by Sura Wood
In the hands of Ezra Jack Keats, color is a magic potion. The richly poetic imagery and gorgeous, deeply vibrant hues that leap off the pages created by this award-winning, trailblazing children's book author and illustrator conjure visions of Chagall and that artist's transcendent, whimsical fantasy. But in the multiracial world inhabited by Keats' young characters, the harsh realities of a lonely childhood and the rough streets of the inner city are never far away. Still, joy could be just around the next corner.
During his lifetime, Keats, who died in 1983, produced over 20 publications children rightfully adore, and contributed to many more, but among his best known works, Whistle for Willie, Peter's Chair and The Snowy Day, the latter proved to be his most pivotal. Published in 1962 at the apex of the civil rights movement, it was the first full-color picture book featuring an African-American protagonist (an adorable boy named Peter), and urban landscapes with dilapidated buildings, trash cans and littered alleyways.
Given the book's significance and its arrival at a time when children's literature was dominated by white writers and editors, it seems fitting that the first major U.S. exhibition honoring the artist has appropriated the name of his breakthrough volume. The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, presents over 80 original works, including dummy books, preliminary pencil sketches with typed text pasted onto drawings, and final paintings and collages, many of which were inspired by the poverty and anti-Semitism Keats endured in his youth. Those scarring experiences are a steady backbeat; they gave him genuine empathy for the plight of the outsider, a theme that suffuses his narratives.
It's interesting to contemplate what a shock it must have been for readers in the early 1960s to see a little boy of color in a yellow rain-slicker braving a storm (Letter to Amy); Peter walking home from the grocery store alongside a blazing red wall minus some crucial bricks with his trusty pup Willie trotting behind him gripping a newspaper firmly between its teeth; or the warm domestic scenes of black families (Peter's Chair) and mischievous multi-culti kids embarking on spirited adventures. Peter sprang from candid photographs of an African American boy Keats saw in a May 1940 issue of Life magazine 20 years before he conceived the book. He saved the clippings, and they're on view, as is "Unknown (Portrait of a Boy)," a very early ink-and-graphite study for Peter, and the only one that has survived.
Keats, who was largely self-taught, once wryly observed that many of his readers mistakenly thought he was black, but his origins were quite different. The son of Jewish Eastern European immigrants and a product of the Depression, Keats (ne Katz) grew up poor in a crumbling Brooklyn neighborhood. Despite spending his boyhood in a tenement, he loved city life. His 1971 book Apt. 3, which closely parallels his own autobiography, links color and music; the sounds of a blind man playing a harmonica waft into a courtyard where people sing and throw pennies. (Like Alfred Hitchcock, he made cameo appearances in his stories.) In Dreams (1974), color pours out of the windows of oppressive apartments on a stifling summer evening as dreamers are transported by flights of imagination and the incandescent night; both books emphasize mood and feelings over plot.
John Henry: An American Legend, an expressive series with powerful, stirring imagery and exquisite coloration, depicts the African-American railroad worker of folklore who was said to be "stronger and faster than a steam hammer." In the final image, a paint-and-collage piece, Brown's muscular frame wields that hammer for the last time, punching a hole in a gray tunnel wall, allowing a beckoning orange light to stream in. Weary, he steps through to the other side and lays his burden down, looking like an enigmatic figure out of a Nathan Oliveira painting.
Those expecting a museum show that's just for kids, or considering staying away for the same reason, will be blown away by the beauty of the art. Keats' bold compositions, often seen in his preferred horizontal, double-page format, are simultaneously close-up and panoramic; collage elements suggest the dimensionality of a real, tangible world; and his characters are invested with their creator's heart and soul, longing and emotional depth. Then there's Keats brash, aggressive use of color.
When he was young, art was his escape hatch, a refuge from strife on the home-front: an emotionally distant mother and a father who didn't approve of his artistic inclinations. He's the solitary, introverted kid in the four wonderful Louie books seen hunched over, hands in his pockets, walking along alone, dwarfed by a big wall exploding with graffiti, and hoping to avoid the taunting of local bullies.
Late in life, Keats returned to Brooklyn and the Louie illustrations that conclude the show. In Regards to the Man in the Moon, the last book in the series, which came out two years before he died, Louie and Susie soar above the lower Manhattan skyline and the Twin Towers twinkling in the night sky, piloting a makeshift spacecraft to the stars and back. Who says you can never go home again?
The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, at CJM through Feb. 24.