VSS Illustrator Interviews

In doing these interviews, we hope to give you a glimpse into our artist members' unique personalities, a new perspective on their wonderful work, and the opportunity to know what inspires them!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Janeen Mason

Janeen is our guest at The Visual Storytellers Studio this week. She lives in Florida and her colorful artwork is very influenced by the ocean. Janeen has a lot of wonderful things to say and I'm going to let her get right to it! Remember to check out her website also, www.JaneenMason.com
How did you get started in illustration?

Burt Reynolds used to own a beautiful dinner theatre in our little town on the east coast of Florida.  He was the top box office star at the time and his famous friends would come from all over to perform on our stage.  It was magic.   The place bubbled with creativity and enthusiasm and there was practically no turnover in staff.  We’d all be there still if he hadn’t sold the place after ten years.  But sell it he did, so I went into real estate - and hated it.  I was bereft.  There was a black hole in my heart that used to contain laughter and energy and ideas. 

My brother-in-law went to work in Belgium, so my sisters and a friend and I went to visit.   We wandered around Paris and Amsterdam, and little towns in between where we feasted on beauty and European attention to detail. Near the end of our trip we found ourselves at the home of another friend in Holland.  One sparkling morning with plans for another round of quaint little shops, great food and inspiring museums we stepped out his back door.   But for me, in that instant, time stopped.  I was completely transported by a perfect little violet growing up out of the hard packed dirt between the stones on his back steps.  I excused myself from the day’s excursion, dug through my backpack until I found the traveling watercolor set I’d packed a lifetime ago in Florida, and for the rest of that day I painted. I hadn’t done that in years.  It was life changing.  In that moment I was back.  I’d been creatively recharged.  When I returned to the states I bought a drafting table, a lamp and a chair, and sketched endlessly into the wee morning hours for months. 

All of my life I intended to write and illustrate children’s books, but life somehow got in the way.  What I realized on that trip was “If not now, then when?”  I wasn’t getting any younger.

I wrote my first story, created a book dummy, sent it to 58 publishers, and started collecting rejections.  That’s when I found SCBW (it didn’t always have an “I” on the end), and a critique group where I could workshop my story ideas.   I met a publisher at one of the conferences, and got my first job illustrating a story for her… did I mention it took twelve years?  (During that time, however, I was getting better at my craft.  I was traveling to wildlife art expos around the country selling my fine art, and licensing my work for reproduction.) 

I ended up as the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI Florida, but after five years and all that I had going on it was time to hand it off. The very talented Linda Shute, who is also far thinking, and kind took it over.  We have an illustrator’s intensive every year in Orlando.  It’s coming up again on June 24th!  You should come! http://www.floridaillustrators.net/

What is your favorite medium?  Can you describe your process for us?

I sketch thumbnails until I’m happy with the composition.  Then I go to work sketching the characters until they emerge recognizably in various poses.  When my thumbnails are approved I go to scale sketches, scan them, print them on 140 hot press watercolor paper and pin the entire book up on a wall in the studio in front of my drafting table.  Most of my books are mixed media, I start with Acrylic Gouache, I might layer on clear gesso, then color pencil, more gouache, add some acrylic ink… I like the freedom of being able to change my mind – hence the acrylics, but if I really make a mess out of the piece and need to start over I just go back to the file, press the print button, and voila! The sketch is ready again to paint.  Scanning the sketches and saving them ahead of time is a little like taking an umbrella to the ball game, which always seems to act as insurance against rain.  (I’ve only had to start an illustration over a couple of times.)
There are always exceptions to what I’m saying here, though.  For instance, the book I did by Marianne Berkes, Going Around the Sun: Some Planetary Fun was one that I illustrated with Crayola crayons on a hot pancake griddle.  I’d been casting about for ideas on how I was going to illustrate the solar system, how I was going to scale it down and what media I’d use to make it interesting and colorful, not black and foreboding and cold. I was visiting a school in the Florida panhandle, Graceville Elementary,  where the art teacher had such good energy.  When the school built a new  cafeteria she inherited the old one – what a great room.  Big, plenty of light, and the storage was unlimited.  She showed me the art her kids produced using old buffet warming plates and broken recycled crayons.  The kids loved making art, and they loved their art teacher.  I discovered this perfect media to create space, too.  Try this sometime, it is like aromatherapy that is guaranteed to transport you directly to the first grade.
Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories?  Which comes first for you? 

