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Beloved kids’ book illustrator Jerry Pinkney has a big new show in Chestnut Hill

Freedom’s Journal: The Art of Jerry Pinkney, at the Woodmere Art Museum, spans 60 years of the esteemed illustrator's career, and 400 years of African American history.

Jerry Pinkney's work is the subject of a new exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum.
Jerry Pinkney's work is the subject of a new exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum.Read moreWoodmere Museum

The Woodmere Art Museum exhibition Freedom’s Journal: The Art of Jerry Pinkney wraps 60 years’ worth of the artist’s paintings (about 100 of them) around the museum’s circular, two-floor gallery. The exhibition also lays out 400 years of African American history via Pinkney’s book and magazine illustrations, and life-size portraits he created for the National Park Service.

Freedom’s Journal includes video interviews with the artist, video storytelling, and Pinkney-illustrated books such as Minty: A Story of a Young Harriet Tubman, John Henry, and The Old African that visitors can sit down and page through.

It’s a compelling tribute to the decades Pinkney, 79, has spent documenting African American history and culture. But it’s especially meaningful to the Caldecott Award winner, who grew up a few miles away, in Germantown.

Pinkney said the exhibition was an embarrassment of riches, that “I’ve been preparing for for most of my working art life.” Looking backward and forward, Pinkney feels proud of what he’s done — and daunted by the task ahead. Now living in New York, he’ll return to the Woodmere at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 23, to be interviewed by author Lorene Cary. He spoke with the Inquirer about his distinguished career — and what’s next.

This is not your first art exhibition. How is this one new?

The focus is on reexamining African American history. When I say reexamining, I mean diving into the origins of why Africans were torn away from their homeland. It starts with capture and enslavement, and then it moves through the Middle Passage and the many chapters from slavery to the Underground Railroad to the civil rights era.

It’s trying to visually tell the story of the 'why’ of the African American experience, the origins of the African American experience and, most importantly, the resilience and struggle of African American life.

That’s comprehensive.

In that mix, we also have other books that speak to other peoples who have been marginalized. There is Journeys with Elijah: Tales from the Prophets, Jewish folktales, as well as the book Tonweya and the Eagles, and other Lakota Tales. It’s this idea of journeys: a journey of the people of African descent, and also other journeys that include other groups that might have been and have been marginalized throughout history.

So I guess it’s a big arc. It includes all those things. And it’s works from not only my book work, but also National Geographic magazine as well as the National Park Service.

How did you come to make art for the National Park Service?

It’s very interesting. In the ’80s and ’70s, I began to see myself as someone for whom opportunities were opening up … I was trying to figure out a way that I could talk about that experience of being a person of color who came from a place where there were an ample number of naysayers to arrive at a level of stature in the visual arts. I wanted to speak to that sense of possibility opening up in the United States.

So I went searching for clients who represented, in some way, this country. I went to see the people at the U.S. Postal Service. I went to see the national park folk, and I threw National Geographic in that mix, as well. I was seeking a way to use my gifts, my talents, in a much broader arena that also spoke to the U.S. government, to speak about the contributions and the history of people of African descent.

How did that feel, to approach those entities?

It was at the time when the national parks were beginning to rethink the material they had generated in the past. We were all searching to correct things in history and African American history.

There are always these tendencies in each artist, and mine was, in a sense, to go in and to begin to help change perceptions. This allowed me to enter into those dark spaces in African American history to bring a sense of a group of people, who, through resilience and grit, have contributed — and contributed in a big way.

How does your more historic work tie into John Henry and other illustrations for fiction in the exhibition?

There are two prongs in my work: the work that celebrates and explores African American history, and fables. The fables are really directly connected to my roots. I tell or adapt stories that were important to me as a child growing up.

Most of my work, especially the work that I initiate, National Geographic or the national parks, John Henry or Minty, it’s all part of those things that moved me, or fired up my imagination as a child, that made me more curious.

Should we assume you have another book coming out soon?

I just finished a project that’s in production for a book called A Place to Land. It’s on Martin Luther King Jr. It takes place the evening before the March on Washington, during the process of preparing his remarks. It’s about process, the weight that he carried, and interacting with his council and, after the march, with President Kennedy.

It was very dramatic for me to think of the time that we live in now, and to realize the remarks that Martin Luther King Jr. gave that historic day could be given today. We couldn’t have imagined the possibility of African Americans, as a people, becoming more limited in some ways, in terms of schools being more segregated and the inequity of income between whites and blacks.

There was a point where we were working on this when spirits were not high. I was trying to figure out this arc of promise. Then I realized the promise was President Obama. America elected a black president: That sparked something for me that was very positive. Obama is the last image in the book. He was the marker for how America has moved forward.

The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, too.

Hildy Tow of [Woodmere’s] education department came up with the idea of including the poem “I Want to Be” by Thylias Moss. The idea of it is finding a way out of no way — making a dream out of no way. That’s the African American experience.

You’re a great-grandfather. Any thoughts of retirement?

I’m going to be 80 in a year, and my creative tendencies are all in bloom. As we get older, everything becomes, in a sense, not more important, but requires a more thoughtful focus.

There are parts of African American history that I haven’t gotten to and are still burning inside of me.

Freedom’s Journal: The Art of Jerry Pinkney, through May 12 at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., $10 adults, $7 seniors, free children and students with ID, 215-247-0476,