University Gallery of Art on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

Charles White, 1918-1979, American. 

This work  – made under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration – was created as a fund-raiser for the Chicago South Side Community Art Center.  A survey in the Chicago Defender produced a poll of the five greatest African Americans of the time.

From right to left:  Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver.

 

 

 

 

 

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Underground Railroad Conductors.watercolour and graphite on illustration board.  Jerry Pinkney, American born 1939

These portraits were included in the National Geographic, July 1984, cover drawing and detail above. Images from the web.

Jermain Loguen, c. 1813-1872; Lucretia Mott, 1793-1880; Frederick Douglass, c. 1817-1895;  John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807-1892;

Allan Pinkerton, 1819-1894; Josiah Henson, 1789-1883; Thomas Garett, 1789-1871;  Mary Ann Shadd, 1823-1893; 

William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879; Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906; Jonathan Walker, 1799-1878; William Still, 1821-1902

 

 

Charles White called for artists to work out their own professional salvation by addressing in their work the emancipation, dignity, and autonomy of all peoples.

 

Detail of album cover from the website of Amazon.com

Goodnight Irene (1952, oil on canvas, now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), a painting by Charles White was bought first by the singer Harry Belafonte.  The painting is a portrait of Huddy ‘Leadbelly’ Leadbetter, blues and folk musician (1888-1949, American).

Harry Belafonte used it as a cover for his portrayal of  the music of African Americans from their arrival in slave ships to the spirituals, blues and folk music of the early 20th century.

 

 

Jerry Pinkney himself illustrated a section of the  1993 compilation of songs, short stories and essays in ‘From Sea to Shining Sea:  A Treasury of American Folklore and Folksongs’.  14 artists contributed to this compilation.

Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations are for a grouping called ‘Let My People Go’.  This section includes a number of songs among which: ‘Go Down, Moses’, ‘I Got Shoes’, and ‘Sing Low, Sweet Chariot’

 

 

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Freedom’s Journal from Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folksongs, 1993; watercolour, graphite and mixed media on Arches watercolour paper. Jerry Pinkney, American born 1939.

Freedom’s Journal, the Museum notes, was the first African-American newspaper.  It was published for two years by free black men in New York.  The artist uses the masthead of this journal as an element in one of his illustrations for this book of folklore and folksongs.

 

 

 

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O Freedom, 1956, charcoal with crayon, erasing, stumping, and wash on ivory illustration board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018. 

Charles White, 1918-1979, American

 

 

 

The engine of the promise and hope of Jerry Pinkney’s work are:

spirituality; and those attitudes of mind;  attributes of character;  behaviours and interactions which, scored into the bodies, memories  and religious practices of a people, into their oral histories, music, (ghost) dances, prayers, habits of mind 

form a tradition which we can mine to continue the long struggle for political emancipation, to build community, and to evolve to mature personal autonomy.

 

 

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Bound for the Other Side, and detail. Two images from the net.

Included in a book about the Underground Railroad for the National Park Service Handbook, 1996, watercolour, graphite and gouache on Arches watercolour paper.

Jerry Pinkney, American born 1939

 

 

As to how Jerry Pinkney builds the arc of promise and hope:

The artist illustrates stories written by others. Stories both historical, biographical and mythical (bearing, that is, symbolic and spiritual heft).  

 

 

 

African American stories:

 

 

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 Facing Down the Original Sin, 2005, the cover drawing for The Old African, a complex story by Julius Lester.  Watercolour, gouache and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.

A man in his prime faces west whence came and the merchant vessels of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Red, the artist notes, is a dominant colour for the Igbo peoples.  It also represents blood and fire.

 

Jerry Pinkney considers the story of The Old African one of the most important he has illustrated.

  The Old African is a shaman – his shamanic powers transferring to others across the generations – who leads his people from slavery in the New World back to their African home across the ocean floor. 

During the course of the journey, The Old African recounts his life of freedom, capture, enslavement and freedom again.

The story is loosely based on the revolt of Ybo (Igbo) on a slave ship in 1803 off the coast of Georgia.  The artist dedicated his work here to ‘the spirit of the Ybo (Igbo) peoples and all those who to this day resist the yoke of slavery.” 

 

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Published in 2005

 

 

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Down to the Edge of the Water from The Old African, 2005, and detail; watercolour, gouache and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.

This represents one of the castles built along the West African coast by European traders. In these and from these they worked their domination.

  Captured Africans are led down to the sea, chained to one another, to be placed into small boats and taken out to larger boats on the water.

 

 

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The Clouds Rolled in, digital print of an illustration from The Old African, 2005.

 

 

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Time Disappeared from The Old African, 2005, watercolour, gouache and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.

The Igbo here are travelling along the ocean floor back to Africa. 

Sharks, come to apologize for eating the flesh of Africans who threw themselves overboard from slave ships.  It is the sharks who are leading them back.

