Jerry Pinkney: Illustrator who broke the colour barrier in book publishing

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Pinkney was diagnosed with dyslexia and found that art was a great way of connecting with the stories his mother loved (Public domain)
Pinkney was diagnosed with dyslexia and found that art was a great way of connecting with the stories his mother loved (Public domain)

American illustrator and writer Jerry Pinkney, who has died aged 81, was one of the first African American illustrators to break the colour barrier in children’s book publishing, paving the way for other painters and writers.

He illustrated more than 100 books for children and teenagers, covering a myriad of themes, from fairytales and folk tales to the civil rights movement. Though he worked with many different mediums, he will be most remembered for the intricately detailed illustrations he painted with watercolour.

In an interview promoting his exhibition, Witness, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Pinkney said: “I want to use the work that I do to become a better artist but also to become a better person.”

A turning point in his career came in December 2001, when he was asked by the White House to produce an illustrated holiday book to promote unity and hope. This book would be the only gift the White House, which remained closed following the 9/11 attacks, would distribute that year for the holidays.

Pinkney was born on 22 December 1939 in Germantown, a small African-American community in Philadelphia, made up of those who moved from the south during the great migration after the American civil war. His parents, Williemae and James Pinkney, empowered him with confidence, creativity, and the belief that he could achieve anything.

At a young age he was diagnosed with dyslexia, and found that art was a great way of connecting with the stories that his mother loved to read, and the tradition of spoken stories that was so prominent in his neighbourhood.

Pinkney illustrated more than 100 books for children and teenagers (AP)
Pinkney illustrated more than 100 books for children and teenagers (AP)

Growing up in pre-civil-rights America, Pinkney proved to be a trailblazer who defied society’s expectations. During his senior year at Murrell Dobbins vocational school, the Philadelphia board of education gave out three scholarships to art students in the area. His teacher did not feel that an African American could make it in the art field, so he did not distribute applications to students of colour, believing he was protecting them from failure.

Pinkney went to the office of the board of education and picked up applications for everyone to apply. Out of the three scholarships awarded that year, Pinkney received one, and his best friend, another African American, received another. With his scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now called the University of the Arts), Pinkney studied advertising and design.

Pinkney said in July 2020, “I never thought of anything other than being an artist. When I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to make it as an artist, I always knew that I would make art.”

‘The Lion and the Mouse’,  which won the 2010 Caldecott medal (AP)
‘The Lion and the Mouse’, which won the 2010 Caldecott medal (AP)

His first real job was at a greeting card company, but he began receiving commissions to illustrate children’s books. His 1964 illustrations for The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales redirected his career in the direction of painting and printmaking. This commission changed his life, and he became one of the most recognisable American illustrators to date.

He involved his wife, Gloria, herself a writer, and their four children, using them as models, and his work quickly became a family affair. Pinkney’s entire family was employed in the field of children’s books, often collaborating and critiquing each other’s work.

“Jerry was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, whose impact influenced the creative endeavours of so many in our family,” Gloria Jean Pinkney said in a statement.

His many clients included the US Postal Service, for which he designed postage stamps, including a series celebrating influential black figures. He also produced images for National Geographic, such as a painting depicting 12 anti-slavery activists involved in the underground railroad, as well as work for the National Park Service.

For his powerful illustrations, Pinkney was awarded multiple accolades during his life. Among them were the prestigious Coretta Scott King award for illustration and the 2010 Randolph Caldecott medal for children’s literature. His work is held in museums throughout America, including the United States Library of Congress and the New York public library.

Jerry Pinkney, illustrator and writer, born 22 December 1939, died 20 October 2021

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