Saturday, October 17, 2009

Morrie Turner at SFPL

Morrie Turner, Creator of Wee Pals Cartoon: a 45 Year Retrospective, an exhibition produced by the AfroSolo Theatre Company at the San Francisco Public Library (August 15 - October 15, 2009), showed an impressive range of work by this award winning cartoonist. Large display cases clustered in three locations within the library explored not only his best-known work, the Wee Pals comic strip, but also Turner’s Soul Corner panels and the social/political cartoons he created in the 1960’s & 70’s for publications like Black World and Ebony.

Turner, a life-long resident of Oakland, California, was born in 1923. He was a self-taught artist, and some of his first publications were strips he drew for military magazines while serving in WWII. After his service was completed, he continued drawing, supplementing his income with a job as a police clerk.

With the encouragement of Charles Schulz, Turner became a full-time cartoonist in 1964. In 1965, he developed a racially-integrated comic strip called Dinky Fellas that ran in five newspapers, which was renamed Wee Pals. By 1966, Wee Pals could be seen in over 70 newspapers in the US and abroad. The strip gained true nationwide acceptance after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when it’s publication expanded to over 100 newspapers nationwide, making it the first nationally syndicated racially-integrated comic strip.

The library exhibition, curated by Kheven Legrone, devotes several display cases to Wee Pals. Outside the Children’s Center, on the library’s second floor, two cases featured Wee Pals books and memorabilia, and paintings that were used as background slides for a children’s concert series, A Journey Into Jazz, performed by the Oakland Symphony at the Paramount Theatre. These slides featured portraits of famous jazz musicians, and child characters demonstrating dance moves in different styles. Turner would attend these concerts, sketching the children that attended and giving them the drawings.

The heart of the exhibition, upstairs in the African American Center, focuses on the development of the Wee Pals characters (some based on Turner, his son, grandchildren and friends), his production methods on the Wee Pals strip, and his political cartoons. Many of these single panel “civil rights cartoons” (as Turner called them), drawn with pen, ink and watercolor, found humor in irony. For example, one drawing depicts a White panhandler saying “Thanks, Boy” to a wealthy Black gentleman that had just deposited a dollar in his cup (Turner says this really happened to him). Also featured in this part of the exhibition was a series of cartoons Turner created in 1969, when he was invited with five other cartoonists by the National Cartoonist Society to travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops. He spent twenty-seven days on the front lines and in hospitals sketching more than 3,000 caricatures of service people.

Turner’s drawings for the Sunday Soul Corner panels were prominently displayed in the third floor main lobby. These drawings, originally meant to fill up the "drop out panel" in Turner's Sunday strips, illustrate the accomplishments of famous persons of color.

Turner (shown in conversation with Belva Davis at the SFPL 11/15/09) still lives in Oakland in the house his father bought in 1941, and continues to reach out to children through small cartooning classes and guest lectures at schools. Turner’s life was the subject of the 2001 documentary, Keeping the Faith with Morrie, produced by Angel Harper for Heaven Sent Productions Inc.

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