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Museum displaying works by author, illustrator Keats

4/4/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Roger Durbin

Shown is an illustration from “Whistle for Willie, ” which is on view in the Akron Art Museum’s The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats.
Photo courtesy of the Akron Art Museum
DOWNTOWN AKRON — The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats — the first major U.S. exhibition to pay tribute to award-winning author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats — will be on view at the Akron Art Museum through June 30.

This is an exhibit children also will enjoy. Not only are the illustrations that Keats is famous for (in children’s books like “Whistle for Willie,” “Peter’s Chair” and his signature work, “The Snowy Day”) likely to entertain the whole family, just for children is a large reading room installation designed from the “neighborhood” that Keats depicted in his images. On Fridays at 11:15 a.m. through June 28, there will be a story hour with museum educators and staff reading picture book classics and contemporary tales.

Children will no doubt love to be in the middle of a story set.

The exhibit is significant in the amount of material being presented. Viewers might not think that from scanning the walls when they first walk in, but they soon will as they begin reading the didactics provided for this exhibit and see such things as dummy books where image and dialogue and activity are laid out side-by-side like a movie storyboard.

“The Snowy Day” display is organized in six sections — if that gives you some idea of the scope of the show. Each part brings something new and unique in telling us about the art of Keats (born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916).

The “Introduction” gathers together images and panels that are presumably self-portraits of the artist. Keats liked to put himself into his work in this very particular way. It makes sense. He was quoted as saying “I love city life,” and it shows. Since he is recording his neighborhood and the kind of tenement life that he was born into, why not celebrate it through self-inclusion.

In the “Coming of Age in Brooklyn,” we see clearly his regard for — and critical understanding of — his neighborhood. Keats was famous for presenting images of tenement life — broken doors, trash cans, graffiti-laden walls and fences and the like. The images can be construed as a romantic view of that life, what with bright colors and cute story lines, but it seems more that he wanted to get at the notion that people can thrive and live rich lives even in such a place. Maybe themes like “outsmarting the bullies” in fact teach children how to cope, and that’s Keats’ legacy.

Other sections include: “Bringing the Background to the Foreground” (wherein Keats’ 1934 award-winning “Shantytown” image is displayed to show the author’s attempt to reveal persistent social problems); “The Snowy Day” (with special emphasis on critical reception of this significant book and its illustrations); “Peter’s Neighborhood” (which features the artist’s key and distinctive image elements of abandoned spaces, ruined umbrellas, overflowing city garbage cans, etc.); “Keats in the Studio” (where viewers can see his palette, brushes and the pieces of fabric and other materials that he collected to use with his collages); and “Spirituality, Nature, and Asian Art” (which shows the artist’s fascination with haiku poems).

The concluding section of the exhibit brings back images of neighborhood life that were finished illustrations for materials used in the “Introduction.”

The exhibit gives a plethora of information about Keats, but also serves as a kind of study on how artists work. Part of the display shows photographs of people and places that Keats later turned into illustrations and part of his stories. As an example, he has a photo of a young boy who put a paper bag on his head as a hat. That turned into a story of the child, Louie, walking through his neighborhood and seeing all sorts of its denizens and what they wear (like a woman with curlers in her hair and a bearded man with a big, floppy hat).

Also, there is a short film showing the artist as he demonstrates how he created marbled paper that he loved to use for his illustrations. That visual aid helps in understanding the images as viewers walk through the 120-plus images on view.

General admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors (65 and older) and free for children (17 and younger) and members. On the third Thursday of every month, individual admission to the collection is free. Special exhibitions may require paid admission.

Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information, visit www.AkronArtMuseum.org.


Roger Durbin is professor emeritus of bibliography at The University of Akron and an avid art enthusiast. To contact him, email r.durbin@sbcglobal.net.

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