This past weekend my family and I visited The Snowy Day and The Art of Ezra Jack Keats at the Skirball Cultural Center. I wasn’t sure if my three young children would enjoy the exhibition –the first in the United States for Keats, a white man who wrote stories featuring black characters during American civil rights movement — but they loved it.
We were all immediately drawn in by the eighty-plus original Keats works, each one bursting with lush, bright images and enhanced by the special goggles provided to us upon entering. The kids shuffled throughout the exhibit, pointing out the tattered newspaper clippings and colorful pieces of paper in the illustrations. Keats’ works depict beauty found in unexpected places: tired Brooklyn neighborhoods, abandoned doors, trash cans.
Like many great artists, Keats was ahead of his time, reflecting the 1920′s East New York of his childhood. I was thrilled to give my children a glimpse of a man who not only influenced great change through art but is also a personal inspiration to me.
“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. His characters and storylines appeal to what is human in each of us, regardless of race, age, class, and gender.”
Because of the characters featured in so many of his books, many people assumed the Jewish-born Keats was black. When asked when the “white version” of his book was coming out, he replied, “there is only one version, much like life.”
The Skirball Cultural Center excels at engaging children and allowing them to interact with an exhibit’s art, and Snowy Day is no execption. Wearing their goggles, my children tromped happily across the snowy mountain, dipped into the soft waterbed snow below their feet, and marveled at the “crunch-crunch” sound effects overhead.
Wall-installed Ipads -and a comfy spot on the floor- provided a reprieve for the kids to relax and listen to continuously looping Keats’ stories. And later, a shadow wall exercise provoked discussion of the unique ways that Keats used shadows in his stories.
But the best part of the afternoon was the forty minutes we spent in the reading room, where the kids, supplied with colored pencils and open books, tapped into their inspirations from the preceding exhibits while my wife and I, cozy on couches, caught up on other Keats works. As we read to the children, evidence of their unlocked imaginations bloomed before us on the hands-on exploration wall. A blank sky was suddenly transformed into a colorful cityscape with sideways streetlamps, circles, scraps of color, people of all colors, planes flying overhead.
I could only get them to leave by promising that we would come back again. As we walked out, my daughter turned to me and said, “Today was the best day ever! I think I liked this better than Disneyland.”
The Snowy Day and the art of Ezra Jack Keats exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, Hurd Gallery. Photo by Steve Cohn.