For this interview, I studied Vanessa’s website and sorted through her artwork, looking for just the right words to use in an introduction. I failed, big-time. Words like “charming,” “fresh,” and “retro” came to mind—boring words that didn’t do her art justice.
I fretted for days. I care about my work here, and I wanted to give Vanessa her due props. But then, over the weekend, Vanessa emailed answers to her interview questions, along with her wonderful artwork. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need to say a word. Vanessa’s words and art say it all. They made me smile, laugh, think, cheer. And her art!—you’ll want to gobble it up!
Vanessa describes herself as a full-time mom, and a freelance illustrator and writer, who loves to craft, cook, and collect vintage children’s books. She lives in East Orange, NJ with her husband and daughter, and a very fat cat named Kirby who thinks he is dog.
Vanessa, in your own words, please tell us about your most recent book Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table
What happens when everyone is invited to Auntie Mabel’s house for Sunday Dinner? Craziness that’s what. Auntie Mabel just doesn’t know how to stop her snowballing grace over dinner. Her family loves her, but they are hungry and Auntie wants to pray this long prayer and the food gets cold and everyone is upset. I wanted to show what my family was like. I come from a very multicultural family and they are funny and wonderful, and there are so many magical stories to tell about them. Auntie Mabel is just one of them.
Tell us about your path of publication, from spark of inspiration to printed book
I had written this story many, many years ago, almost 15 years or more. I put it away. I read it to a couple of members of my family and they seem to like it well enough, but I wasn’t sure. I took some classes at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and I showed it to my teachers, some said it was way too much and others said that it wasn’t enough and so I got even more confused. So I secretly worked on my characters and I let them tell me where they wanted the story to go. I showed it to my agent about a year ago and she told me to work on it some more and this frustrated me. I then took it with me to one of my publishers. Harriet Ziegert over at Blue Apple Books. She read it and fell instantly in love with it!! She actually took the script out of my hands and started editing it. She told me, “everything you need is in here already and you just need to move some words around and shorten the dang thing!!!” No need to add another thing. Now draw some pictures.” I laugh now when I think about it. Harriet is brilliant. I think that stories are fresh and brilliant when they come from your life experiences . What you have been through. The people you know. Harriet shortened the story quite a bit but it works.
Can you talk about your transformation from artist to writer
I have always been writing. I am a musician, singer and songwriter. I love to write songs. They are stories to be “Sungtold.” It’s a word that I made up. My mom was a great storyteller and singer. She weaved words and music together to tell fabulous stories or create word pictures. Writing is a muscle that has to be worked everyday just as illustration is a muscle. People tend to think that writing for children is easy, but it’s not. Good writers make it look easy. It’s hard work. It takes thinking outside of the box. It’s using the gray matter between the eyes. It’s the art of telling a story that wants to be told over and over and over again in less than an hour. It’s the art of telling a story with a few delicious words. I am being stretched even more now as I am asked to create and share my own stories. Sometimes I have a clue as how to do it and sometimes I clueless. I keep a notebook by my bedside to write in and keep notes. I listen to children. I watch them and I record them. I reach back into my childhood to find stories and things that want to be put onto paper. There is no magic formula that I try to follow. I am still trying to find my voice in writing. I am currently working on several stories with my sister Coy Curry who is also a singer and songwriter. We are country girls from the Low Country. That’s Beaufort , SC and the islands of SC. We are Geechee people. Or Gullah. These are the sea island people who were enslaved from Serra Leone. Our Gullah culture is dying and we want to tell the stories that we have carried for years to others. We want to keep it alive. We want to share what it was like growing up in a Geechee Gullah household with songs, stories, food, crafts and language.
Stories of the old. Oral tales and accounts. These things inspire me as a writer.
I love your illustrations on the covers of the popular Ruby and the Booker Boys series. How did you come to be a part of this project?
My good friend Karen Proctor asked me to bring my portfolio over to the city. She wanted to share it with Andrea Pinkney. I was so honored to meet someone of the Pinkney family! That made my day right there! Andrea graciously looked at my portfolio and told me what I needed to do to make it more workable. She was honest and upfront about it and I liked that about her. She saw a piece that I did called “Ghetto Boy in da Hood” and she loved it. She loved it so much that she took it out of the portfolio with several other pieces. She told me that she would give me a call in a couple of months. A couple of months rolled by and I didn’t hear from her. I was a little disappointed and just when I wasn’t expecting a call I got one from her. She wanted me to create a girl character. I did some sketches and a finished piece and sent them too her. She called me back told me that they wanted me to work on a new project called, “Ruby and the Booker Boys” I jumped at the chance and Ruby was born.
Please talk about your training, education. What led you to a career in art?
