March 11 - Happy Birthday, Ezra Jack Keats

Posted on March 11, 2018

How did a Polish Jewish boy from Brooklyn become a hero of multi-culturalism?

By doing what he loved - making art!

Ezra Jack Keats, who was born on this date in 1916, had a very poor family. His father was a waiter...and he tried to discourage Keats in his desire to become an artist. Despite the fact that Keats had been making pictures out of whatever scraps he could - whatever bits of cloth and wood and paper he could find - all through his childhood, and even though Keats got a lot of joy out of his artwork, Keats's father worried that art would keep his son poor or make him even poorer.

Artists live terrible lives, he would tell his son.

You ever heard of "the starving artist"? - he would ask his son.

Still, Keats's father loved his son and sometimes brought home art supplies he was able to get from some of those starving artists - he'd swap food from his restaurant for, say, a tube of oil paint.

Keats was winning contests and awards for his art, and two days before his graduation - where he was to get yet another award - his dad tragically died of a heart attack. That's when Keats discovered in his dad's wallet several well-worn, tattered newspaper articles about his contest wins and art awards. That's when Keats realized just how proud his dad had been of him.

Despite all of that early recognition for his artwork, Keats was not able to go to art school, as he wanted. Instead, the Great Depression happened. His father's death happened, plunging the poor family into even deeper poverty. World War II happened, and Keats served in the military. 

Keats kept plugging away at his art, whenever and wherever he could. He painted murals under a New Deal program. He was a comic book illustrator. He designed camouflage patterns for the U.S. Army Air Force. He took art classes when he could.

Finally, in 1949, Keats was able to paint in Paris and also study art in Paris. When he returned to New York City, he dove into illustration - book covers, magazine articles, store windows, even gallery exhibitions.

He was asked to illustrate a children's book - and he ended up writing and illustrating 22 books, compiling and illustrating several more books, and illustrating more than 60 books written by others.

Here is what he is especially known for:

Using collage.

Setting books in cities rather than out in the countryside.

Introducing multiculturalism into children's literature.

His Caldecott Award winning book The Snowy Day.

And here are a few of the many, many honors bestowed on Keats:

The people of Portland, Oregon, once held a Keats Parade. As did the people of Tokyo, Japan.

A skating rink in Japan was named for him.

Imagination Playground in Brooklyn was based on characters from Keats's books.

Here are some collage-art project ideas.


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