Last night Peter and I attended the opening of a show highlighting the work of Ezra Jack Keats at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Claudia Nahson, who curated the show which originated at the Jewish Museum in New York, spoke about Ezra Jack Keats’s (1916-1983) history. We learned that he had a rough time growing up as small, artistic, and poor in the Brooklyn he’d later picture in his books. He often felt invisible, and started drawing early, thinking that the only way people would see him was if he made art. His mother showed off the pictures he drew on the kitchen table. His father bought him cheap paints and paper, but, as a struggling immigrant from Poland, worried whether his son could make a living. Hoping he’d consider another career, he told him that the paints he gave him had been traded for soup at the diner where he worked, by artists who were desperate to eat.
Ezra worked as an assistant for WPA muralists, then drew backgrounds for Captain Marvel. “Background man” was a job Claudia Nahson posited as a metaphor for his aesthetics, as he continued through his career to pay attention to things like trashcans and graffiti, finding beauty where few saw it, and bringing it to the forefront. He served in the army in WWII, then studied in Paris on the G.I. bill, which was about when he changed his last name from Katz to Keats, probably because of anti-Semitism. He spent much of the 1950’s illustrating book jackets. Eventually he was asked to illustrate a children’s book, Jubilant for Sure by E. H. Lansing, which led to more work. He noticed that minorities weren’t often represented, and changing that was part of the motivation for writing and illustrating his own books.
The Snowy Day, which won a Caldecott Award in 1963, was the first book he both illustrated and solely wrote. His protagonist, Peter, was inspired by photographs he’d clipped from Life magazine twenty years before, put on his wall, put away, then tacked back up.
Claudia Nahson called The Snowy Day the first time an African American was represented in a full color picture book. The technique of collage was new for Keats, and he made Peter older through a series of seven books, ending with Goggles in 1969, which was cited as the most autobiographical of his books, and was based on his memories of being bullied.
Ezra Jack Keats would go on to create many more books. He became interested in the simplicity and paring down in Asian visual art and haiku. At the show at the Carle, we see silhouettes of birds and plants on hand-marbled paper he did for In a Spring Garden, edited by Richard Lewis. He always strived to use very few words. We were told about him going to a writer’s conference where people talked about how many words they wrote in a year. He said, “Three hundred. And I’m happy.”
The wonderful show includes work from the span of his career, as well as a generous sampling of diaries, letters, sketches, storyboards, and a paint box. A display chronicles some depictions of African Americans in picture books. The show will be open through October 14. To get more of a sense of what’s there, click on the link to the Jewish Museum at the top, where a video will give you a virtual tour of the show which began there. I’ve long been a fan of The Snowy Day, but it was fun to learn how much more there was to Ezra Jack Keats’s career. I know I’m going back!