American illustrator and writer Jerry Pinkney, who died at the age of 81, was one of the first African-American illustrators to break the color barrier in publishing children’s books, paving the way for other painters and writers.
He has illustrated over 100 books for children and adolescents, covering a myriad of themes, from fairy tales and folk tales to the civil rights movement. Although he worked with many different mediums, he will be remembered mostly for the intricate and detailed illustrations he painted in watercolors.
In an interview promoting her exhibition, Witness, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Pinkney said, “I want to use the work 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 the White House asked him to produce an illustrated holiday book to promote unity and hope. This book would be the only gift that the White House, which remained closed after the attacks of September 11, would distribute that year for the holidays.
Pinkney was born on December 22, 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, gave him confidence, creativity and the belief that he could accomplish anything.
At a young age, he was diagnosed with dyslexia and found art to be a great way to connect with the stories his mother loved to read and the tradition of spoken stories that was so important in his neighborhood.
Growing up in a pre-civil rights America, Pinkney has proven to be a trailblazer who defied the expectations of society. In his final year at Murrell Dobbins Vocational School, the Philadelphia School Board awarded three scholarships to art students in the area. His teacher did not believe that an African American could be successful in the art field, so he did not distribute applications to students of color, believing to protect them from failure.
Pinkney went to the board of education office and picked up the applications for anyone to apply. Of the three scholarships awarded that year, Pinkney received one and her best friend, another African American, received another. Thanks to her 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 didn’t know if I was going to be successful as an artist, I always knew I would make art.
His first real job was in a greeting card business, but he started getting commissions to illustrate children’s books. His 1964 illustrations for Spider Adventures: Folk Tales from West Africa reoriented his career towards painting and engraving. This commission changed his life and he became one of the most recognizable American illustrators to date.
He involved his wife, Gloria, a writer herself, and their four children, using them as role models, and his work quickly became a family affair. All of Pinkney’s family worked in the field of children’s books, often collaborating and criticizing each other’s work.
“Jerry was a dedicated husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather whose impact influenced the creative endeavors 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 of 12 anti-slavery activists involved in the Underground Railroad, as well as work for the National Park Service.
For her powerful illustrations, Pinkney received several accolades during her 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 across America, including the United States Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.
Jerry Pinkney, illustrator and writer, born December 22, 1939, died October 20, 2021