Woodmere director William Valerio (right) and artist Jerry Pinkney discuss Pinkney’s book on Martin Luther King Jr. at a Woodmere event for Martin Luther King Day.

by William Valerio

As the director of Woodmere, I’m often asked whether I have a favorite work of art in our collection. My first thought is always this: asking that of a museum director is like asking a parent if they love one child more than the others.

But it’s not in my nature to leave it at that, so I say instead that, as someone who makes decisions all the time about what to hang on Woodmere’s walls, there are qualities I look for in any artist’s work. I like art that makes me think, that tells me something about the emotions of life or the particulars of social context. I like art that takes me on a journey or offers pleasure. I like art that is well made and engages the eye with mastery of the particular medium. I like art that makes me say: wow, I’ve never seen that before, this is an artist with original ideas. I also like getting to know an artist and their work over time, to understand the intangible quality that gets at self-expression and creativity. 

Untitled [Jackie Robinson as a Brooklyn Dodger], 1982, by Jerry Pinkney (Woodmere Art Museum, 2019)

As you read on, you will understand why: An artist on my mind today is renowned illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who is firmly entrenched in my personal pantheon of most-loved artists. Woodmere has worked with Jerry on many projects, and each time I have discovered new and interesting aspects of his work. Jerry grew up in Germantown, and his life experiences and values mesh beautifully with those of the communities that we serve. His masterful watercolors stand among the very best of American art and shine in their own way, exhibiting all the qualities I just described. His portrait of Jackie Robinson, recently acquired by the Museum, was part of a United States Postal Service commission for a stamp featuring the famed baseball player. As many times as I’ve seen a player in the batter’s box, I’ve never felt how an intense determination of inner focus can command both the taught verticals of physical presence and the horizontal expanse of social context. It’s all in the geometry of the composition. The artist’s color choices—black, white, and brown, and red, white, and blue—say everything about all that Robinson represents for us today. 

So, Jerry is an artist you want to know. And to that end, I invite you to enjoy an interview recorded this past January, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Jerry and I spoke about his new book, A Place to Land, which tells the story of Dr. King on the day before his famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington. We polished and posted our video of the interview on Woodmere’s website today.

As always, Jerry thinks through every illustration in ways that are unique to him, tying together past and present, with a cascade of images that integrate with the text to tell an important story. Jerry is an artist who is always asking questions, and that quality comes through in our conversation. During this period of social distancing, we are enjoying our engagement with digital projects that tell the stories of Philadelphia’s art and artists. I hope you are enjoying it, too!

William Valerio is the director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum.