An interview with Jerry Pinkney Part II
This is part two of a 2002 interview with Jerry Pinkney, Award winning African-American Children's Book Illustrator and Lecturer
April, 20, 2002
Laird: I will say the single most powerful change for visual imagery was the NAACP. I think the NAACP probably did more than any other organization to change the depictions. When they started changing them for the African-American, obviously others before then had kind of fallen off as far as their stereotypes, but when the African-American imagery stopped, when Amos & Andy was taken off the air, that is sort of the door that opened up for us being a lot more sensitive today. But speaking of the golden age illustrators Norman Rockwell who came in as probably one of the later guys in the golden age, did a piece that I asked you to look at. In 1964, he did The Problem We All Live With. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to think about it, I know you’re familiar.
Pinkney: Yes, the Ruby Bridges piece. You wanted me to look at this piece. Yes, actually I just spent three days with her.
Laird: You did?
Pinkney: Yes, she was in Columbia with me.
Laird: Oh my scotts, man, I wish I’d have known.
Pinkney: Yes, the funny thing that dawned on me, well, I didn’t know she was going to be there when we spoke. I have not really looked at the piece, but it seems to be in my head. What questions were you going to ask me about it?
Laird: Basically, I just want to ask you what are your personal thoughts about Norman Rockwell’s piece?
Pinkney: Well, I mean, I think what comes to mind, you know, is the focus on this young girl and the obvious attempt to abstract or not to give a sense of power of white folks period, even though they were marshals. The fact that they were actually cropped, where we see them becoming a symbol of certainly, reinforcing this idea of segregation. But really, the focus is on this young girl, and in some way she becomes the strength of that piece.
Laird: Do you see any significance in the white against black dress? I’ve heard some people I’ve interviewed say that there’s a significance there.
Pinkney: You know there might be. I don’t know. I think that certainly whether the choice was, whether he was speaking about something and that became part of the language of the painting. I know for me, for instance, when I’m composing and I use things, they often begin with the idea of what do I need to make this much more dramatic and speak to what I’m trying to say. What I like about any visual statement is that when the artist allows enough room for interpretation, so I don’t know. I mean, I would not, I hesitate to find symbolism in works of art because it seems to me it robs me of the whole sense of what I need as an artist.
Laird: The reason I ask that question is because I’ve had so many people that didn’t really know the story behind Ruby Bridges and this incident. They wanted to put so much more into the painting than is really there.
Pinkney: Well, the thing is, this, is what I’ve always felt, and I say this, you have to keep your painting, your work, open enough to let viewer begin to add their thoughts about it. That is the connection. There are some people who look at the painting and they know it's well painted or well crafted, but then a person finds something in it. You ever walk through a museum with someone, they look at a painting and they see it completely opposite from you and you can’t figure out how they saw it that way. Then you begin to realize, that’s the value. Everybody that walks by finds something in it that relates that relates and makes sense to them and they can read and own it.
Laird: Well I’m gonna drop his name, but Tom Feelings was the one that made particular note of the fact that she’s wearing a white dress. He felt there was a lot of significance to the white dress.
Pinkney: But you look at his work and you can understand that.
Laird: And black and white is so important.
Pinkney: If you look at the Middle Passage and how he used white, didn’t that make sense that he would find that.
Laird: I’m glad you bring that up because that is a fresh perspective that I didn’t think about before I talked to you. Tom Feelings is a black and white artist, obviously black and white is going to be significant to him. Good point. Are there any other statements you would like to make about that Norman Rockwell piece?
Pinkney: It’s so well composed, I mean, he used everything, the weight that those figures, those marshals and this fragileness but strength of Ruby Bridges. I mean, it’s just, it’s an amazing painting, and it’s an amazing painting at the time, you know? I’m thinking, cause I don’t have it in front of me, and I haven’t looked at it since we talked because I’ve been on the road. There is something symbolic in all of the elements on those. By the way, meeting Ruby Bridges, I don’t know if Norman Rockwell met her or where that image came from.
Laird: Some think it came from a book that he read by John Steinbeck called Travels With Charley. Steinbeck recorded the incident in this book and Rockwell was very inspired by this story.
Pinkney: Have you ever met Ruby?
Laird: No I haven’t, actually. I got on-line and I got in contact with someone that knew her. He asked her some questions for me, but I’ve never gotten in touch with her. I would love to.
Pinkney: You know, she has a foundation. This is a big leap, but it maybe isn’t. When you meet her, she is this person who is very open; she’s a beautiful woman and she shows no sense, how can I put this, she is that girl. She is doing what she has to do.
