Determination and Insanity

Wednesday, Sep 10, 2014

I’ve been a full-time artist for nearly 2 dozen years now (which means I am older than I think I am…or at least older than I act).  The self-employed always-applying-for-a-job nature of being an artist takes a good amount of determination, and I think a dose of insanity too.  Determination and insanity mingle together to shove you into a “just do it” mode (to steal from the old Nike campaign).  To make it in the Art World this is an essential mode to find, whether it is allowing you to experiment on a blank canvas or stepping out in a new creative venture.  I guess you could also just say that art is tied to risk taking.

One of the cool parts of getting older is amassing stories where the risks paid off.  I’ve got a handful of them I’m going to share in the coming weeks.

Risk Payoff #1.  I’ve always been taken by the art of picture books.  While in college I started creating my first story: John the Bunny.  It was a story about a bunny.  His name was John.  That was about the extent of the story.  But I was determined and insane (in the way twenty-somethings are) and decided to shop my ideas in New York City.

Through an acquaintance I had gotten in contact with artist (and since, Caldecott winner) David Small, who at the time had his studio in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan.  In a way reaching out to him was Risk #1/ignorant-young-punk-move #1, but he is kind and gracious and would have lunch with me at a local diner.  He even kindly and graciously helped me set up some meetings with art directors and editors at Big Publishers in NYC.  So off I went.

Let’s be clear - John the Bunny was terrible.  I learned as much in meeting after meeting in NYC as I ascended giant skyscrapers with my portfolio.  But I continued to risk my pride and sponged in every bit of advice I could.  At one publisher the editor I was supposed to meet was delayed, and so a young associate editor took the meeting.  She agreed with the general assessment of John the Bunny (that it blew), but took extra time to look through my art and gave me added input (most of which revolved around story-telling).

I went home and applied what I had learned, and a year later sent my new idea back to NYC — to a recently promoted editor-in-chief named Virginia Duncan (yep, same person) who picked it up.  The Dragon Pack Snack Attack, my first book (co-authored by Jeff Grooters), was the result.

I like telling these sorts of stories to Would-Be-Artists.  If you don’t risk it, you never find out if what you have is worth sharing, or have the opportunity to learn how to make it better.  I’m pretty glad that John the Bunny wasn’t the end of it (because did I mention that it was pretty darn bad?).