Both.  So far I’ve written AND illustrated three of my thirteen books.  If it is a book I’ve written then the process works like this:  The story comes first. I may spend time working out the details in thumbnails, then write the words, take it back to thumbnails to see if it works, rewrite.. and around and around it goes.  I circle the idea for awhile and when I finally commit to the story I try to capture it however it will allow. 

If I’m illustrating someone else’s work then I start to capture images the first time I read the manuscript.  It’s like watching a movie behind my eyelids.  I read somewhere that illustrators don’t illustrate nouns.  We illustrate verbs.  That sort of simplifies the idea, doesn’t it?

The exception?  When I got to adapt and illustrate John Denver’s beautiful song,
For Baby (For Bobbie). Some background on the song:  This was John Denver’s first love song and he wrote it for a girlfriend by the name of Bobbie. It was wildly successful.  Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, later sang this song to her baby girl – same music, same words, entirely different meaning…  hence the title “For Baby (for Bobbie)”.  Once again, the song enjoyed great success.  I learned to drive listening to John Denver on the 8 track player in my Mom’s Chevy Nova as I tooled back and forth to the beach with the top down.  His music represented such euphoria, such freedom! Growing up, I spent summers with my sister and her family in the Cleveland suburbs, and my memories from those golden days are always played with the strains of Peter Paul and Mary’s music in the background. 

Adapting and illustrating this music was like a dream come true.

I listened to this song on my iPod over and over until an idea took hold.  My question was how could I dovetail John Denver’s environmental work around the world and Mary Traver’s love for a child into a theme I could carry through this book?  Remember I used to travel those wildlife art expos?  I met some really interesting people at those shows.  One was a man who was born and raised on Sri Lanka, and he told this amazing story about his aunt who started a facility to save baby elephants.  It still exists today, the name is Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.  So I started this book with a map of the world.  I put together interesting facts about animals and their babies from all over the globe.  If you know the song, you’ll recall it goes like this, “I’ll walk in the rain by your side, I’ll cling to the warmth of your hand, I’ll do anything to help you understand, I’ll love you more than anybody can….” So it began on page 4 with a mother and child from Sri Lanka in the foreground and a herd of nanny elephants with a baby, in the background in the rain…On the map on pages 30-31, there was a detail of the elephants placed next to the island nation of Sri Lanka, and at the bottom of the page there is a paragraph that contains a little bit of fascinating information about the creatures and the people in each spread.

I hoped John Denver and Mary Travers would approve my message that worked out to be:  Everyone everywhere (animal or human) loves their babies.
Do you illustrate full time or do you have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life?

Full time.  This is my day job.  I get up every morning, make coffee, read the paper, walk the dog, journal, and head the ten feet from the back door of my house to the front door of my studio.  Here I work all day long, every day.  It’s a good life and it sounds so simple.  Not.  I became involved in Arts Advocacy along the way.  It started when I began to work as a guest curator from time to time for my local Arts Council, eventually I ended up on the board of directors there.  That grew into becoming involved in Public Art Boards, both at the local and state level.  A few years ago I was appointed by the Florida Senate President to serve on the Florida Council for Arts and Culture (the advisory body to the Chief Cultural Officer, the Secretary of State, and the Division of Cultural Affairs), I was reappointed by another Senate President, and moved from Secretary to Vice Chair of the Council.   In April 2010 I termed out, and Florida’s Secretary of State appointed me to the board of directors for Citizens for Florida Arts.

This has been an enormous honor, and again, I’ve met the most interesting people as a result of this service.  There are artists working at all levels creating the most amazing things using their ingenuity and elbow grease.  What I’ve learned is this:  Legislators tend to think that the Arts are for the elite.  In this economy, if your state still has money left in the budget for the Arts I can guarantee it is because you have an active State Arts Council that has somehow managed to convince your legislators that the Arts are FUNDAMENTAL. Sir Ken Robinson said it best:  “Creativity is as important as literacy.

This commitment has taken a good bit of time and although it is an honor, it is voluntary.  The state only reimburses expenses.  There are days I feel like Don Quxiote – out there tilting windmills and wondering if it wouldn’t make more sense to quietly live my little life.  But I am proud to report to you today that Florida’s Governor just signed the budget for 2011-12 last Thursday afternoon, and Hallelujah!!! Our state is still investing in the Arts.

