Art Beat: The Wonders of Childhood, Courtesy of Ezra Jack Keats

I read recently that Amazon is bypassing book publishers and doing book deals with authors directly. Subsequently, these books will only be available electronically, putting another nail in the coffin of the printed books many of us treasure.

Published November 8, 2011 6:37 PM
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beatthumbI read recently that Amazon is bypassing book publishers and doing book deals with authors directly. Subsequently, these books will only be available electronically, putting another nail in the coffin of the printed books many of us treasure.

 

By Mary Brennan Gerster

 

I read recently that Amazon is bypassing book publishers and doing book deals with authors directly. Subsequently, these books will only be available electronically, putting another nail in the coffin of the printed books many of us treasure.

 

beatinside2One category of book inconceivable in anything other than the traditional paper format is children’s literature. Somehow, staring at the screen of a Kindle or Nook or iPad holds none of the magic of curling up with a child and turning pages as a story unfolds in words and pictures.

 

Happily, the Jewish Museum has mounted an exhibit of the works of children’s author/illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983). He’s best known for “The Snowy Day”, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. The classic tale is of a young boy in a red hooded coat discovering all the magic that snowfall and a snow day mean to a child.

 

As he tracks various footprints in the snow, makes angels, and shakes the snow from tree limbs, Keats captures the wonder children find in the things we adults often miss or have forgotten. He combines flat acrylic paint with collages of torn and painted papers in his illustrations. The exhibit includes 80 original works from this and many other books by Keats.

 

What garnered the attention of critics and book buyers upon the publication of “The Snowy Day” in 1962 was the fact that the protagonist, Peter, is an African-American boy. In most children’s literature up to that time, black children were portrayed in stereotypical and sometimes derisive fashion. Think of “Little Black Sambo” (1932) by Helen Bannerman. The second surprise was that Keats was not black, but white and Jewish.

 

Born Jacob Ezra Keats (he changed his name in 1947) in Brooklyn, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, his early life was not one of privilege. He was a voracious reader who made good use of the public libraries.

 

beatinsideHis artistic gift was apparent early — admired by his often-distant mother but discouraged by his father (though he did bring him drawing supplies). It was a high school teacher, Florence Freedman, who encouraged him in school and well after. His early years impact all of his children’s books, reflecting his experiences with prejudice and poverty.

 

In the Army, he worked as a draftsman creating camouflage, charts, and posters. Through the Veterans Administration education benefit program, he spent a year studying in Europe. In Paris he haunted the Louvre, and he spent a month at the Academia delle Belle Arti in Florence.

 

Upon returning to New York, Keats studied at the Art Students League and sold his paintings in store windows along Fifth Avenue. Publishers discovered his work, and his illustrations appeared in Reader’s Digest, Colliers, and the New York Times Book Review. Between 1954 and 1964 he illustrated 54 books for 20 publishers. For Phyllis Whitney’s book, “Mystery on Skye”, (1955) he traveled to Scotland, and for George Albee’s “Three Young Kings” (1956) to Cuba.

 

Very few of Keats’ paintings survive and most are in private collections, but a few are included in this show. The oils and gouache have dark palates. One, Candy Shop at Night (1934-36), is reminiscent of Edward Hopper.

 

Keats admired Daumier, and you see that in his depictions of gritty urban streets and buildings. He said he couldn’t portray country life, as he was a city boy.

 

Though he never married or had children (he blamed his mother for his attitude on both), Keats’ sensitivity to the inner life of a child is dead-on accurate.

 

In Goggles, Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie are chased by bullies. The story is as relevant to children today as it was in 1969, when it

was published. In the original drawings, which are in the show, you see Keats’ brilliant use of collage to create graffiti on the walls. Against a sky of thick impasto brushstrokes, the ubiquitous laundry dries.

 

There is something for adults and children alike in this thought-provoking and visually arresting exhibition, the first in the United States to pay tribute to the award-winning author and illustrator. Use a free day during the holiday vacations to enjoy it with your family.

 

“The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” runs through January 29. The Jewish Museum, located at Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, is closed Wednesdays and open late on Thursdays. Admission is free on Saturdays. For more information, call 212-423-3200 or visit thejewishmuseum.com.

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