 

 

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Welcome Home; Look! Bayo Shouted;  The Sand was crowded, 2005; watercolour, gouache and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.

These three paintings address the return of Africans to Africa.

As the sharks lead the group back to Africa, the skeletons rise and begin to walk with them so that the ocean floor rises.  They are back in Africa when they emerge from the ocean. 

The story ends as The Old African sees his wife, Ola, and his teacher, Obasi, coming out of the ocean.

 

 

 

Stories of the Lakota Sioux:

 

 

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Tonweya and the Eagles, cover illustration from Tonweya And The Eagles and Other Lakota tales, 1979, watercolour and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.  Rosebud Yellow Robe (main author).

 

Tonweya is a chief and medicine man.  One day he sees an eagles’  nest on a cliff.  He wants to capture the eaglets for their feathers which the Sioux wear as a sign of bravery.  He fastens a rope of buffalo hide to a tree and lowers himself down to the nest.  The rope comes loose and strands him precariously on the rock face.  The mother eagle abandons her young when she sees Tonweya close.

 

Tonweya makes friends with the eaglets, feeds them buffalo rope and his life, eventually is saved, when himself weakened from days of no nourishment, he jumps off the rockface, catching their feet and is carried to land by them.

 

 

 

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Fox the Trickster, graphite on paper, and detail below.

North Wind and Fox, watercolour, graphite and gouache on Arches watercolour paper, and detail below.

Silent, Glistening Ice, graphite on illustration board, and detail below.

From Tonweya And The Eagles And Other Lakota tales, 1979, Rosebud Yellow Robe (main author)

 

 

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These are illustrations for a Lakota story of the White Fox.

The Fox is an animal trickster.  He is bold: he would steal food cooking on a fire and pots of honey while nobody was looking.  He knows how to escape traps set for him.

 

Wadtaka, a young boy, dreamed that the four winds would help him rid his people of the fox.  He sets off on a hero’s journey.

The North Wind, the fiercest, agreed to help him.  The North Wind froze the fox with his icy breath and transported him to the far North.  The fox had turned white with fear. 

Now he hunts in the far North, unseen until it is too late – for his prey – because of the camouflage of his white fur.

 

 

And Biblical stories:

 

 

 

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The Lion Of Judah from David’s Songs:  His Psalms and Their Story, 1992; psalms collected and edited by Colin Eisler. 

This painting illustrates Psalm 119.

Watercolour, graphite and gouache with reductive markings on Arches watercolour paper.  

 

 

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An Owl That Lives Among The Ruins  from David’s Songs:  His Psalms and Their Story, 1992; psalms collected and edited by Colin Eisler. 

This painting illustrates Psalm 102.

Watercolour, graphite and gouache on Arches watercolour paper.  

 

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David, 1992, watercolour, graphite and gouache with reductive markings on Arches watercolour paper.

This was an illustration for David’s Songs, His Psalms and Their Story, 1992 with psalms collected and edited by Colin Eisler.

 

 

 

 

The artist also represents complex historical institutions like the Underground Railroad.

He paints stand-alone characters from African American history: those whose lives are known in some detail; and those like the seven buried at the Duane Street cemetery in Lower Manhattan,  who are known to have lived and been buried there, but for whom little other detail is available.

 

 

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Frederick Douglass, younger, older and detail of the younger, 2001, graphite on vellum.  For the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati.

 

 

 

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The representation of a sharecropper (blow-up) created in 2005 for the National Park Service  (Lowndes Interpretative Center, Hayneville, Alabama).

The artist was asked to commemorate Southern life and culture as it was in 1965 at the time of the historic Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. 

Original drawing in watercolour and graphite on Arches paper.

 

 

 

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Belinda and Her Small Charge, 2005 (With light interference)

for the African Burial Ground National Monument; watercolour, graphite on Arches watercolour paper.

In 1991, a large African American burial ground was uncovered in Duane Street in lower Manhattan. 

This burial ground contained thousands of skeletons dating from the early 17th to the late 18th century.  The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The artist was asked to create life-sized reproductions of seven of those known to be interred here. He was given what information could be found for each.

  He rendered a drawing of each in watercolour first.

 

 

In all cases, the artist researched the facts grounding his representations.

Like a text which has been transformed into a play for the theatrical stage, the artist lays out his plays in painted, complex vignettes.  

 

He infiltrates into these drawings the human feelings and physical movement and hesitation, colour and dress;  the natural and man-made settings which the original stories and his research and his imagination have brought to him.

 

 

He uses watercolour: “You have to allow watercolour to work with you,” the artist said describing the fluidity and near-anarchism of the medium. “You have to be present to it.”

It is a medium difficult to control.

But it creates –  in its soft edges and its lack of opacity, in the wash, gentleness, sometimes fierceness, and promiscuous overlap of its colours,  the suggestion that in the next moment, something or someone may slip over a soft edge and be transformed. If we don’t observe closely. 

