Work Behind the Work is a feature interviewing artists + makers about the roots of their creative process.
It has been far too long since my first Work Behind the Work interview. One of my goals this year for this space is to make it a regular feature, highlighting the process and beautiful minds of creatives and artists that I am lucky enough to know.
To briefly get a bit of an idea of what this is all about, in my first interview with Natalia Fernandes I wrote:
“Instead of asking artists and makers about the work itself, what if we dug deeper to find the wheels that turn, driving them to create in the first place? Let’s tune into that heartbeat of creativity.”
To continue on with this series of interviews, I could think of no more perfect of a person than my very own mother. It happens to be perfect timing as well, since this week marks her birthday(!), plus I am about to meet her in the Charles de Gaulle airport tomorrow to head off on a Vietnam adventure together.
My mom, Lauren Stringer, has been a radiant example for me of someone who truly turned their art and their passion into a flourishing career. She is a children’s book illustrator and author and I have been fortunate to witness the process of creation for each one of her 14 books (granted, during her first one I was less than a year old so I’m not sure if that counts). She is diligently hard-working and at the same time, always manages to stay true to herself and her art, which shows in each and every creation.
I am endlessly inspired by her and hope that through this little interview, some of that inspiration can be shared with you. Despite both of us being busy with preparations and packing, she generously carved out a window to impart a bit of creative wisdom on us. Read on:
1. What is your first memory of actively creating something?
My mom made sure there was always a box of crayons and a stack of paper available at all times, so I grew up with a crayon in my hand and drawing for all occasions. However, I have a very strong memory of taking an art class outside of school and learning about shapes and colors. Using only the color red and yellow, I remember assembling a collage that was purely abstract, but the large shapes and their movement across the page felt like I had entered another realm of creativity. The memory excites me even now. I must have been about nine.
2. When beginning a new project, what is the very first step you take?
When I am ready to begin a new project, usually a new picture book, the first step I take is a trip to Wet Paint, to find just the right sketchbook. All of my written thoughts, sketches, found images, and color swatches for the new project go into this sketchbook. It is my constant companion throughout the creative process; a source I return to again and again.
3. Is there a pattern to your creative work process? If so, how does it vary and how it is similar from one project to the next?
There seems to be familiar threads I follow that create patterns to my creative work process, but every time I begin a new project, I feel as if I am starting from scratch. Generally, I know I will need to generate hundreds of thumbnail sketches to get my ideas out. When I need more ideas than are in my head, I look at the art work of many of my favorite artists; either in books or at my local museums. There is usually one visual idea for the story that won’t let me go. It may be the first page or somewhere in the middle. I tend to work on this one visual idea over and over to discover the character(s) and scenery. It can become a bit obsessive, especially when I know I still have to generate fifteen more spreads for a thirty-two page picture book. Storyboards start early in the process for mapping out the story, both in words and pictures. When I finally reach the point of painting the final art for a picture book, all kinds of emotions take over; everything from fear, to sadness that the period of exploration and possibilities is over, to excitement.
4. What outside interests feed into the work you do with children’s book? How do these interests impact your career?
Throughout my creative life, I have had a love of theatre. I have designed and painted sets for performance artists, dancers, plays, and circus. I am certain that the awareness of staging and scene changes has helped me understand the “drama of the turning page”. I often see the picture book as a stage, with changing scenes. I become the director of the characters, placing them on the page in the foreground or background, depending on what needs to be conveyed to the reader.
5. What do you do when you are in a creative lull or feel stuck?
Read books. I belong to two wonderful book clubs that keep me reading books I might never have chosen on my own. I never know when I might stumble on a passage that will open up both visual ideas or a idea for a new story.
Walk. I love to walk around lakes, up mountains, through parks, or simply around my neighborhood. Usually after about 30 minutes, something comes into my head. I have been known to make a voice recording on my phone to save my idea, or take a photo of something I see in nature, that may solve a composition or a color problem.
I have a few close friends I trust. If things are really stuck, I will have them to my studio for feedback.
6. What is your most overwhelming doubt when it comes to your work and how do you overcome it?
Recently, I was sharing some of my doubts with an artist friend, and she said I was suffering from “imposter syndrome”. Despite all the books I have published and the years of being an artist, I still fear being found out. Isn’t that crazy? However, to overcome it, I read the stories of other artists I admire and learn that they too suffer from such syndromes of doubt. Remembering the child I was, who drew and painted with abandon, I can generally erase the doubt, or ignore it, and begin again.
7. Is there an underlying message, value, or idea that you wish to convey through the work you do? If so, how would you describe it?
I love art. I love words too. As a child, there was nothing I loved more than looking through a picture book with someone else reading the words. I guess I hope that my pictures and words might pull a child so deeply into their world of colors and shapes, and the rhythms they make from page to page, that that child will look up from the book and see their world in a new way, and hopefully want to read more books or make a drawing or dance with a deer.
*Photos of Lauren Stringer by Sharon McKendry