Monday, March 3, 2014

I Attended the SCBWI Conference in NYC!

Whoa, it's been over 3 months since I last posted here. Where have I been? Well, I feel like my brain has been floating somewhere above my body, wanting to come home. I got caught up in a whirlwind of trying to sell my notecards, tabling at craft shows, celebrating Christmas with my family, and then starting a second part-time job.

In early February I began getting ready for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in NYC that I have been thinking about for over a year and that took place at the end of February. Then there were two fires at my apartment and my boyfriend and I had to move out immediately (don't worry, everyone was safe and we hardly lost anything). I almost decided not to go to the conference, but  realized I would be seriously depressed if I didn't go and would not know what direction to take with my illustration. I spent a week packing and moving to a new apartment, then furiously prepared my portfolio, printed promo postcards, and worked on my artwork for the Illustrator's Intensive Workshop that I was to attend before the conference. Our assignment was to depict a scene from Snow White which conveyed a unique perspective on character and setting.

I created a linocut. Here it is in the process of being carved:

In New York, I took the subway to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for the pre-conference Illustrator's Intensive. I was nervous and excited and couldn't really visualize what it would be like. I attended an amazing interview session with Tomie DePaola and Cecelia Yung. Brett Helquist and Paul Zelinsky also gave great lectures. There was a panel review of some illustrations that workshop attendees had submitted. Certain observations surprised me, such as how it wasn't as important how technically-skilled the artist was - what mattered most was whether their image conveyed an authentic sense of character or mood that would make the reader care.

When it was time to have the small group critiques of our Snow White pieces, I hoped my work would hold up a little bit to scrutiny. It did not. I think my reviewer said a few good things at the beginning (I remember her using the word "elegant"), but she said that the characters looked too similar, the scene was too dark and didn't convey a sense of glowing candlelight, the image was hard to read from far away, and it would be nice if there was some color. Another woman in the group had created a woodblock-looking piece that had color but also a strong sense of black-and-white, and my reviewer said that hers was much more successful. She also told me that I am competing with black-and-white greats like Chris Van Allsburg, so my work has to be as good as that.

I took notes on all she said and tried to be objective about it, but left feeling dejected. My reviewer did counter that hers was just one opinion, and every art director would have a different one. Still, I cried later that night. I felt very overwhelmed. I wondered if I was really cut out for children's illustration after all. I felt badly because black-and-white work and linocuts are usually my strong suit, so what did it mean if someone told me I wasn't good enough? Granted, when I compare my finished piece alongside the work-in-progress I can see how the ink filled in some of the white areas I carved, making the printed version look darker than I had intended. I plan to re-work the piece so there is stronger contrast.

The next morning at the conference, Jack Gantos spoke and he was hilarious and awesome. At lunchtime I forced myself to talk to someone because I didn't want my shyness to get the better of me. I talked with a guy I had met the day before, and we looked at his portfolio and then I asked if he would look at mine. Months of anxiety over creating the "perfect" portfolio had resulted in serious procrastination, so I had put my portfolio together at the last-minute using images I already had. From all that had learned so far, I knew my portfolio did not possess the characteristics that were essential to an effective children's book portfolio. But he said I shouldn't be so hard on myself, that I hadn't originally created most of the pieces for the purpose of children's illustration, and that their objectives were different. He was right, and I realized that I wasn't a horrible artist. After that, my mood brightened.

One message that seemed to come up again and again was the fact that every children's book writer and illustrator has to work and revise, work and revise. Fail, fail, and repeat. It all just LOOKS easy once it's in print on the page. All you see is the fruits of the labor. But the real job is actually hard work! It's fun, too, but it's definitely work.
 Here is the eagerly-awaited Picture Book Panel with Arthur Levine, Shadra Strickland, Oliver Jeffers, Marla Frazee, Raul Colon, and Peter Brown.

By the time the 2-day conference was over, I was so inspired by the great community of artists and writers that so strongly desire to reach the world with their art. I want to be part of this community for the rest of my life. This is just the beginning of my journey. I feel a much clearer sense of purpose and I know what I need to do to improve. I also want to get back to the soul of why I'm doing this. I am looking at picture books with a different eye, thinking about how I felt when I was a child and what drew me to the stories and the characters. What made the books that I keep on my bookshelf today such a lasting influence. The conference reminded me that it's all about what we pass on to a younger generation, what we choose to give.

I was SO inspired, that I quit my job a few days after I came home because I wanted to devote myself to creating a new portfolio and a children's book dummy. I felt such a sense of relief that I am getting back to the heart of what's important to me and that I won't have to rush around so much. Of course there are practical concerns that I'm not sure how I'll work out, but for right now I'm not going to think about those. My decision feels right for me now, and if challenges arise I will work them out. Isn't that what artists do - find creative solutions?

So my advice to all creatives out there - just KEEP WORKING!