From an interview with Society of Illustrators Director Terrence Brown.
Terrence Brown: Congratulations, Jerry, on the Hamilton King. Did you think that this would be an award you would win?
Jerry Pinkney: I have thought about the Hamilton King Award. Whether I would ever receive it was an open question. It’s a distinguished honor because it’s awarded by one’s peers. When I think of the talented contemporaries in the jury, it makes this award more meaningful.
TB: The piece was published by Scholastic, but hadn’t it been previously published?
JP: Yes, originally it was an assignment for National Geographic. The subject was slavery and I was able to do much of the research with the writer, Charles Blockson.
TB: Is that subject difficult for you?
JP: It does carry deep emotions. It challenges me as a picture maker to move beyond the anger and frustration, to create an honest and dramatic image. I became totally involved in black history, and the history of slavery. Once you get past the visual references, something takes over and that’s when my best imagery come out.
TB: The black experience has been a subject of yours before?
JP: In the seventies there were four calendars on African-American history for Seagrams, which presented me with a real sense of artistic freedom. That was a productive time in my career, both personally and professionally. And, of course, there were the nine U.S. Postal issues for the Black Heritage Series.
TB: We all have Steve Dohanos to thank for the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee’s appreciation of illustration.
JP: Yes, he brought the illustrator’s point of view to that committee. Also, I saw those assignments from a design point of view. I was proud to have been a part of the Committee ten years.
TB: Your early background was more in design than illustration, wasn’t it?
JP: I was a Design major at the Philadelphia College of Art and did more design than illustration at Russcraft Publishing Company in B Aston those first years out of school.
TB: Was the distance from New York at that time a hindrance?
JP: Not entirely, since my agent, Cullen App, was representing me in New York. And I made a point to see the shows and follow the trades.
TB: How do you feel about your earlier work?
JP: I am amazed at the diversity of it then, and by how far I have come… how much my style had grown.
TB: And growth is important?
JP: I’m always looking inside to see if I can push myself further. I look at other artists to see their growth and to see parallels in our work, but never to trends to develop one’s personal style.
TB: Today, you are a star in the children’s book field. What was your development in this market?
JP: I illustrated my first book in 1964. It’s still in print and the modest royalty each year still amazes me. The Patchwork Quilt, in 1984, was my first book in color. But as an artist active in other markets, I was not at the top of many publisher’s lists in the seventies. Atha Tehon at Dial Books for Young Readers was the first to encourage me. She had the insight to nurture my talents.
TB: The children’s book market has changed dramatically in recent years.
JP: I was fortunate to have had an audience for my books when it changed. I was in the right place at the right time.
TB: What do you see as the uniqueness of this market?
JP: You know your audience: children, parents, teachers, and librarians. It is a market where your work has longevity. There is always a new audience to replace young readers who m one on to another lever. A book can become a classic and be around for many years. Think of such artists as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Maurice Sendak.
TB: Do you work well with the text and designers?
JP: My design and production experience comes into play when working with editors and art directors on designing the rhythm and format of a book. It is important, however, for both the text and the art to provide an open image for the reader.
TB: It is certainly a market well covered by the media.
JP: It does have its awards, shows, and lists, but they have different audiences in themselves. The New York Times Ten Best Children’s Books speaks to aesthetics, The Caldecott, which is so well known publicly, is awarded by the American Library Association. And, there is the Golden Kite Award given by The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and others such as the AIGA Book Show.
TB: And the Society’s juried show, “The Original Art”?
JP: “The Original Art” show is juried by people sensitive to the children’s book illustration. I see its purpose as raising expectations. All of the shows and awards should serve to inspire us to the extraordinary.
TB: Your family is now grown and your wife, Gloria Jean, has begun a writing career. Also, Brian, your oldest son, is a children’s book illustrator. And Andrea, his wife, is a writer.
JP: It’s an exciting time for the Pinkney family. You can’t imagine the energetic conversation when we’re together.
TB: Do you see yourself in the children’s book market in the years ahead?
JP: Yes, the publishers are giving me exciting projects. My career is in the right direction… it is limitless. However, I don’t rule out important projects like the recent National Geographic story on the slave trade in Brazil in the 17th century. The subject was very emotional but one I wanted. And, there was the Land’s End catalogue cover- these departures are good for me.
TB: And your personal work?
JP: I came into this business to be an illustrator. I would like to develop my own ideas with writers. As an artist, I am always challenging myself…I am going “out on a limb”, or let’s say, “I’m creeping out on a limb.”
Hamilton King Award winner, jacket illustration for “GET ON BOARD, The Story of the Underground Railroad.” commissioned by Scholastic.