Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Stuffed" with creativity

Today, I'm thrilled to host one of my personal creative heroes, Barbara Johansen Newman, whom I know as "Barb." She's a member of my online critique group, a woman who is generous, hilarious and just plain fun to be around. We always try to get together every summer when my family heads north for vacation. Since we are both mothers of all-boy families, we have a lot in common... including the fact that our first books are coming out this season. Well, actually, Barb is way ahead of me with many, MANY books in print, but Tex and Sugar is her first book as both author AND illustrator. And BOY, is it GORGEOUS!! Just see for yourself...

Barb has one of the "funnest" blogs I've ever had the pleasure of reading: Cats and Jammers Studio. It's quirky and eclectic, just like Barb herself.

1. So Barb, tell us about your road to publication: You started in a very different artistic field, didn't you? How does that field differ from the current one?

I went to college to become an artist, but I promised my mother that I would get a degree in art education, so I did (she was afraid I would starve).

Then I never really looked for work as a teacher. We are talking mid 1970’s, when there were very few teaching jobs available. Furthermore, after four years of art school, only one of which was worth my time, I found myself wanting to go far away from painting and drawing (anyone who has ever endured the trauma that is called “art professors” might understand that attitude), so I delved into puppetry with a vengeance along my husband Phil, who turned out to be a natural puppeteer.

We did puppet shows for about four years and during that time we were hired to perform at one craft fair, and then another. As part of our payment I asked for a booth to sell handmade puppets and also dolls. Soon, I discovered that I loved making the figures much more than performing and I began working with fiber and doing some national craft shows and selling my dolls and puppets which soon morphed into soft sculptures by 1975. I showed and sold them in galleries around the country.

It was a good time to be doing this. The seventies were a wonderful time for fine crafts. The public at large began to really understand and appreciate hand made objects, and they bought them, too! I am very grateful that I was a part of that world at that particular time when it was fresh and just bursting with excitement and possibilities.

Still, I missed the immediate enjoyment of just drawing. So I began to sketch, and I started incorporating surface ecoration into the dolls .

When we moved to Boston, I decided it was time for a change. I worked on a portfolio of illustration work. After about 6 months I started going around to book publishers, magazines, and newspapers. And, since my work was edgy, and edgy was not for kids’ books in the early 80’s, I got lots of magazine work. My eternal thanks to the late Stan McCray, the then art editor at Boston Magazine, for giving me my first real illustration job. That was around 1982. I spent a number of years doing lots of editorial work after that.

2. And how has your experience as an author differed from your experience as an illustrator?

As author/illustrator I can give life to the stories, characters, and objects in my own head that are right up my alley, in a way that is just slightly more freeing because I do not have to follow the confines of an existing story.

Don'’t get me wrong, I love doing that for the stories of other people, too, but there are certain things I absolutely LOVE to draw and think about, and the best way to get more of of those things into my art, is to write them into my own stories.

I would love someone to send me a story with an abundance of funky stuff in the story line. Lots of junk. Colorful people. But, in the meantime, I am writing to create my own opportunities.

3. Which took you more time, the writing or the illustrating of the book?

The illustration, by far. Creating the dummy for Tex and Sugar and painting it, was as much time on a single project as I have ever spent. It was cast of thousands and it took ten solid months of work, from about 9:30 in the morning, to about 11:00 at night, seven days a week with a day or two here and there for a break. I also illustrated a chapter book by David Adler during that time. I broke for meals, but I still do not remember actually doing any cooking, although I think I must have. I brought in a lot of take-out food, and I ignored a lot of laundry. Housework was never my strong suit, anyway. I have an extremely high threshold for mess and clutter.....

Here’s the rub: even when I am not up to my eyeballs in projects, I still am not fond of cooking and housework , and I still ignore the laundry. I just don’t have as much of an excuse.

4. I know you enjoy blogging about your "junk" habit. (I guess that makes you a TRUE junky, right?) Do your "junk finds" contribute to your creative process?

More and more. I love junk. I love talking about it, I love hunting for it, I love decorating with it (yes, the perfect contradiction: I love to decorate but I hate housework) and I am always trying to figure out ways to merge my love of kitschy objects with my love of book illustration. I constantly find inspiration in the colors, textures and patterns of other eras (especially the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s) . It was easier with editorial work, to stick in a lava lamp or two, here and there, along with some bowling trophies. With book work, it is slightly more challenging to insert junk--but I do.

In fact, in my school presentation I show the kids my book illustrations and tell them to study the objects in it, and then I show them my house and ask them to see if they can find the junk that I have drawn into the art. They love doing that!

Now, if only I could figure out how to put my Elvis lamps into my next book....

5. Do your kids or husband inspire your writing in any way?

I do get lots of ideas from my sons and husband. They have inspired a number of specific characters and story lines, so I have several on the shelf that I need to think more about and find time to develop. I just need more hours in a day. Lack of time is my biggest problem.

But, I have to say, that sometimes when you are in the middle of raising kids, which can be stressful to say the least, the whole experience can be too close to home, and you need to think about other stories just to have a break from problems you live with, that are especially challenging.

In the meantime, I try to hide family names in my stories and I may put a face or two here and there, just to make myself happy.

Thanks Barb! It's been a pleasure visiting with you. Hope to visit you FOR REAL again this summer!

Barbara's book tour took her to Dotti Enderle's blog yesterday, Elizabeth Dulemba's on Tuesday, Ruth McNally Barshaw's blog Wednesday, and she'll be at Karen Lee's on Friday. Visit all five, and you'll get to know and love Barb nearly as well as WE do!