“Art is not a thing,” states Elbert Hubbard. “It is a way.”
A way of life for some. A way of living.
Rodin claimed that “art is the most sublime mission of man[/woman], since it is the expression of thought seeking to understand the world and to make it understood.”
Art also often offers us a way to explore and, perhaps, understand ourselves – our thoughts, fears, imaginings, values, dreams.
For illustrator Janie Stapleton, art is also a way to connect.
“Aside from the fact that I’ve simply always drawn and to do otherwise hasn’t really occurred to me yet,” says Janie, “I think that the act of drawing or painting relaxes me. It gives me something to focus my energy on and gives me an outlet for whatever it is I’m thinking about or dealing with.
As for what motivates me, I think that depends day-to-day. My motivation never wanes, but sometimes it’s because I want to make people laugh, or think, or reassure them they’re not alone in whatever ails them. I guess you could easily say that I create art for people though. I love people. I want to connect with them and create ways for people to connect to each other. So I try to make my art relatable and fun to look at.”
Back in February, when I attended the wonderful SCBWI Conference in NYC for the first time, I encountered scores of artists and several of them in particular connected with me on various levels through their work. Illustrations that resonated with me through humor, through tenderness, through the use of color and lines, through interesting characters, touching moments, and in some instances for simply being different.
Janie was one of those illustrators whose work spoke to me. That is why I asked her to be part of Other Cool Birds. And I was thrilled when she accepted the invitation.
The first question I asked Janie was about Jacqueline Woodson’s comment that writers tend to focus on the time in their lives they’re still working through and if it was relevant to visual artists, to illustrators, to her.
“I think,” she replied, “that everyone is always responding to whatever they are experiencing in their lives, especially those with creative tendencies. Entrepreneurs and inventors would fall in that category as well, I think.
You experience a need, or an event, or have a question you’re working through, and you create solutions to your problems. And if you’re creative, those solutions are often entertaining for others. For writers I think that shows up in the worlds they create through language, and for artists I think it shows up in the images we produce, as well as the ideas presented behind those images.”
Since you illustrate books for young readers, I asked, did you have a favorite illustration or illustrator when you were young?
“As a kid, my favorite artist was the same as it is now: Bill Watterson. I grew up with a near religious devotion to Calvin and Hobbes, reading the comic every morning while I ate my cereal. My dad and I would also sit and talk about how well the comic was laid out, both the writing and the visuals. My dad isn’t an active artist himself, but he has an uncanny eye and a deep appreciation for art. He would point out the compositions and the line decisions, and talk about how amazing Watterson’s choices were.
So imagine my shock as a teenager when I found out most artists viewed Calvin and Hobbes as ‘just a comic.’ Still, he has remained my favorite artist since 4th grade.
However, I recognize that he isn’t a traditional illustrator for young readers, so honorable mention has to go to Sebastian Meschenmoser, who is by far my favorite children’s book illustrator. I stumbled across his work in a bookstore one afternoon, and have been enamored ever since. His draftsmanship is so inspiring. And I love the humor and personality in his drawings. And his stories are so absurd that they come full circle to believable. I love that.”
I have to admit that I haven’t heard of Meschenmoser before now, but intend to investigate him further. Watterson, however, I too have an affinity for regardless of Calvin and Hobbes state as just a comic or not. When I was in grad school for writing for children, although most of my closest colleagues and mentors got it, I encountered a number of students who wrote literary fiction, poetry, plays, and non-fiction, who deemed picture books as trivial and inanely simple. Until the day they were asked to create one themselves.
I doubt Calvin and Hobbes was created to hang in a gallery or museum. Nor to be a picture book. Perhaps it’s value should be based on what it does. The way it allows us . . . the way it gets us to view the world. And to laugh.
Of course, although I am a novice when it comes to art studies, I have always found “comics” to be quite valuable, as well, for the visual art and as a wonderful vehicle for storytelling.
A relative newbie to SCBWI, having joined in 2016, Janie’s experience thus far as been positive.
“SCBWI has been a wonderful resource in helping me understand what to expect in a life as a working artist, as well as connecting me to some other motivated young creatives.
As a young person working towards a career as an artist, you are generally met with a rainbow of attitudes, few of them understanding or supportive. It is so refreshing to walk into a room and have no one question your sanity for pursuing your career. A year and a half ago, that was invaluable support for me. Now I’m a little more confident and sure of what I’m up to, and I think that the supportive community in SCBWI is largely responsible for that shift.”
Such support of an artist or writer cannot be overvalued. Often those closest to us have no idea what it is we actually do, and more importantly why. If you live in a community where most people don’t “get you,” it can become increasingly difficult to persevere. For the world of an artist tends to be one of isolation, of rejection . . . often multitudes of rejection (and perceived failure), of more time spent researching and practicing and creating than of finished products.
Fortunately for Janie, and for writers like myself, the SCBWI exists to offer support and to remind us we are not alone. That some out there do in fact “get it.”
When asked what techniques she used to create the illustrations with the elephant and girl or the samurai kangaroo, Janie replied: “I use watercolor and ink in all of my work.
I’m partial to Holbein watercolors, and either Higgins or FW Ink, depending on how much opacity I’m after. I also employ a lot of masking tape in creating edges and lines in my work, and I draw the whole thing out on tracing paper in bits and pieces, before assembling it on a light box and putting it on watercolor paper. Then I mount the watercolor paper to museum board.
I usually have the color scheme fairly well planned out in my head, but I’ll make a few little thumbnail paintings with simple blobs of color to see if I like how it’s all going to work together. Altogether a larger illustration like those will take me a week to complete.”
Any exciting projects coming up, I asked, for which we should keep on the lookout?
“Right now I’m working on a personal project, which is a webcomic that has been slowly coming together. For years I have made comics to share with friends or to blow off steam, but recently I’ve begun taking them more seriously and compiling them into a series.
I would like to amass a little army of comics and put them into book or zine form, and make them available. It’s in the infant stages now, but it’s a project I am excited about. The feedback I’ve gotten has been extremely encouraging as well, and I love to see people laugh at something I put together.”
There’s a playfulness, a sense of humor, delight, and of tenderness in many of Janie’s paintings and illustrations. I hope you spend a little time with her and her work by visiting her website (you’ll find illustrations and comics). And if you’re “a social media junkie” like Janie, check out even more of her work on Facebook and Instagram.