Sunday was spent with friends at an exhibit of Ezra jack Keats’s work. To see his brushstrokes, his storyboards and his handwriting up close and in person was magical. I have long been a fan of his work; his particular style of collage and paper marbling connect with me on a deeper level. Touring the room I saw we had a few other things in common, like finding inspiration where you least expect it, and not questioning that muse. There was a clipping featured in the exhibit that Keats had cut out from a Time magazine that used to hang on his studio wall. It became the inspiration for Peter in “The Snowy Day,” Keats had clipped it 20 years before that picturebook was published. That just Blew. Me. Away.
What touched me most was that Keats had never intended for Peter to be any certain race or ethnicity; instead he said that Peter had just sprung up from the pages as if he always belonged there. His book, which won the coveted Caldecott award, was published when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Yet he never meant the book to be controversial. But reviewers criticized his depiction of Peter’s mother as a large black mammy, while at the same time others wrote in support of her character and how they agreed with the characterization. When Keats would go to literary gatherings or attend award ceremonies, most everyone was surprised to learn that he was not an African American. His characters seemed so real, it felt as if they were a part of the artist’s own childhood.
Nowadays those assumptions may seem silly, yet every time you put something out into the world you invite criticism. There is never a shortage of people ready to tell you just what they think of your
work. Yet the true accomplishment should be in the creating and then the courage to let it go. To let others see it, and in a sense to see you.
Somedays I’m not that brave. Somedays I don’t have anything to give. Somedays writing this blog takes all I have and then some. Somedays I just try to sit back and take it all in and hope to get unexpectedly inspired. And when it does it’s like a bell goes off, edges shimmer and there’s a certain knowing takes over. Given the opportunity, I love to create with words, with photography; with paints, clay and paper. I find that getting my hands dirty helps. And in a sense it’s always the right answer for me, no matter the question. But I don’t often have the chance to sink myself into my work like that. Deadlines rise up and, gnash their terrible teeth and roar their terrible roars, demanding to be noticed.. There are other paralyzing factors:Fear of mistakes. Fear of criticism. Fear of influencing others with your work and what responsibility, if any, you have to them.
But we put ourselves at risk in other ways, not just with art. Even just being kind or doing something that you feel deep down is right, can incite strong words of disapproval from those who won’t be quieted. Keats felt called to create kids books in world of anger and injustice. Think of all of those people today doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts that end up affecting people in ways you never thought possible. Imagine a newspaper clipping today that inspires an artist to be brave and create a book twenty years later, which in turn touches the life of another person forty years after that. That is a fantastic magic, a beauty that knows no boundaries.