The Los Angeles Skirball Cultural Center is showcasing the Ezra Jack Keats exhibit dubbed The Snowy Day now through September 7. This is the first major exhibition in the United States to pay tribute to the work of Keats, a Jewish man who fancied using Black characters as the focus of his books and artwork.
Growing up in New York during The Great Depression, Keats’ influence for his work was very dark and depressing; much of his earlier work did not feature people only focused on the dark and gloomy details of the city and the neighborhood he grew up in.
Keats’ grew up facing daily anti-Semitism discrimination, making it easier for him to relate to his Black friends in the neighborhood. Keats prided himself on depicting only the things he knew and experienced first-hand, keeping his artwork and his stories genuine. Most of the books he wrote were autobiographical, but were never written in first person; Keats always embodied himself and others he knew in his life as either animals (like Willie the dog) or other fictional characters (like Peter and Louie) that he would consistently use in other stories. He drew most of the inspiration for his artwork through his studies of Japanese art. He visited Japan and also Paris to get a first-hand experience of the culture and artwork.
All artwork featured in the exhibit was supplied by the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and archives from the University of Mississippi. Some works on display include illustrations from his stories such as The Trip (1978), Dreams (1974), Louie (1975), and The Snowy Day (1962) along with many others. The exhibit has been traveling nationwide. This Los Angeles stop, however, has proven to differentiate greatly from the rest. The Skirball Center’s artistic director, Robert Kirschner, and curator Erin Clancey have put together an awe-inspiring exhibit customized to stand out from the rest by using 3D goggles, and interactive video screens that display some of Keats’ books and reads them aloud. These audiobooks and some video books are also available on iTunes.
Midway through the exhibit, there is a section called “Bringing the Background to the Foreground” that explores the work of writers and artists that were preludes to Keats’ work. This part of the exhibit features works from W.E.B. Du Bois, Inez Hogan, Langston Hughes, and Helen Bannerman.
In another part of the exhibit, there are original letters to and from Keats that criticized his work, giving visitors an insight as to the scrutiny Keats received for some of the stories and artwork he produced.
The end of the exhibit is designed to be the most interactive. It is concluded in a very large activity room complete with a writing/drawing activity area and a spacious reading area with various couches and chairs modeled after some of those depicted in Keats’ artwork. There is also an entire wall dedicated to magnet art. Visitors are supplied with various magnets of people, clothing, and other objects that they can place on the wall and create art of their own.
Kirschner and Clancey have produced an exhibit that allows viewers to get a deeper understanding of Keats and his work. “The Snowy Day” exhibit will captivate the imagination of visitors of any age and has captured the beauty and originality of the work that Keats produced during his lifetime.