I recently attended a panel discussion at the opening of a new exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art titled “Now and Then: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Childhood Art”. This exhibit will be on display until May 10, 2020 and features the artwork of many artist/illustrators from their childhood to their published works.
The panel discussion was part of the opening events, with author/illustrator Grace Lin as the moderator. The panel was comprised of five artists, including Evan Turk, Barbara Lehman, Shadra Strickland, Raul the Third, and Don Tate.
The topic of discussion was “Supporting the Creativity of the Young Adult.” I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conversation with my readers. Throughout this month, I will be reviewing a book selection from each of the artists.
Note: The following conversations are paraphrased. My shorthand is rusty and I couldn’t keep up, but I did capture the essence of the responses.
Grace Lin (GL): I want to begin by sharing a quote with the panel and audience. To have a whole-hearted life, we need to be a maker of things. Tell me – Why is creativity so important?
Shadra Stickland (SS): I think it is innate. Without creativity, we become disconnected. Creativity is an energy that must come out.
Raul the First (RF): Creativity takes you to unexpected places.
Barbara Lehman (BL): I think it is wired into us. It keeps us focused and contributes to our sense of well-being. When I am creating, I have a great feeling of absorption.
Don Tate (DT): I am a person of faith. Our creativity is a gift from our Creator and I believe we should use our talents.
GL: Life is hard. Let art make it easier. Does it?
ET: Life is not easier, but art helps it be easier to make meaning of things.
BL: Art connects us to others. It expands my world.
SS: It is not easier. Every book is pain and misery! However, outside the studio, art is more magical.
RT: Yes, I am so glad I am not doing any of the crummy jobs my parents wanted me to do! I think as artists we inspire others.
DT: I can’t imagine doing anything else. As a youth I was cripplingly shy. Art is my way to express myself and to communicate. I am beginning to love the art of the word as much as I love the art of drawing.
GL: Can you share a memory or give an example of how your books have inspired young readers?
BL: I can’t think of a single experience, but since I have been making wordless picture books I have heard from many teachers. They tell me about how they are using the books, especially when language is an issue.
ET: During school visits, I try to bring the children an understanding of the symbolism of a book. It is gratifying to see them experience the art in their own way.
SS: During my middle school visits, the students are so engaged. It’s humbling.
RF: These books really show where all our memories are. It is so nice for different people to share their experiences.
GL: I agree. You feel like saying, “This is the book I didn’t know I was waiting for.”
DT: The books also offer the opportunity to gain a different perspective. My father didn’t approve of my choice to be an artist, but the work showed him what an artist could be and he came to accept and respect it.
GL: It might be hard for parents to accept their child’s decision to be an artist. What advice can you give?
RF: Ignore your parents! My father’s philosophy was that art equaled laziness and laziness equaled art. Find people to support you.
DT: My father was not accepting of my work, but my mother covered our refrigerator with my pictures. I had an uncle who was a barber and whenever I went to his barber shop, he would tell people, “Here is the greatest artist ever.” Support your children with your words.
ET: I have family members who are also artists, so they had no issue with art as a career choice. However, I would like to point out that art takes hard work, practice, and diligence.
BL: As a kid I was not supported and I can understand the fear of choosing an unusual profession. Find people who are supportive of your choices.
SS: My mom believed in exposing me to everything. She took me to museums–even when I didn’t want to go!–so I would become aware of everything that is out there.
GL: Was there a moment in your youth when you knew you wanted to follow this path?
SS: There was no one “aha” moment. I had studied art in college. It was when I was teaching art to elementary school children that I realized that illustration could be a career. I went back to college to hone those skills.
RF: Where I grew up there was a comic book store that I used to visit all the time. The owner of the store used to draw comics and let me fill them in. Today, I draw comic book style illustrations.
DT: I was inspired by the television show “Good Times.” The character JJ became a commercial artist at an advertising agency. I was also inspired by my aunt who was a writer.
ET: My parents were artists. I also had a high school art teacher who was an out gay man who provided a lot of inspiration to me. I did graphic design on the side and later studied graphic design in college.
GL: Do you have certain practices to keep you inspired, to keep the juices flowing?
SS: I leave my head and get into my body. I leave the studio, go to museums.
DT: I go on school visits to be around children.
ET: I go out and draw just because I love it. I go to museums. Reading is also helpful.
BL: I go to museums. You need to have a balance. I also feel you need to cultivate a connection to childhood memories. I try to remember what got my attention.
RF: I just fly by the seat of my pants!
GL: Do you have any advice for parents on ways to nurture their children’s creativity?
SS: Take them to museums. Make them see art.
RF: Give them options. Let them have the ability to choose what interests them.
DT: Pay attention to kids – and don’t forget the power of praise.
BL: Give them lots of unstructured time to explore and create. Be nonjudgmental.
ET: Be their cheerleader.
SS: As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother. She would garden, restore old furniture. You have to let kids see you being creative.
GL: Yes, you need to be in touch with your own creativity.
At this point, Grace Lin opened the questions to the audience members. Since these also provided inspiring responses, I’ll continue to share the conversation.
Q: Can you tell us something about your current work, but also about some risks that you have been taking?
ET: I am currently working on a picture book biography of Ben Shahn. As for risks – I try something new with every book. I try to find a new visual language.
BL: I am working on a longer book. I’ve had a change of direction. This book is humor-based, which is a return to a childhood interest.
SS: My risk is to switch media with each book. I am currently working on writing more poetry.
RF: I am currently trying to create my own cartoon/comic book. It will range right from picture books and the characters within the book will be recurring throughout the series. My risk? I am trying to create my own cartoon!
DT: I am working on a couple of new books, but my big risk is to be here on this stage. Public speaking is still a challenge.
Q: Talk about the joy you feel in your work.
SS: I don’t think of my work as joy. You know, the pain and misery thing. I do think of it as a privilege and a service. Drawing is fun, but it is work.
RF: It is lots of fun. I like to make people laugh.
ET: I find my work contains a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It is fun and I like the challenge, but I don’t think of it as joyful.
BL: My work often seems fear-driven. I love the feeling of accomplishment and I certainly feel that I am aligned with what I am supposed to be doing, even though there is often lots of struggle.
DT: I think that joy does come to the artist. For me, writing is pure joy; it doesn’t seem like work. Although that is not always true. I often have to redo work.
BL: I think the key is revision. You have to have a passion to follow through.
ET: I love drawing and feel everybody should draw, but it requires practice.
SS: I am not a great drawer. What I am is a hard worker. I do the work that is behind that process; I build that muscle. Tools are very important. I like to change it up a lot.
RF: Join a gang. No! No! I don’t mean like that. I mean a gang of artists. I once belonged to an artist group. I learned so many things and it brought me so many opportunities and challenges.
Although the conversation ended here, stay tuned for more information on the work of each artist.