The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, the first major United States exhibition to pay tribute to beloved author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (1916–1983), will be on view at the Skirball Cultural Center from April 10 through September 7, 2014. Published at the height of the American civil rights movement, Keats’s landmark book The Snowy Day (1962) represents an historic milestone, featuring the first African American protagonist in a full-color children’s picture book. The Snowy Day went on to win the Caldecott Medal and has sold over five million copies to date, inspiring generations of readers and authors alike.
Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, the exhibition features more than eighty original works by Keats, from preliminary sketches to final paintings and collages from the artist’s most popular books. Also on view is a brief history of African American representation in twentieth-century picture books, personal correspondence, research materials, and examples of the artist’s more introspective but lesser-known output inspired by Asian art and haiku. Additionally, the exhibition invites visitors to engage in collage making and story writing, as well as other Keats-inspired activities, and to enjoy books together in a cozy reading area.
Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916. His parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Although he briefly studied painting in Paris on the GI Bill, Keats was primarily self-taught. For his art, he drew upon memories of growing up in East New York, at the time one of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods. Keats’s experience of anti-Semitism and poverty in his youth gave him a lifelong sympathy for all who suffered prejudice and want.
Of his decision to center The Snowy Day around an African American boy, Keats explained, “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” Not only did Keats bring multiracial faces to children’s literature, he also broke ground by setting many of his stories in dilapidated neighborhoods. Picture books had rarely featured such gritty landscapes before. Using lush color in his paintings and collages and focusing more on mood than plot, Keats depicted beauty in unexpected places. By the end of his life, he had illustrated more than eighty books, most of them for children, twenty-two of which he also authored.
“The Skirball is pleased to celebrate the pioneering art and life of Ezra Jack Keats,” remarked Robert Kirschner, Skirball Museum Director. “Keats’s experiences growing up in a poor Jewish family in Brooklyn fueled his interest in portraying disenfranchised peoples and urban environments. Yet his work transcends the personal. His characters and storylines appeal to what is human in each of us, regardless of race, age, class, and gender.”
Kirschner added, “We hope that visitors, whether they are longtime fans of Keats’ rich oeuvre or newly discovering The Snowy Day, will feel inspired by his books’ essential messages of harmony.”
Following its premiere at The Jewish Museum—which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Snowy Day—The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats traveled to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Akron Art Museum, and the National Museum of American Jewish History. The Skirball presentation concludes the national tour.