I wanted to be a doctor, but my grades said otherwise. I am dyslexic, meaning I have a learning difference. Drawing was my way to express myself. I am mainly self-taught. While I attended FIT and the SVA of NYC, I never got my degree. I had run out of money and I had to get a job fast so I worked as a phlebotomist. I did side jobs in illustration. I did some greeting cards and fine art work. I worked as a phlebotomist for over 25 years before I started doing children’s book illustration. I knew that I needed to hone my gift in illustration, but I didn’t have the money to go back to school so I started reading books and taking course here and there to hone my craft. I hope to get my degree soon, but if I don’t I have found expression and it has found me and we work together.
Do you have any thoughts on why so many black illustrators are male yet so many authors are female? Who are female illustrators who inspired you?
I believe there are not many female black illustrators, because they are not encouraged to step into the arena of illustration and they are not encouraged to learn the technical side of art. I also feel, unfortunately, I believe that the culture is divided in thinking women are better storytellers, because we are more verbal by nature and that men are more visual. It is definitely something I feel needs to change. I don’t know many black female illustrators, but the ones I do know are award winning and exceptional artist and I am proud to be among them, such as Shadra Strickland, Cozbi and Patricia Cummings are a few that come to mind.
In all honesty I have not been inspired by many black female illustrators, mainly, because at the time of my development there were no known black children’s book illustrators, except for Tom Feelings and the Dillions, let alone female black illustrators. I hope to dispel this truth with my own work and inspire other up and coming illustrators.
What is your mission as an artist?
To create illustrations and word pictures that are indelibly printed on the brain. Images, that restore and heal the inner child in all of us.
Your artwork has a very appealing retro look about it. What inspired this?
There is something so beautiful to me about old children’s books. They are traditional done. No magic tricks, just the magic of imagination. The colors and hand work of these books are amazing to me. I collect tons of children’s books from the 1950’s and 60’s along with Old Humpty Dumpty Magazines and Golden Books. It takes me back to my childhood. Ezra Jack Keats is one of my greatest mentors. He inspires me most in my artwork. I love his collage work. I never got to meet him, but he has been one of my greatest teachers ever. The others are Mary Blair, Fiep Westendorp, The Provensen’s Tom O’Louglin, Tommy Unger, David Catrow, Mo Williems and Adrian Johnson.
What inspires you as an illustrator?
People!!!! Oh my goodness PEOPLE!!! I people watch all the time. We are the funniest things on the dang plant Man! I am a lover of people good, bad, ugly, pretty, happy, sad I love to look at people, because they inspire and then, of course, anything retro comes next. Being a child of the 60’s I got to watch Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, the Jetston and the Flintstones. These cartoons formed a lot of my desire to become and illustrator. The colors and patterns and subject matter appealed to me. It was without computers, bells and whistles. You had to make your own magic. I love technology, but I am inspired by the old and tattered. I love to laugh! I am always looking to find the funny. It’s major and important to me to find the funny. So you will see it in my characters that I illustrate and in the situations I put them in. I want people to see themselves and not take themselves so seriously.
What are you doing when You’re not creating children’s books?
Singing, laughing and spending time with my husband of 16 years and our daughter who is 10. I love to craft so I spend any couple of minutes I have creating he he he he!!
Can you talk about some of your works in progress, what’s on the horizon?
Children’s books, comics, etc. I just finished a book with Cedella Marley called, ” One Love” A song written by her father, the great Bob Marley and adapted by his daughter. I have been working on my first traditional collage book called, “Magic Trash “The story of Tyree Guyton. My sister Coy and I are working on a Gullah Geechee children’s book as well as a series of books of Fractured Fairytales from the Hood. Things like “Lil’ Red in the Hood” is one that will be published soon. All I can say is “HILARIOUS!”
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books?
Hone, hone, and hone your writing and illustration skills. Get around people who support your dreams and visions. Don’t be too eager to share your dreams and visions with everyone, because everyone is not cheering for you. You can’t put an 18×24 vision in a 3×5 card mind! If it comes to you right then, write it down NOW!! Don’t wait to do it later. A great story could be right there at your fingertips. Listen to children. Write down what they say and how they say it. Read other peoples books. Go to the bookstores and check out what is on the shelf. See a need and fill it. If there are no books that you like, try writing one that you would like to see. Take classes in illustration and writing often to stay current and fresh. Visit other people’s blogs on writing and illustration. Know the business of publishing. Be true to yourself. Stop measuring your gifts and talents by other people, its hard enough being you as it is. Search for things to put around you to keep you inspired. Collect the books of the authors and illustrators that you adore and study them. You can be mentored from a far. Find time for yourself. I am working on this myself. Find time for you and care for YOU. Start today saying good things and thinking good thoughts about where you want to be as an illustrator or writer or both. See yourself doing it and go for it!
Who are your cheerleaders?
My hubby, Ray, my daughter, Zoe, my sister Coy, my sisterfriend Loredan, my brother from another mother, Eric Barclay and my agent Lori Nowicki
See. Aren’t you inspired? Told ya so.