She isn’t screaming or any of that kind. Everything is done in a very subtle and the power comes from the subtlety in all of it. The strength comes through. She’s very strong. You get this warm, I mean, she’s not ever beating you over your head. If you meet her, you fall in love with her because she’s just warm and yet, when you hear her speak and it’s nothing, she never raises her voice or becomes dogmatic at all, but there’s an understanding, if you know the painting as we’re talking about the painting, you mesh the two and it works. So that’s kind of interesting.
Laird: It had to probably be an unbelievable experience for you.
Pinkney: Well, especially so because we had that conversation. You knew I was going to Columbia, South Carolina and when I get there, which I didn’t know cause there was no kind of schedule or anything in the program. There I am, we stayed at the Governor’s mansion and there’s Ruby Bridges. You remember I spoke to you about the NAACP and all that, thinking of myself as being all important and somebody might question me? She actually, when I got there, if there was a problem, it would have been the lightening rod and her foundation on what she stands for.
Laird: And if anyone was to question anyone, she would have been the first one to step forward.
Pinkney: She would have been the first one, exactly. I mean who was interested in me?
Laird: In the historical African-American significance, Pinkney kind of fades away?
Pinkney: Exactly, because I wouldn’t have served there purpose as well.
Laird: Oh, one other question when did you do the Underground Railroad series for National Geographic, what year, do you remember.
Pinkney: I think it was ‘84. Yeah, it appeared in July, ‘84.
Laird: Did the National Park Service already have the images or did they pick them up after that?
Pinkney: Now did you ask me about National Geographic or U.S. Park service?
Laird: No, actually, I’ve shown your images in my thesis three times in the Underground Railroad section and I showed that you did the cover in 1984, July 1984, but then, I scanned the cover of the Underground Railroad from the National Park service.
Pinkney: I got mixed up because I did another thing for the parks on Plantation Life. The cover for National Parks could be maybe three or four years ago.
Laird: Was it the same series that you did for the National Geographic?
Pinkney: Oh no. They came how many years apart, from 1984 to easily, I would think, 1998 or something like that. I would have to look it up, but the parks service stuff, that's fairly new. It can’t be that new cause I did an exhibition on it. There was probably ten years or so in between.
Laird: Well, out of all the Jerry Pinkney works that I have my hands on, I’m most fond of your Underground Railroad work. I think it’s just beautiful.
Pinkney: Well, one of the things, if I can add this to it is that, if one looks at my book work and you know there is a narrative that has to be completed in thirty-two or forty pages, then you have a work that has to speak on its own. You can put more into it. I think that has to be put into perspective. That’s why I do books every two years or so, I’ve been taking on a large assignment. You haven’t seen any of the bigger works that I’ve done for the parks service. They’re huge pieces of work that deal with like the Booker T. Washington National Monument and Carver National Monument cause nobody sees those, where I’m able to focus in on one painting. By the way, most of these paintings are twice to three times the scale of my work that I do for children.
Laird: Yes, I went all the way back to pictures of the slaves in African that were recorded in American illustration.
Pinkney: Did you see the piece I did on the slave trade from Ghana and Brazil.
Laird: There was one image I wanted to ask you about that is shown in Walt Reed’s book, is that one from that series?
Pinkney: I don’t remember.
Laird: The image is an African-American slave in profile slave ship underneath him.
Pinkney: No, no. That goes back to the 1970s easily. I’m trying to think, hold on just a minute, I’ll see if I can find it. I’ll tell you some of the best work that I’ve done and I thought that I might have some copies nearby. I did a project, I did the Underground Railroad in ‘84, I think I found one, the best work that I’ve done that speaks to the Middle Passage and the most traumatic work that I’ve done is in September. I took off my glasses and I was playing with them in my hand when you called. This work will probably, if you think you know my work, this will probably change it a little bit. September, 1992, called African Slave Trade and there are five, four or five pieces that I did for National Geographic that are pretty powerful in describing the institution of slavery. If you speak about my work, you need to see that and that will probably actually enlarge on the work that I’ve done on the Underground Railroad.
Laird: I will try to go to the library and look that up.
Pinkney: It’s not that long ago, so that will be an easy one to find. Oh good, unfortunately, there are two pieces, which you won’t be able to find. I did two pieces for the U.S. Parks Service on Booker T. Washington, which speaks directly to some situations where slaves or the unfreed are actually plotting, but that’s another story and you‘re never going to be able to find image because they were porcelain panels which are on the site of the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Rock Mount, Virginia.
Laird: Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule just for me.