Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In the Realm of Johanna Wright


Portland author/illustrator Johanna Wright paints hidden worlds that only she (and children) can see. 'Little people' reading books atop mushrooms. A family of birds snuggling on a telephone wire. Babies swaddled in quilted cocoons. Family bands making music while straddling tree branches. Her disarming style evokes comfort and luminous warmth found only in secret hideaways and the realm of imagination. Last year, her first two children's books, The Secret Circus and Clover Twig and The Magical Cottage,  were published to great critical acclaim. Oregon Art Beat profiled Johanna's work last autumn after one of the show's producers discovered Johanna and her work at a local art fair.

Johanna stopped by to talk with me about her books, her artistic process, her upcoming art shows, and the magic of working with a timer.
 
AB: Please tell me about your two books that were published last year.
JWThe Secret Circus (Roaring Brook Press, 2009), which I wrote and illustrated, is my first published children's book ever and came out last spring.  It's about a circus in Paris, under a carousel near the Eiffel Tower, that is so secret, only the mice know how to find it. I painted it using acrylics in 16 spreads. The second book, Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage (Roaring Brook Press, 2009) was written by Kaye Umansky and is a middle grade fiction book. It's about a sensible, reliable and always tidy girl named Clover Twig who goes to work for a messy witch and discovers that the witch's cottage has quite a few secrets hiding inside of it! 

AB: Could you talk about your process for creating The Secret Circus? When using acrylic on canvas, how do you get that to your editor? How does that become a book?

JW: When making a book, the initial sketching is really hard for me. I love painting, but for me, drawing is hard work. I don't like the messy stages of sketching and drawing as much as I like finishing a piece. I use a timer to draw, so that I sit down and do it. That helps me get past my inhibitions. 

I painted The Secret Circus on stretched canvas. When the paintings were done, I took them off of their frames, put them all flat, and sent the sixteen spreads ( I work mainly with spreads) to my editor and art director. From there, they have a big water scanner and then, I don’t know- they magically send me proofs! The I get the f and g’s (the fold and gathered copies which aren’t bound), and afterwords the book comes out.

AB: You painted Clover Twig in watercolor, so it looks quite different from the acrylic work in The Secret Circus. Do you work in watercolor a lot? 

JW: I have, especially when I sold my paintings and hand-painted post cards in front of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when I lived in New York City.  Nancy Mercado was my art editor for Clover Twig, and illustrating a middle grade novel was a great experience. I learned that I have to read the whole book about a million times in order to work on the illustrations!

AB: I've read that in addition to children's literature, you studied puppetry at Evergreen. Do you still perform?

JW: I perform while I read The Secret Circus to children at schools, bookstores and libraries. I love this part of my job. I used to be so nervous when it came to public speaking, but I’ve kind of gotten over that by working with children. I like to talk with kids about how to make books, as well.


AB: In addition to writing and illustrating books, you create gorgeous paintings for sale as well. Some are even for purchase on your popular etsy site. What art inspired you to be an artist when you were a kid?

JW: Well, kids books were what I had access to, and I would get lost in the pictures. I loved the older fairy tale books, especially the illustrations of Errol Le Cain. He illustrated Sleeping Beauty and many of the classics in a medieval style. Even though my style is really different from his, I pore over his work and find it  very warm and certainly complex in a way that mine isn’t.

AB: There’s a simplicity to your art style, but your work, including The Secret Circus, exudes a warmth as well. Even when you use colors I associate with cooler palettes, the warmth comes through.

JW:  I do strive for warmth in my paintings. When I’m painting, I find myself gravitating to yellows and warm hues. And because I’m so intent on creating that feeling of warmth, I tend to mix a lot of yellow in with my cooler colors. At a physical, gut level, that warmth appeals to me. Even when I adjust pictures in Photoshop, I often bump up the yellow.

AB: Your art tends to gravitate towards comfort and…

JW: …feelings of safety! I had a nice childhood, with a lot of comfort and books and quilts and reading and trees. I grew up in Eugene and without painting too idyllic a portrait, I will say that it was really nice! I spent a lot of time imagining small things, and playing with little dolls around the foot of trees. My favorite thing to do as a little kid was collect and play with little tiny things. I’m the third of four children, and even though my sisters were much older than me, we would collect ‘little people’ and spend hours building houses for them inside and outside.


AB: Tell me about your two upcoming publications. I know one is called ‘Bandits’ (Roaring Brook Press, Spring 2011) and deals with thieving raccoons. You've posted this lovely sketch of one scene on your blog. I know my kids will love it, because they have a thing for raccoons.

JW: “Bandits” is one I’m working on right now, and it’s due really soon, so I’m hard at work on it. With picture books at Roaring Brook,  Neal Porter is my editor, and Jennifer Brown is my art director. They allow me a whole lot of freedom to create and are so kind and wonderful to work with. The other is called “Bonnie O’Boy Rides a Bike”(Dial Books, Summer 2011) by James Proimos, who also happens to be my friend and agent . It’s a fantasy about a little girl who gets a bike and goes on a lot of adventures. It’s really fun to paint.



AB: You met your agent James Proimos at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in New York, a.k.a. SCBWI-NY. How long did it take you from your first book ideas to publication? Can you tell us a little about the path to publication?

