It's a simple story about a young boy's adventures across a snowy landscape, his iconic red snowsuit bright against the white frost. But although The Snowy Day has an uncomplicated plotline, the children's book written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats was groundbreaking – it featured the first black protagonist in a full-color children's book.
Starting today, April 10, through Sept. 7, the Skirball Cultural Center will pay tribute to Keats with the exhibition “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats.” Part of the first major U.S. exhibition honoring the author and illustrator, the viewing at the Skirball is the final stop on a national tour that included 124 original works on display at the Jewish Museum, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Akron Art Museum and the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Although the Skirball is a Jewish cultural center, Skirball Art Curator Erin Clancey explains that the Skirball was interested in what Keats symbolized and stood for, not just his heritage.
“Our mission has to do with American Jewish tradition and values,” she says. “We always put the art in context, there's always a story and there's a social context that is as important to the show as the artwork is.”
Keats was born in Brooklyn in 1916, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He grew up in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, excelling in art, and although he later studied painting in Paris, was primarily considered a natural talent. Many of his works were inspired by memories from his youth and the areas that were a part of his daily life – at the time, East New York was one of the most dilapidated neighborhoods in the city.
His background inspired his work. Children's picture books usually glossed over neighborhoods like the one Keats grew up in, preferring to show a nicer lifestyle. The books that Keats authored didn't make a big point of their geography, but casually depicted their protagonists in areas such as Chinatown, Little Italy or neighborhoods that mirrored the ones from his childhood. His characters are surrounded by urban settings – graffiti, overflowing garbage cans and brick apartment complexes. His vibrant use of color brought out the beauty in those gritty landscapes.
Keats wasn't just an artist; he was also an activist, engaged in social change.
“He illustrated the works of other authors for about six years and none of the books that he read or saw featured African-American characters or Latino-American characters. So he did something about it,” Clancey says.
In his lifetime, the author illustrated more than 80 books, a majority for children's literature, 22 of which he wrote himself.
The show features a selection of works from throughout the author's life, some of which serve as self-portraits in the form of characters in his books. It's a family-friendly exhibit: There's a collage wall and a writing zone, Clancey says, as well as books on display, and an experience where you can sink into the snow, match up your shadow to a character's shadow, and even sit down in a recreated living room from one of Keats' books.
“The exhibition makes the books come alive. It gives me a deeper appreciation for Keats' work,” Clancey says. “As a mom, I can see the impact that it has on my own son, he's three, and I know that he gets a lot of out of it. He doesn't understand the social context or the civil rights movement or how groundbreaking it was to feature an African-American child in a book. He doesn't yet get the difference between the color of people yet.”
Clancey adds, “For others, I can't speak for anyone else, but maybe for some children, they see the art reflected in themselves. They see themselves doing what other kids do and the cities they grow up in. I think that reflection validates them and that it sinks in on a subconscious level.”
The curator remembers Keats' work from her own childhood.
“Keats was not about developing a very complicated plot. It was very much about a mood or a feeling, things I could relate to. One he wrote was called Peter's Chair. And Peter, the main character, has a baby sister at home. And I had a younger sister when I was two.” Clancey admits, laughing, “I could definitely relate to things like sibling rivalry.”
A Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats opens to the public Thursday, April 10, 2014 and runs through Sept. 7.