I speak at schools (one of my favorite things – I’m wild about the kids),
A solo exhibit of 100 original picture book illustrations of mine has been traveling Florida museums for the last couple of years.  This requires constant organization. 
Biscayne National Park is going to host the exhibit this summer, from June 12th – September 11th.  It is called “Drawn to the Sea”, and because of limited space the exhibit will feature only 30 pieces, most from Ocean Commotion: Life on the Reef and Ocean Commotion: Sea Turtles!

I’ve included a couple from World’s Greatest Explorer because that story ends at Key Biscayne, and a couple of the spreads from the Kissimmee Pete books because they deal with hurricanes and hard livin’)
And I haven’t even mentioned that we have kids and grandkids… Within a 30 mile radius we have six grandchildren.  I spend as much time with them as our schedules will allow.   They’re wonderful.  I’m lucky.  It’s a busy life.
Where in the country do you live?  Could you describe your studio and include some photos?

I live in Stuart, Florida.  It used to be a quiet little fishing village, not any more.  It is on the east coast of south Florida. We are about one mile from the Atlantic Ocean as the crow flies, but I have to drive seven miles to get to the beach. Here’s the webcam for our inlet, you can see what the ocean looks like today: http://www.stlucieinlet.com/
Our weather is warm year ‘round, as is our water, and there are healthy reefs right offshore.  Just this morning I was at a beach we call the “bathtub” with my grandchildren.  We snorkeled for a couple of hours and saw lots of fish and shells.  WE LOVE THE OCEAN.

I mentioned above that my studio is attached to my house.  I’ve had some pretty cool old studios out in the public, but I’ll back up… Fifteen years ago my father became terminally ill, and I took him to every Doctor’s appointment, every therapy session, etc., etc.   He and my mom lived about two miles south of us at the time.  Mom was beginning to experience symptoms of dementia, but at the time we didn’t know he was terminal, we didn’t know she had dementia, nor did we realize the direction our lives would take with fifteen years of caregiving.  By the time Dad passed away my Mom couldn’t live on her own anymore.  She moved in with us, and we built an addition on the back of our house.  Half of it was Mom’s apartment the other half my studio.  Eventually Mom went to live in a nursing home, and the memory still breaks my heart.  She passed away in January.  I don’t want to sound like I’m making light of this phase of my life. 
Caring for my parents has been filled with laughter and tears, and I’m grateful that I’ve been in business for myself, so that I had control of my schedule and could spare the time and attention they needed.

My studio is 14’ x  28’.  My husband builds custom in-home environments… libraries, media rooms, etc.  Here you can see his website: www.KevinPMason.com.   (Florida has been very hard hit by the recession and only lately has his business begun to pick up again.)   So about seven years ago, when he built the studio for me, he filled it with closets and cupboards.  It’s a great place to work and there’s plenty of storage.  A friend of mine who still works in Theatre came to visit, and when he walked into my studio he said “Ahh!  It’s like a brain trust!  You can feel the creativity in the atmosphere!”  Wow.  I love that guy.
Now I am gradually expanding my studio into Mom’s old living room which is 14’ x 14’… I’ve got a couple of projects going on in there right now… big projects for me.  One project is a room divider commissioned by a patron of mine – it measures 7’tall by 7’ wide.  It is an underwater scene in the brackish water up in the mangroves.  On the back side there is a school of menhaden (threadfin herring) all silver leafed on a background of gold leafing.  The front has a 4’ silver tarpon in the mangroves with a snook and a redfish in the background.  At the top of the frames there will be 3D pieces, a night heron, a couple of crabs, mangrove trunks and leaves.  The bottom of the frames will hold 3D oysters and a lobster.  This Memorial Day weekend I’ve been building the sculptural components out of foam, and polyester resins.  I love this stuff!  It isn’t ready for photos, yet.  I’m sorry.  You’ll just have to trust me that this is going to be Beautiful!!! (I’m excited.)

Mom’s apartment still has a lovely bedroom and bath that I hope to keep as a guest room.

Tell us about your education and training.  Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?

Oh, how much do you really want to know?  I started auditing courses at a junior college in Ohio when I was 12 years old… remember I used to spend summers with my sister and her family?  When I left high school in my senior year – the perfect storm of teenage angst and parents who worked 18 hour days- my sister picked me up at the Cleveland airport and drove me directly out to the college to talk to my art professors.  By the end of that week they had me enrolled as a full time student, and all of the courses that I’d audited were suddenly credited courses.  I was a dual enrollment student before it became a part of the vernacular.  So when someone asks about my education I always tell them I’m a product of an ongoing education.  I don’t have a degree in Art, but I have had some fabulous teachers along the way. 

