I remember trying to learn to whistle. Big kids and grown-ups made it look so effortless, so fun, but all I could do was puff my cheeks and spit air. It was the same with riding a two wheeler, or swimming–magnificent feats I couldn’t master until, suddenly, I did (Full disclosure: I still can’t manage much of a whistle).
The intense longing and frequent lonesomeness of childhood came back to me –flooded into me–last week at the Akron Art Museum, where we caught one of the last days of “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats”. The exhibit, now on its way to Philadelphia, is sponsored by The Jewish Museum. All these years I’ve ignorantly assumed Keats was black, only to discover that he was the child of Jewish immigrants. Growing up very poor in Brooklyn, back when that borough was packed with tenements full of striving, marginalized newcomers, little Jacob Ezra Katz made one of his first drawings on his mother’s tablecloth. His parents were none too wild about him becoming an artist, though nothing could stand in his way.
When I think of his work, “Whistle for Willie,” “A Chair for Peter”, “Letter to Amy” and of course “The Snowy Day” spring to mind. But the exhibit features works less known to me, more intensely auto-biographical and more depictive of what it was like growing up poor and an outsider. “The Dream” and “Apt. 3” are almost tone poems, done in the dark, broody tones of tenement life, where everyone lived on top of one another for better or for worse. The Louie books, especially, show a little boy who feels invisible, but slowly comes to find his place in the world. These books speak to anyone, of any ethnicity and time, who’s ever felt longing or dreamed dreams.
After spending time with those illustrations, I saw, even in the whimsical, celebratory “”The Snowy Day” a hint of lonesomeness. Look at Peter, out there all alone in that immense, silent landscape! The pictures are all cut paper, something else I didn’t know, and it’s astonishing to get a close-up look at what the man could do with one curving snip of his scissors. Peter looking back at his footprints in the pristine snow. That snow angel, wearing the same pointed cap as Peter! Keats said of the book that he just wanted to convery “the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day”.
Keats never married or had kids, and from the film I watched he seemed a shy, serious man with a fine sense of humor. Sherman Alexie, another writer who grew up on the outside, says that he finds in the the art “a gorgeous loneliness and a splendid isolation”. I found myself thinking, improbably, of Maurice Sendak, whose work, while so different, also shows how deeply and permanently childhood joys and fears imprint on us.
Keats, who was largely self-taught, loved Japanese art, and I’ve got an order in for a book of haiku he illustrated, “Spring Garden”, edited by Richard Lewis. The exhibit had one painting/collage from it, a glorious picture of a small boy dancing down the side of a hill, holding a poppy nearly as big as he is. The poem is by Issa:
Just simply alive,
both of us, I
and the poppies.