Jerry Pinkney Comes Full Circle

display of carolers at White House, Christmas decorations
Jerry Pinkney has illustrated more than 100 children's books on everything from African American history to fairy tales. The minute first lady Laura Bush saw his work, she decided that, especially in this difficult time, his touch was needed to help brighten Christmas at the White House this year.

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner visits the Christmas White House…and the world of Jerry Pinkney.

The theme of the White House Christmas this year is "Home For The Holidays" – a theme Mrs. Bush says she selected in July, well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

There is something brave about the Christmas decorations at the White House this year, something heart-breaking about the safe, once-upon-a-time world they conjure up. After Sept. 11, "Home For The Holidays" took on new meaning.

Usually, more than 100,000 people tour the White House at Christmas time. This year, for security reasons, they won't be allowed in. But the first lady's staff decided to go ahead with the booklet they originally planned to send visitors home with – a Christmas brochure illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

Actually, after Sept. 11, Pinkney wasn't sure what would happen to his White House project. But he kept working.

Says he, "We're speaking of a time when we all very desperately needed to be lifted, you know, and here I had this project." And it was a project that the White House wanted finished.

On Oct. 12, the day he was visited by Sunday Morning, Pinkney was at work with his watercolors on the cover of the booklet, a display of Christmas carolers.

Explains the artist, "I think the opportunity to have on the cover, carolers of different races and different cultures became even more important. It was an idea before. It had to be now, because it, in some way, suggests the fabric of this country that became very important to all of us, really -- especially now."

For Jerry Pinkney, though, it always has been important, ever since he became one of the first African-American illustrators to break the color barrier in children's book publishing nearly 40 years and more than 100 books ago. He used each book to explore a part of his own heritage.

"I had four children, and they were looking at books," he says, "and there was a lack of people of color. There was a lack of them understanding their own history. There was a lack in terms of my own personal knowledge of African-American history."

From the young Harriet Tubman to the folk hero John Henry, much of the original art is now touring the country. Pinkney explains, "It is, in a sense, a mission… and I think it's one of the things I'm privileged to do, what I do, is the fact that I can have an idea and have a voice, which is the work I do."

He immerses himself in his subject matter – for example, in "Goin' Someplace Special", segregation in the South.

"I couldn't connect to that book until I had to, in my mind, walk under a sign that leads you to the back of the bus," he recalls.

Pinkney uses models but still imagines himself as every character.

"I played cowboys when I was a kid," he recalls. "You know, I was Gene Autry, Tom Mix… I had all the hats. I had everything -- holster, gun in the holster -- and so when I had an opportunity to do 'Black Cowboy, Wild Horses', I played cowboys again. This time, I'm Bob Lemmons. I'm an African-American cowboy."

He's always torn between his sense of obligation to address African-American subjects and the meanderings of his mind in other directions.

"I love pretending I'm a creature. I love pretending I'm a king in northwest Africa," he says with a laugh. "So it fulfills a lot of needs."

He has illustrated a number of animal stories and fairy tales. His next book is a retelling of the fable "The Nightingale."

Often, when he needs models, he dresses himself and members of his family in costume and works from photographs. In fact, children's books have become the family business. Two of the four Pinkney children (and their wives) are involved.

Myles Pinkney is a photographer; his wife, Sandra, a writer. Their book, "Shades of Black", was featured at the Harlem Book Fair. Brian Pinkney (Myles's brother) and his wife. Andrea, were there, too. Brian is an illustrator, like his father. Andrea is a writer and children's book editor. Their books were on display a few stalls away.

Jerry Pinkney illustrated his wife Gloria's first two children's books, Jerry, Myles, and Brian all contributed to her latest, a spiritual book called "In the Forest of Your Remembrance".

Together, the Pinkney clan has published more than 150 books. At family gatherings, they always bring their latest work-in-progress and critique each other. And nothing makes Jerry Pinkney happier than the thought of others following in his footsteps.

"I've always worked very hard to get a kind of exposure that other people could see – first, my children -- that an African American could succeed in certain areas we don't associate African Americans," he says.

Pinkney was the first African-American illustrator to design postage stamps. He's done 11 – part of his quest for visibility has been to contribute to projects for the nation. The National Park Service used paintings of his in a booklet documenting the history of the Underground Railroad. He has worked for the U.S. Information Agency and for NASA. But when the phone rang and it was the White House, he couldn't quite believe it.

"This is almost like icing on the ake right now," he says. "This sort of brings me full circle."

At the White House, one of the 49 Christmas trees is decorated with miniature versions of Jerry Pinkney's books. It wasn't until the Pinkneys were inside, being shown around by first lady Laura Bush herself, that Pinkney got to see his work in finished form.

Recalls Pinkney, "I was in a space where I could actually do something in this time of turmoil, or this time of questioning. What can I do?"

What he did was to soothe us, with a likeness of the innocent, storybook holiday we wish could be real this year. It was his gift to the White House.

As the artist puts it: "It's, like, this is a way of saying how much -- how much I love this country."

For a Home For The Holidays 360 Degree Tour, go to the White House Web site.

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