Like a trickster animal.  Like a shape-shifter.

 

 

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Young Harriet, from Minty, A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, 1996, watercolour, graphite, gouache and coloured pencil on Arches watercolour paper

 

 

 

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4 illustrations from Minty:  A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, 1996, watercolour, graphite and gouache on paper, 1996. 

Minty (Harriet Tubman took the name ‘Harriet’ as an adult) was a field slave on the Brodas plantation.  In one scene, she imagines growing as tall as a sunflower so that she can touch the sky.

  In the fourth painting (and details), Go, She Cried, Minty lets go a muskrat whose capture traps it was her job to check.

 

 

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Moses of Her People, from Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, 1996, watercolour, graphite and gouache on Arches watercolour paper.  Image from the site of Woodmere Museum

The artist’s rendering of a mature Harriet Tubman  is on the back of the book. 

 

There is nothing hard edged in this very skilled use of watercolour to keep the viewer at arms length.  The viewer is drawn in and invited to participate. 

This participation, this inhabiting of the scene and of its possibilities, follow from the artist’s participative imagination when he studied the facts of the story, the history, the characters he illustrates. 

 

As with written text, the scenes perform in two ways: they translate the facts of the story into richly imagined effects on the bodies, actions and emotions of the characters in the stories.

 

Second, the paintings call to viewers to interact with the scenes, with the drama presented.  With its possibilities.

Intellectually. Emotionally.  With spirit. In this present moment as though not a second has passed since the scene in front of the viewers’ eyes.

 

 

 

 

The Artist’s Own Story:  I Want To Be, 1996.  Poetry by Thylia Moss:

 

Finally, Jerry Pinkney has illustrated his own story. He embodies himself as a young girl of his neighbourhood.

 

He and his wife met the model of this young girl at church.  They followed her around the neighbourhood and photographed her at her activities.

The artist dedicated this book to his mother, Willimae, who encouraged him to be an artist. 

 

This book, the artist said, is my own story.

 

 

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Amelia, 2008, watercolour and graphite on Arches watercolour paper.  For the African Burial Ground National Monument

In 1991, a large African American burial ground was uncovered in Duane Street in lower Manhattan. 

This burial ground contained thousands of skeletons dating from the early 17th to the late 18th century.  The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The artist was asked to create life-sized reproductions of seven of those known to be interred here. He was given what information could be found for each.

  He rendered a drawing of each in watercolour first.

 

 

 

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Detail TBD from I Want To Be with poetry by Thylia Moss, 1996.  Image from the web

 

 

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A Grass Mustache

From the story I Want To Be with the poetry of Thylia Moss, 1996;  watercolour, graphite, gouache and coloured pencil on Arches watercolour paper.

 

 

And there, painting after painting, is laid out the arc connecting these stories to the stories with which we today make sense of (the confusions of) our lives.

 

 

The arc connects these storied people and us, their heirs.

 

 

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I Double-Dutched With Strands of Rainbow, watercolour, graphite, gouache and coloured pencil on Arches watercolour paper.

From the story I Want To Be with the poetry of Thylia Moss, 1996. 

 

 

The multiple arcs  (of promise, of hope; and of promise fulfilled) 

which make up the outlines of the body of the protective and encircling red-tailed hawk in the story of The Old African:  the hawk into which the old man shifts his shape at a spiritually potent moment in the story:

 

 

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To His Hawk’s Eye, digital print of a drawing for The Old African, 2005.

The Old African felt himself called at a certain point to transform himself into a red-tailed hawk.  He soars above the plantation where his friends are enslaved and then he sees the sea.  Crossing the sea bed, they finally are able to return to their African home.

 

 

The same arc which the artist has exposed, inhabiting  and translating historical facts into art, in imaginative and purposeful design, and in his participation with watercolour, to fulfill the promise of his people’s history in his own life and work.   

 

 

The same arc which is the rotunda of the Woodmere Museum,

 

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exposing the museum’s method, exhibition after exhibition, of showcasing the art of the best of human imagination, intention, endeavour and achievement 

 

to the ends of sustaining coherent community, fighting for political and legal emancipation, and encouraging individual autonomy.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Jerry Pinkney: A Promise Fulfilled

  1. “Time Disappeared” is haunting. I love the fact that the sharks apologize and lead the Igbo home. But my favorite image has to be “Go, She Cried,” where Minty lets the muskrat go. She understands what it means to be trapped and what it means to be free. She has the power to free another creature, so she wields it. Her empathy extends to the lowly muskrat. Her empathy is fearless, uncompromising and powerful.

    1. I agree. And I love the watery watercolours of that story, too!

      All these stories are about the journeys that people take to be free. Free from this or that. Even the trickster white fox is free even though his journey was not of his desiring!

      Just a wonderful artist.!

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