Javaka Steptoe On The Sounds of a Rainbow

Javaka SteptoeJavaka Steptoe is an award-winning, eclectic artist, designer, and illustrator. His debut work, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, and countless other honors. More accolades followed for his work on books including Do You Know What I’ll Do? by Charlotte Zolotow, A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, and Amiri and Odette: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers.

Once a model and inspiration for his late father, award winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe now utilizes everyday objects, from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes illustrating with a jigsaw and paint, he delivers reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength. His latest work, JIMI: Sounds Like All The Rainbow, written by Gary Golio, is the latest example of Steptoe’s vibrant and multi-layered style.

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The art has so much texture and movement, and is wonderfully vibrant. Can you tell us a bit about the materials you used, the decisions you made, and how you put it all together?

I use materials that make connections to the subject matter of the story, with the goal of speaking to the viewer on many levels. I used wood because:

1. Guitars are made out of wood.
2. When learning about Jimi I found him to be very spiritual, so I tried to make my process spiritual. To help capture the feel and energy of Jimi’s hometown, I bought recycled wood at a construction store in Seattle. This wood (probably around when Jimi was alive) was a part of Seattle before it became art. So, besides taking images, research, and memories back to NY, I was able to bring back a physical piece of Seattle to live with, listen to and create from.

I love textures, color, and movement—they are design elements I inherently use in my work. Jimi Hendrix was a complex person, quiet and sensitive, yet when it came to his music he was very dynamic and even over the top. This book let me push that side of myself in order to capture the essence of this duality.

How did you and Gary collaborate? What were some of the challenges on the path to publication of this book? What were some of the sweeter moments?

I actually did not meet Gary until late in the process. We spoke on the telephone but historically most book companies do not like authors and illustrators to talk. Part of the reason is that publishers want to give the illustrator the same freedom and autonomy to create as the author had when creating the story. The other part is that they don’t want the author and illustrator to make decisions on their own, and not be in the loop themselves.

Some of the challenges in illustrating this book were keeping the story visually authentic. There is a lot of pressure in knowing that there are about 50 billion Jimi fans who all knew him better than me, watching and waiting to see if I know my stuff, and ready to send me hate mail if I don’t.
Sweet moments were in going to Seattle, seeing one of Jimi’s childhood houses, visiting and working with the children at the elementary school he attended, and talking with the Seattle natives who knew him or family members. There is still a real excitement about Jimi and his music, and people were very willing to share.

JIMI explores the creative process, which is different for every artist, often different for every project. What in your research of his process and work inspired you? Did you have any surprises along the way? How did you make the connections between sound and color?

One of the most important things that I learned about our geniuses is that they are open to knowledge. They listen, read and watch, they consume information and don’t say “I don’t listen to country music,” or “I only eat hamburgers.” They are interested in all experiences. Because of their openness they are able to make profound statements about life in whatever way they best express themselves.

The process of creating the illustrations for this book has also prompted me to redefine my relationship to creating children’s books. During the process I created a residency program called Exploring the Creative Process with Javaka Steptoe™. This is a cross-disciplinary residency that explores the creative process in an experiential way from many points of view.

What is a “typical” work day like for you? What is your work space like? (photos welcome!)
On a typical work day I get up about 5 am and meditate for an hour. Then I take a shower, eat and go to the library or a coffee shop, and work on my computer until about 1 or 2. After that I take a break for about an hour or two, then work on art until about 7 or 8, eat dinner, drink tea and listen to audio books until it’s time to go to sleep.

At the moment my studio is under construction, so there’s lots of sheetrock and exposed brick, and also lots of tables.

What have been some of the most helpful people, resources, etc. along the way in your work as an illustrator? What are you looking forward to working on? Is there anything that you haven’t yet done that you’d like to do/work with?

Besides my mother and father being the most helpful people, along the way have been my editors. I have lucked out and had really great editors. Though we have not always agreed, they have all been really smart, passionate, very helpful and supportive.

Something that I haven’t yet done that I’d like to do is illustrate a sci-fi book. There are a lot of great black sci-fi book writers like Steven Barnes, Sheree Thomas, Samuel R. Delany, Charles R. Saunders, Tananarive Due, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Kalamu ya Salaam, Robert Fleming, and Nalo Hopkinson, and they are living. (You’re all welcome for the plug—now send me something, guys!)

I read in an essay in Sheree Thomas’s book, “Dark Matter,” that if we don’t see ourselves in sci-fi we don’t see ourselves in the future…so I don’t know about you, but I am not quite ready to disappear—are you?

Thank you!

And I thank you, for sharing a bit of the story behind your work, and adding new layers to our understanding of this legendary artist! Visit Javaka Steptoe online to see and learn more about his fabulous work. For more on the book, visit the Facebook page, and the blog tour all this week. JIMI: Sounds Like A Rainbow is available now at your local bookshop and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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5 Responses to Javaka Steptoe On The Sounds of a Rainbow

  1. Great interview! I love picturing that old recycled Seattle wood. Ive been looking forward to getting my hands on that book–it’s had some really nice buzz.

  2. kelstar71 says:

    Thanks for featuring Javaka! Love his art. It’s a wonderful book.

  3. erin says:

    As a long-time fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I totally want to see a Steptoe-illustrated sci-fi title!

  4. I enjoyed your illustrations. They are wonderful!

  5. What a great interview! We love Javaka’s work. Thanks to you both.

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