Friday, November 16, 2012

The art of Ezra Jack Keats

 “Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow,” is the ending of “The Snowy Day,” a beautifully illustrated story of a little boy (Peter) and his first experience with snow.

 Published in 1962, Peter from “The Snowy Day” was something most children in the United States had never seen before: an African American character who was the hero of his own book. The book was a runaway success, capturing the Caldecott Medal and selling more than two million copies.

The pioneering author-illustrator was Ezra Jack Keats, born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz into a family of desperately poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His family did not want him to become an artist because that was synonymous with poverty but he persisted. A short stint in Paris under the GI bill was the only formal training that he received. He created his innovative techniques as he went along – from his use of fabric and newspapers for collage to his bold designs, remarkable for their vibrant colors and layered imagery.

Keats’s experience of anti-Semitism and poverty in his youth gave him a lifelong sympathy for others who suffered prejudice and want.

“If,” he once remarked, “we all could really see (‘see’ as perceive, understand, discover) each other exactly as the other is, this would be a different world.”

Keats, who grew up coping with poverty and anti-Semitism, converted his negative childhood experiences into empathy for the urban, often non-white poor.

 Peter stars in six more of Keats’s picture books He gets older, acquires a baby sister (Susie), a dog (Willie) and a gang of friends, who help him get in and out of trouble.But Keats went on to ultimately illustrate and author eighty children's books and co-author twenty more.

 All of Keats’ black, brown, beige, Spanish speaking children are human beings with foibles and quirks but whose loving hearts or even artistic talent help them to survive and ultimately triumph.

Despite glowing reviews and an admiring letter from Langston Hughes, “The Snowy Day” also drew sharp criticism. In “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” a 1965 essay in Saturday Review, Nancy Larrick described Peter’s mother as a stereotypical and said that Keats should have referred directly to Peter’s race.

Keats’s subsequent letter to the editor, on display, has an uncharacteristically biting response: “Might I suggest armbands?” a reference to the armbands that the Nazi’s forced the Jews to wear – a reference which was lost on Ms. Larrick.

But what he did by portraying non-Caucasian characters as human beings created a quiet revolution. The fact that today we think nothing of it shows how well he succeeded.

“ . . . weave for us a garment of brightness (American Indian, Tewa Pueblo)”
Final illustration for God Is in the Mountain, 1966. This evocative illustration accompanies verses excerpted by Keats from the Tewa poem “Song of the Sky Loom,” which envisions nature as a garment for humanity.

The show, which also comprises notebooks, sketches, correspondence, photographs and some of Keats’s research, includes a 1940 clipping from Life magazine showing a boy of about 3 or 4 being tested for malaria in Georgia. He became the model for Peter. “The child was black, but as far as Ezra was concerned, he was Ezra,” said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

 Visitors will see more than 80 original Keats works, from early sketches to final paintings from his best-known books, including “Louie,” “The Trip,” “Apt. 3” and the Caldecott Award–winning “The Snowy Day,” all of which featured minorities as lead characters.

Like the other exhibit currently on view at the CJM, “The Radical Camera,” Keats' work shows that art made from the heart can provide open our eyes to social injustice. Art really can save lives by awakening an ethical and spiritual social conscience. If we let it open our hearts- and Keats' work did just that, it change the world.

 “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” through Feb. 24, 2013 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800.

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