The Creatives-Jennifer Lewis

Today's guest is Jennifer Lewis, who just illustrated her first children's book! How exciting is that? I was introduced to Jenn by my friend Rachel who you might remember as our Peruvian Imaginary Vacation guide! Rachel is quite the creative herself so I let her take the reigns of this interview. I was really impressed by the way Jenn has used art to connect with other people from a very young age. Connecting with people is what art is all about, right?
Please welcome Jenn Lewis to the Creatives!

1. You have been an artist for a long time now.  How old were you when you started and what in particular sparked your interest in drawing and painting?

I remember illustrating my first "book" (really, a piece of copy paper folded in half) for my dad when I was about 5.  He wrote a story about a cat that had selected our family's garage as its maternity ward, and left space for me to draw the pictures.  I wanted to draw the cat hiding under the car, but made the mistake of drawing the car first; so the cat turned out as more of a snake with a cat's face.  I've been interested in drawing and music for as long as I can remember.  It's probably because my parents didn't let me watch more than an hour of t.v. each day and set me up with headphones and records or gave me projects like illustrating the story of the cat.

2. Was there a particular time or piece of work that you created that you felt like your passion for drawing and painting exploded?

I'm pretty sure it was when I was in 4th grade.  I had the same teacher for kindergarten and 4th and 6th grades.  She always set aside a part of the day for creative projects.  I remember realizing that drawing and painting might be something special for me while doing a project where we drew and painted an emperor penguin, then crumpled and flattened the paper to add a neat distressed background.  It wasn't so much the project itself as the fact that other kids started coming over and talking to me because of it.  I was painfully shy, and art became a way for me to interact with other kids.
3. Who are artists that inspire you?
I love the precise detail in the illustrations of Arnold Lobel, Beatrix Potter, Jill Barklem and Maurice Sendak.  And I love the simplicity and boldness of Ian Falconer's Olivia.  But my all-time favorite illustrator is Alphonse Mucha because he somehow seamlessly combines bold, delineated shapes with exquisite detail.
4. Many artists create out of a means of expressing themselves, what they see around them or even as a social commentary.  Much of your work is pretty personal and centered around your family and friends and I am curious to know how that started?  What are other inspirations for your work?
Well, as I mentioned before, art has been a way for me to connect with people for a long time.  But also, I think that there's a satisfaction in creating something for or about a specific person because I get to see him or her enjoy it.  It probably started with my family: we had a white board hanging in the hallway for phone messages, and sometimes I would get inspired and go write a silly poem or draw a picture on it late at night.  Then I'd wake up to hear people laughing.  More recently, I've made storybooks for my husband about things we've done together or things I love about him which is a sort of in-depth love note.  And it's also been a way for me to connect with kids when we've gone to Peru in spite of the fact I know very little Spanish.
5. Recently you illlustrated a children's book called Valentine the Porcupine Dances Funny by Derrick Brown.  Have you always wanted to illustrate a children's book?
Yes!  But it wasn't until college that I actually thought about it as something I could do for a living.  Some friends were talking about what they ideally wanted to do when they graduated.  When they asked me, I surprised myself by saying that I wanted to write and illustrate children's books.  Since then, I've always given that disclaimer when people ask me what I do.  I'd say, "Well, I make signs for Trader Joe's; but what I really want to do is illustrate children's books."
6. How did you find a story which needed an illustrator?  (Or did they find you?)
I actually met Derrick when I started college; but I only knew him for about 4 or 5 months.  When I moved to Orange County for college and met my husband, Steve, he just happened to be friends with Derrick.  Last March, Derrick e-mailed Steve, "Do you think your wife would be interested in illustrating a children's book?"  Steve didn't even ask me.  He just told Derrick yes.
7. How was your experience as an illustrator different or similar from other projects you have done?
It was similar to other art jobs I've done in that I started out feeling that I was working for Derrick: that my job was to represent his story in the best way possible.  What made it different was that after the initial design for Valentine--as far as what she looked like--he gave me free reign to make each page look how I wanted it to.  The result was a greater feeling of ownership--and therefore responsibility--for me.
8. Would you be up for illustrating another children's book?  If so, would there be anything you would do differently or want to experiment with?
I can't wait to illustrate another children's book!  I'd love to write my own.  As far as illustrating, I think I'm always going to be tweaking the style and the process a little.  Valentine was the first project I've ever had photographed instead of scanning.  I think that I'd stick with the photographs next time, but maybe play around with better ways to flatten the collage just the right amount to get the illustrations to look more like the real pieces when they're reproduced in print.
9. You dabble in a variety of mediums and many of your pieces are a mixture of drawing, painting, cutting, and collage.  What led you to the style that we see in "Valentine the Porcupine Dances Funny"?
The first time I used the collage style was in one of my final college classes.  Then, I insisted on only using cutout shapes and interesting textures (the corrugated inside of cardboard, pipe-cleaner mosquitoes): I thought it should be as graphic and simple as possible.  As time has gone by, I've almost completely changed my process.  Now, I paint my own paper, shade each piece, cut everything out, and paste it back together: it's much more detailed... and time-consuming!  I imagine that I'll continue to change and refine my style for years to come.
10. Your husband is also an artist (a videographer).  What is it like to be a part of a creative married duo?  Do you ever collaborate on work?  And if so, do you receive each other's ideas well or can there be friction between creative opinions?
We're both each other's biggest fans:  I'm amazed at the way he can take boring footage and piece it together into this heart-wrenching final product.  And he's been the main reason I've finally made it to this point with my art.  Because we have such different media, there aren't often chances for us to collaborate; but I do design the covers for his wedding DVDs and he has been sweet enough to teach me a little about photography and videography and has trusted me to run his back camera a couple of times.  In general though, I think that we just admire each other's processes and talents and try to inspire each other to keep creating.
11. "When I draw, I feel... at home".
Jenn it's been such a pleasure having you. I love how well you were able to articulate the importance of giving children different ways to express themselves and connect with others. We haven't seen the last of Jenn, so come back later this week for a special surprise!
Posted on April 18, 2011 and filed under The Creatives.