JW:  I signed with James 3 years ago. That was my second big SCBWI-NY conference. The first one I went to was about 5 years ago. I remember coming home and thinking, ‘this is the best industry.’ People are so approachable and kind. The egos seem really small in comparison with other industries, and people are down to earth and easy to get to know. It’s amazing. Writing and painting can both be isolating at times, so I always look forward to meeting other people in the publishing industry and comparing notes. When I started getting serious about picture book illustration,  I took a class at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) with Brian Floca. He really helped me understand how to write picture books. I had done some submissions and mailings before then for four years off and on. But after that class, I became much more focused and decided to attend some conferences.

AB: What resonated with you in Brian Floca’s class?

JW: The basics, like how to make a dummy. The set requirements, the 32 pages, etc. He also brought in Ian Falconer's Olivia books and others that were popular and read them to us. I was stunned that there was only a line of text per page. That was eye-opening. I had had this huge, long story, and ended up chopping it and changing the pacing. Brian helped me learn how to craft a page turn and how to have a full spread without text, like in The Secret Circus. He taught me what is powerful in a kids book; what resonates. What you can tell in pictures without words. I really learned about faces and expressions conveying emotion in Brian’s class. I transfer my sketches onto canvas, and when an eyebrow or mouth doesn’t set properly, the whole expression is off.


AB: I saw your work listed on the Illustrator Group Soup site. Could you tell me about that group?

JW: I met these illustrators at an SCBWI conference.  I think at the time, none of us were published when we formed Illustrator Group Soup, and we initially thought we would use the site to solicit work, but mainly it’s a support group where we’d give each other assignments and prompts. We would also give each other feedback- kind of like Illustration Friday. Once I did a painting called 'Gretel's Revenge' for a fairytale prompt. It's been a nice forum for feedback and camaraderie, and a great way to spark something new for our portfolios.

AB: While in New York, you sold art in front of MoMA and also worked painting backgrounds for Oliphant Studio. How did you come to that job?

JW:  I met my friend and fellow artist Wendy Crabb while I was selling art in front of MoMA. She connected me with work there. I painted the backgrounds for photo shoots and learned so much about painting techniques there. I learned about painting with quality supplies. I learned what to buy, what I like to use, and I got to experiment a lot.

 The techniques I learned from painting backgrounds are the same as I use for my books. Sponge backgrounds with a soft natural sponge on stretched canvas, with a base layer of darker paints. Then I let it dry, and do soft washes over it. Sarah Oliphant was doing that technique for the backgrounds of Annie Lebowitz photos. Sarah developed that technique and taught me how to do it. I also learned how to manage my time, and how to have my own business from working there. It was a great experience for me. It helped me clarify what I wanted to do and discover what would actually bring me joy in my life.
 
AB: What did you read as a kid?

JW: I read a ton. Everything by Beverly Cleary, everything by Judy Blume. My favorite book of all time is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

AB: Maybe you should have painted in front of the Met instead of the MoMA! What do you tend to read these days?

JW: You know, most of the reading I do these days is with my ears. That’s another trick I learned from working at Oliphant Studio. I listen a lot to books on tape while I’m working. Everything and anything. It distracts my mind from the critical part of my brain. It helps me work and zone out at the same time. I listen to a lot of kids books- I just got the Hunger Games. And pulpy novels, too, especially when I’m working on something hard and need some brain candy. I just got a Steven King book. I think it’ll get me through ‘Bandits’! I also listen to This American Life a lot. And Jim Dale’s audio of the Harry Potter series is the best.

AB: What about when you’re writing? What do you do to turn off that critical part of your brain when you write?

JW: Good question. I put a timer out, set it for ten minutes, and free write. I tell myself I can do anything for ten minutes, and it gets me going. When I think about novel writing, sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I think it can’t be done. But when I break it up into ten minutes, it seems feasible. And often when I set it for ten minutes, I write much longer, because I get into the zone. And keeps me away from the anxious tick of checking email.
 
AB: Johanna, thanks so much for stopping by today! One last question: do you have any upcoming exhibits?

JW: I do have a few shows coming up, where I will be selling art and signing books, too.  First, there's the Buckman Art Show and Sell  on March 12th and 13th, which is a benefit for Buckman Arts Focus Elementary School. Next up is Rieke Art Fair on Sunday, April 25th, and hopefully I'll be at the big Crafty Wonderland in May, but that one isn't confirmed yet.

9 comments:

Jim Di Bartolo said...

I love Johanna and her work! She's a gem of a person and someone to keep your eye on because she's going places!

Great interview too Amy and thanks for all of the images of her art!

Kim Kasch said...

Wonderful fantasy art - ahhhhhh just beautiful.

Amy Baskin said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Jim and Kim! Johanna is a gem and her art wraps me up snug like a cozy baby bunting.

Ben said...

I love those pictures. I can't wait to read your first book to my son Dasheek.

j.dresselhaus said...

Great Interview Amy and of one of my favorite writer/illustrators :)

Anonymous said...

The Secret Circus is one of my favorites of 2009. Thanks for the interview!

Leda

Ben Clanton said...

Awesome interview! Amy, this is a great blog and I love your website too. Exciting to hear about the feature in Stories for Children Magazine. Congrats! - Ben :)

Amy Baskin said...

Thanks Ben, Leda and Jami!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow, I love her art!! All of the illustrations are wonderful, but I especially love the one with the girl sitting in the tree reading a book!