Please list any of you publications and let us know about your website.

My website is:  www.JaneenMason.com (and it desperately needs to be updated.)


These are the titles I’ve written and illustrated:
Gift of the Magpie came out in January 2011 (I think it is my FAVORITE, and it got a spectacular review from Kirkus!!!)
Ocean Commotion: Life on the Reef came out Fall 2010 (Booklist called it one of the hottest titles of fall 2010!Ocean Commotion: Sea Turtles won the U.S. Maritime Literature Award 
These are the titles I’ve illustrated
Fish Facts by Geoff Swinney (curator of fish at the National Museum of Scotland), Fall 2012 release
John Denver’s “For Baby (For Bobbie)” won the Ben Franklin Award, and was a finalist for Book of the Year Award at BEA 2010
Going Around the Sun: Some Planetary Fun written by Marianne Berkes, is a finalist for the Florida Reading Association Book of the Year Award 2011-12 (This is the book I talked about with the crayons on a pancake griddle)
The World’s Greatest Explorer by Jan Day
Kissimmee Pete and the Hurricane by Jan Day
Kissimmee Pete, Cracker Cow Hunter by Jan Day
The Pirate Pink by Jan Day
Pirate Pink and Treasures of the Reef by Jan Day
Color, Color, Where Are You, Color? by Mary Koski
Lucinda’s Lamps, A Mermaid’s Guide to Lights in the Sea by Dr. Edith Widder – STILL LOOKING FOR A PUBLISHER - Edie Widder is a brilliant scientist who won the  MacArthur Award a couple of years ago – you can watch her TED talk from April:
http://www.ted.com/talks/edith_widder_the_weird_and_wonderful_world_of_bioluminescence.html

I was on a NOVA Science Now episode with Edie recently – it was very exciting to have the film crew from WGBH Boston in my studio, and then later see the piece on TV.

Janeen also sent a link to her books available on Amazon here.
 
Tell us about your current project.

I’m working on the third book in the Ocean Commotion series.  it is titled
Ocean Commotion: Caught in the Currents! Due for a Spring 2012 release, I think… if I can get the work finished in time.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Who are our favorite children’s illustrators or authors?

Oh.. This is tough.   I have so many favorites.

Ok, in no particular order:
Traction Man by Mini Grey
Anything written or illustrated by Henry Cole.  I love the emotions in his work.
I love the SkippyJon Jones books by Judy Schachner
Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin art by James Dean (Check out their youtube: http://youtu.be/HpZ9mOQ6iSU
Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead

There are more… many many more!

If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?

Mr. Popper
I adore him.

What inspires you?

Colors
Kindness
Textures

What did you want to be when you grew up?

An artist
An author
An author/illustrator

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to snorkel in the ocean.
I love to make stuff.
I love to read.
I love clay, so I throw pots, and sometimes I make hand built pieces.
I have a huge collection of audio books, so sometimes I “read” books and make stuff at the same time.  (This is heaven on earth.)

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?

I would like to be a scientist who studies the ocean.
 
Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?

Pace yourself.  This business is fraught with disappointment. 

Children’s picture books are a primary source of inspiration which have enormous consequence in our culture.  They provide the introduction to a lifetime of creative imagination and appreciation for the arts.  This is powerful juju in a landscape of ever accelerating technology. 

It is a tricky field.  Know your client – the young reader who is going to stare at your work open mouthed.  Just be gentle with yourself, it can be tough to navigate this world, where you lay your heart wide open and watch the business people march across it on their way to the bottom line.

Do your best.  Think of the children you will never meet who are about to be influenced by your work.  When the accountants and attorneys and editors stare at you with one eyebrow raised remember they need creative visionaries, but it can be hard to be the one who has to have one foot in both worlds.  And when you are lucky enough to have a great relationship with an editor, an agent, and others in the biz, smile and know that your life is good.

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Yes.  How much I appreciate this opportunity to visit.  This work we do can be so solitary.  I am grateful to you, Jill, for providing a virtual water cooler, where we can all gather to meet each other.  Followers of your blog might be interested to discover the website www.PictureBookArtists.org , we have a list serve where members chat throughout the day, and I’ve learned so much from the other illustrators… what computer programs to buy, how to fix a cranky wacom tablet, what’s the favorite replacement paper for one that’s no longer manufactured, etc., etc.  It is a community, and it feels like you’re creating the same sense of community here.  Congratulations.  Hard work, but you’re good at it, and it’s so appreciated.  Thank you.