Did you go to art school?
I studied painting at the University of Montana in Missoula. I would’ve studied illustration if they had taught it there but they didn’t. I probably should’ve gone to a school with an illustration program but I was mysteriously, powerfully drawn to Missoula from suburban New York where I grew up.
What materials do you use?
I sketch with mechanical pencils and these days most of my finished artwork is in gouache and ink on cold press watercolor paper. I use Higgins india ink for black line work and a nib pen with a #56 nib.
Sometimes I work digitally too, usually because I'm designing something like a screenprinted poster or a t-shirt; something that requires a graphic approach as opposed to painterly one. I'm self-taught when it comes to computers - digital art classes were after my time at the University of Montana - and everything I do on them I do sloppy and backwards. Whenever I work digitally, I start by making a pen and ink drawing or a painting in gouache, using contrasting colors to make color separation easier. Because I don't really know what I'm doing, there are always a lot of little mistakes and misregistered areas that I don't anticipate until I see a thing printed. But I actually love this and I go out of my way to keep not knowing what I'm doing, despite the efforts of my well-meaning friends to teach me stuff.
How did you get started in the illustration world? Any tips for recent graduates?
Whenever I'm asked this I say that I’m the wrong person to ask. I didn’t study illustration in college and was a cocktail waitress and a bartender until I was in my late twenties at which point I managed to get some very low-paying editorial work which slowly, slowly blossomed into an illustration career. I got that editorial work mainly because I had been doing all the album and t-shirt and website art for the Decemberists, my then boyfriend’s (now husband’s) band. I also did lots of flyers for shows in Portland, Oregon, made some zines and had some art shows. This was a long time ago and I mostly worked for free or credit or trade. Any tips I have for recent graduates probably won’t put them on a fast track to illustration success but here are a few:
- Draw all the time.
- Prioritize making beautiful art over making money.
- Keep your overhead low and live simply.
How do you juggle work and being a parent?
Sometimes very poorly but always with a lot of help. I split parenting duties with my husband. I have a helpful mother-in-law who lives nearby. Both of my kids had part-time nannies by the time they were a few months old. (I'm lucky I could afford that.) It’s hard to be an artist and a mom. Two equally powerful forces pull me in two opposite directions every day. Sometimes I see ways that the two work together and benefit from each other but just as often they feel disparate and their balance takes careful managing. In practical terms, I do this by setting boundaries: I very rarely work on nights and weekends and I very rarely skip a work day to do something with my kids. In psychic terms, I feel like the pendulum is always swinging: sometimes it’s too much of one, sometimes it’s too much of the other, in fleeting moments everything feels right. Though I should add that those fleeting moments happen more often and last longer now that my kids are older. if you're an artist parenting tiny children, take heart: it gets a lot easier.
How many projects are you normally working on simultaneously?
I am always working on a book and I take on little odd jobs and projects to do in the downtime - while I’m waiting to hear back from an editor with revision notes, for example. But that downtime can be scant or unpredictable so I don’t take on a lot of extra work.
How do you feel about people getting tattoos of your artwork?
Deeply flattered! I totally approve. But I don’t like designing tattoos for people because that’s stressful.
Do you think it’s advantageous to live in a large city to get work?
I think it’s advantageous to live somewhere with a thriving cultural scene. Portland isn’t a large city and I’ve done fine here but I’m not sure how well I would have fared if I’d stayed in Missoula after college. But who knows? Things are different these days. The internet and all. Regardless, I certainly don’t think you need to live in New York. In fact, I think you’re probably making things harder for yourself if you do. When your rent is cheap you spend less time at your day job and more time making art. And when you’re not panicking about money you’re probably more likely to focus on making the art you want to make. Which should make you a better artist. Which should get you more work.
That said, I used to live in San Francisco where I was totally broke but happy because it was such a beautiful, exciting place. So I do understand the allure of expensive cities. (Also, Portland is sadly not cheap anymore, in case anyone is wondering.)
Do you sell your art?
Sometimes. I’m represented by Nationale, a gallery in Portland, where I have occasional exhibitions. Very occasional! Like, every five years. But I have one coming up so currently the gallery does have a number of things for sale. You can always contact May at Nationale to be kept abreast of available work. I also have a Buyolympia shop, where I sell cards, prints, and other odd and ends.
Can I hire you?
I'm precious with my studio time and don't take on a lot of jobs outside of whatever book I'm working on. I'm not available for commissions - portraits, tattoo designs, wedding invites, etc. - though I'm grateful that there's interest in that. I just don't have time. I also don't do a lot of ad work. I do take on some select editorial and miscellaneous illustration jobs though. If you are an AD or the like, feel free to send projects via my agent, Steve Malk.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a picture book adaptation of Susan Cooper’s beautiful winter solstice poem, The Shortest Day. I’m also trying to write something longer for kids. Stay tuned and root for me. I keep picking it up and then abandoning it.