I left my full time job the day before this year’s SCBWI winter conference. I had been working as a production designer at a children’s app start up company in Brooklyn. The company is a wonderful one so as I settled in for the Illustrator’s Intensive at 8am in the Grand Hyatt on Friday I was feeling a wistful and emotionally unsteady, not entirely sure if I was making good life choices.
Conferences are weird. Have you been to overnight camp? It’s like a concentrated version of that. Two days of intensive gatherings resulting in long lasting, longform letter-writing type relationships. There are people who return annually; little crews that know the scene deeply and can anticipate when the coffee will be taken away. I happen to sit next to such a group on Friday. “You should get two cups now,” I was told, “the free stuff’s gone in an hour.” This was the start of days of solid advice.
I try to be open to feedback. Two years ago I graduated from an illustration MFA program and received varied criticism on my thesis project. I had illustrated a personal picture book of sorts. It was a long, wordless narrative about a girl walking through the woods with her dog.
Nothing really happened in the book. The characters just walked together. I loved it. The goal wasn’t to make a commercial product. It was my first time really making a book like that, so I didn’t want to have to think about marketability. I received a lot of compliments on the art, but also a good deal of constructive input about the story. Mostly I was told that if I really did want to break into the picture book market I’d have to start making characters or to try and really foreground a narrative.
Fast forward two years and I’m sitting at my first SCBWI winter conference, watching Mike Curato talk about his own career path as an illustrator. He’s telling us about the little polka dotted elephant he couldn’t stop thinking about and how the little figure ended up launching his career.
I see how his work evolved and I compare it to my own journey. I think about how I just left a very comfortable design position out of sheer faith in my creative abilities. I have a little internal freakout and feel like a fraud. I thought about my work and the characters that I had tried to bring to life over the past two years as a result of my thesis criticism. I felt unsure about how successfully I had done that.
I wondered if I’ve been able to take advice, but I also became concerned about artistic integrity. That’s always been where my anxieties live. I’ve written about this before, but I am wary of the state of visual consumerism at all levels: apps, advertisements, newspapers, picture books. I get nervous the moment someone mentions “brandability”, which is often a conversation that large publishing entities want to have when it comes to their product: books. All too often I see vision sacrificed in the name of “the market”. I get it, it’s a powerful thing. But, when I think about making art for children’s books, I hope that I have been able to maintain my own sense of individuality while creating characters that people, specifically art directors, will want to buy. I hope that I’ve stuck the right balance.
There’s an art browse at the conference on Saturday evening. All the conference goers, all the however hundreds of people, walk around a room and check out the art. During that time I had several conversations with fellow illustrators about this very issue of voice. I had looked through most of the portfolios by this time, albeit briefly, and I was getting nervous because I did feel like my work was, perhaps, not commercial enough for the audience. Maybe my voice with getting in the way of the content, just like my thesis project. Perhaps I hadn’t truly listened to the advice that I had been given. But still, many people were complimenting me on my style, which, to me, was interesting and heartening.
Sunday morning came. That’s when, cruelly (so early!), they announce the winners of the big portfolio showcase. This is different than the art browse. The portfolio showcase is a special private event that happens at the beginning of the conference. The art director illuminati of New York come and cast their judgement on your work and take any postcards you may have placed next to your little portfolio book. Then they leave in the dark of night and the illustrators collect their leftover things and sweat it out for the rest of the weekend. It’s a pretty great way to build tension, I must say.
So at 8am on Sunday all of the illustrators were on edges of their seats. I had come to the conference with the basic goal of showing up (ninety-nine percent of the battle or whatever), but I had to admit that I was feeling very nervous by then. I was edge sitting too. Competing wasn’t my initial plan, but I had definitely gotten swept up. As they announced the secondary honorees, I saw Brook Smart and Jacob Grant stand. I recalled their work-very strong and beautiful. At that point I sighed, fairly certain that the award would go to someone else. I even had a few people’s portfolio’s in mind.
But then they called my name.
I wonder: What does this mean about the state of children’s book illustration? The market? Brandability? Judging by the amount of excitement I just experienced and my current email inbox, I can move forward satisfied that people/the market crave the imagery I’m creating. Being a commercial artist can be maddening at times. The line between the “artistic” and the “commercial” can be so indistinct. The nature of the role is often at odds with itself, but that’s actually what I like about being in the profession. The tricky thing about it all is balance. I’m still learning about that.
I now set off in a new life direction away from the start-up world and empowered by this recent vote of confidence by SCBWI and all of my fellow illustrators and writers there. It all couldn’t have come at a better time. I had arrived on Friday feeling uncertain and raw, but left on Sunday transformed. Thank you to everyone who stopped to say “congratulations” to me-it meant more than you might have known.
Here is a look at some of the images from my portfolio. You can judge their commercial viability for yourself.