Amherst, MA --An exhibition depicting African American life, history, and culture by some of the most notable picture-book artists in the field is coming to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Featuring more than 30 illustrators, Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards opens October 21, 2018 and remains on view through January 27, 2019. The touring exhibition helps kick off a national celebration of the Coretta Scott King Awards in 2019, celebrating 50 years as a champion of books about the African American experience. The awards commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honor his wife, Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace.
The Illustrator Award, which is given each year by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee of the American Library Association (ALA), is one of the most prestigious citations in children's literature. It recognizes outstanding African American artists of children's books who demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.
Our Voice is the largest and most comprehensive presentation of Coretta Scott King illustrator winners and honorees ever assembled since the award was established in 1974. The exhibition, organized by the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) in Abilene, Texas, presents art from 100 of the 108 winning books. Honoring the struggles and triumphs of African Americans, the exhibition features historic events and figures including Josephine Baker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. The art is as varied as the stories themselves, including collage, oils, watercolors, photography, quilts, and ceramics.
Artist George Ford, the first award recipient, said it was "totally unexpected" when he won for his painted acrylic illustrations in Ray Charles (1973). "Although the award was a recognition of artistic excellence, I was most proud of the fact that it was a reward specifically intended as a source of inspiration and encouragement to African American children."
The scale and variety of artwork is remarkable. One of Faith Ringgold's vibrant painted quilts from Tar Beach, winner of the 1992 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, is on view. Tar Beach, Ringgold's first children's book, was also awarded a Caldecott Honor Medal. Baba Wagué Diakité illustrated his 1998 Coretta Scott King Honor book, The Hunterman and the Crocodile, on ceramic tiles painted with West African motifs. In his four winning books, artist Floyd Cooper used a technique he calls "oil erasure," in which he paints oil on illustration board and then erases the paint to make his pictures. A beautiful example is on view from Cooper's 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award-winning book, The Blacker the Berry: Poems.
Javaka Steptoe won the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe used bits of New York City--discarded wood he found in the dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones and on the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side--to create his richly textured assemblages. "For me," says Steptoe, "'collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming them into art forms. I want my audience, no matter what their background, to be able to enter into my world and make connections with comparable experiences in their own lives." One of the few photographs in the exhibition is a black-and-white portrait by South African photographer Peter Magubane from his book Black Child. Winner of 1983 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, Black Child was banned in the artist's home country by the Apartheid government. Magubane recalls, "I wanted the world to see what is going on in South Africa. The only way to show the world was through pictures."
Several artists are multiple-time winners and have numerous artworks on view. Illustrator and author Jerry Pinkney, winner of ten Coretta Scott King awards, has a pencil drawing from his 1981 Honor book Count Your Fingers African Style and a watercolor from his recent 2017 Honor citation for In Plain Sight. "I am a storyteller at heart," says Pinkney. "Each project begins with the question, 'is this story worth telling? Is it surprising and challenging?' My intent and hope is to lead the viewer into a world that only exists because of that picture. Many of these speak to my culture, while other works are based on my experience of being Black in America."
Ashley Bryan, the recipient of nine Coretta Scott King awards, is represented by, among others, a cut paper collage from Beautiful Blackbird (2003) and a tempera painting from Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (2016). At 95 years old, Bryan is renowned for his extraordinary range and depth as an artist, writer, storyteller, and scholar. He received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. Bryan Collier, another nine-time winner, won the 2001 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Uptown, his first authored book and one that took him seven years to get published. Collier is also represented by an enormous collage from his 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award book Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.
Kadir Nelson, a seven-time Coretta Scott King recipient, painted powerful imagery for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, his 2009 Coretta Scott King honor book about the unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and meager wages to play ball. Also on display are oil paintings from Nelson's other historical picture books including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2007 Honor), I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. (2013 Honor) and Nelson Mandela (2014 Honor).
"The Coretta Scott King Book Awards has enlarged the prominence of children's literature about the Black experience and heightened the work of our winning African American authors and illustrators," says Dr. Claudette S. McLinn, Chair, Coretta King Book Awards Committee, 2017-2019. "On behalf of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee of the American Library Association's Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT), it is with great pleasure to partner with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in presenting this extraordinary exhibition, Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards."
Additional features in the exhibition are iPads where guests can listen to audio clips of many artists speaking about their work. "We are pleased to highlight these award-winning illustrations and the books that feature them," says chief curator Ellen Keiter. "Hearing the artists' voices adds another layer of interest in the exhibition. Guests not only see the richly narrative art, they can hear the stories behind it too." Also in the gallery, visitors can enjoy custom-designed reading nooks that provide comfortable spaces to peruse the over 100 books represented in the exhibition. In hopes that visitors will leave inspired to think more about the exhibition and its themes, small cards with quotations by Coretta Scott King will be free for guests to take home.
Illustrators participating in this exhibition include:
Benny Andrews, Colin Bootman, Ashley Bryan, R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, Floyd Cooper, Pat Cummings, Nancy Devard, Baba Diakité, Leo & Diane Dillon, Shane Evans, Tom Feelings, George Ford, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ekua Holmes, Gordon C. James, E. B. Lewis, Peter Magubane , Christopher Myers, Kadir Nelson, Brian Pinkney, Jerry Pinkney, James Ransome, Synthia St. James, Joe Sam, Charles R. Smith, Daniel Minter, Frank Morrison, Sean Qualls, Faith Ringgold, Christian Robinson, Reynolds Ruffins, Javaka Steptoe, John Steptoe, Michele Wood, and Kathleen Atkins Wilson.
Image: George Ford, Illustration for Ray Charles by Sharon Bell Mathis (Lee & Low Books). Courtesy of NCCIL. © 1973 George Ford.