I first ‘met’ Wendell Minor on the book jackets of one of my favorite modern American authors, Pat Conroy (y’all don’t know my secret affair with southern fiction). Of course, I had no idea about the beautiful jackets’ artist back then. When I rekindled my love affair with picture books as a K-12 librarian, I discovered the illustrator of many of my favorite nature-inspired books is Wendell Minor. One of the joys of being involved in children’s books is the approachability and warmth of even the most seasoned authors and illustrators. Wendell is no exception.
I was thrilled that he took time out of his busy schedule to skype interview with me a couple of weeks ago. I felt like I had been sitting at his kitchen table sipping cranberry juice and chatting to an old friend.
[JM] Illustrator or author-illustrator?
[WM] I am reluctant to use the word author. As a dyslexic I struggled with reading and writing as a child. I think visually with words, as many dyslexics do, and I think of myself more as a ‘creator’ – I create content. My writing has developed with the cut-and-paste feature in Word documents on the computer, which has been a godsend as I think so visually. Much of my work is done in collaboration, creating ideas with authors such as Jean Craighead George (1919-2012), Robert Burleigh, and Tony Johnston to name a few.
[JM] What is your nationality and how have certain cultures or regions influenced your work?
[WM] Genealogists say Minor dates back to Thomas Minor of England, though my family moved early on to Germany, and there is also Norwegian blood on my mother’s side. Interestingly, when we moved to Connecticut, we discovered a huge community of Minors, and I felt as though I had come home to my spiritual ancestry. I have strong links however to the heartland and have a keen sense of time and place inspired by my rural roots. I think I have a role to play in helping the next generation of my fellow Americans to get to know their country better.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.
[WM] I have been drawing forever. I had difficulty learning to read because my vocabulary was a visual one. I allowed my ‘Dick and Jane’ Reader to tell me the story through the illustrations. Those illustrations were my first awareness of pictures telling a story! Drawing became my sanctuary. By third or fourth grade I was being asked by other children to draw for them, e.g. programs for the school play. I was born with a congenital heart defect and have had three life-saving operations so far. As a consequence I was never allowed to play sports. Drawing became the sport in which I competed. Drawing became my way of seeing my world. J. M. W. Turner once said he could not see without drawing. In my case, I believe Turner was correct!
[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?
[WM] I have learned to be flexible and have experimented with all types of media. I now mainly create in gouache watercolor, using primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Gouache creates bold bright images for children that reproduce beautifully. I don’t subscribe to the concept of an individual style. I don’t wish style to exceed content. I have a passion for craft, not a style. Style isn’t important to me. What is important is that your pictures tell the viewer a story that works with and beyond the text. The two should be more than the sum of their parts, and together they should aspire to be timeless. I believe what are considered children’s classics are indeed so because their message is timeless! It is very difficult not to be seduced by the trend of the day. Have the courage to stick to your own vision despite trends.
One of my greatest influences has been Edward Hopper. I spent many wonderful years in The West Village (New York) in Hopper’s old neighborhood. Everywhere I walked I would see Hopper compositions. I just finished a picture book biography, EDWARD HOPPER PAINTS HIS WORLD with Robert Burleigh. Hopper’s work is pure in color, design and concept. He’s an American icon whose images have transcended time, and his content has trumped style.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[WM] Our studio is a bit more than one hundred feet from our house. We have two floors consisting of about 1200 square feet. There is no modern technology in my painting studio, only a hundred-year-old drawing board. The computers and other electronic equipment are in Florence’s studio, and my library downstairs.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with and something about your process?
[JM] Do you have themes or characters to which you return again and again?
[WM] Characters, no, but themes, yes. I return to the themes of American history, biographies and natural subjects. I was very fortunate to have grown up in the Midwest in the 1950s and early 60s and experience the rural landscape of my hometown of Aurora, Illinois. My mother and father both grew up on farms. They were children of the Depression and their sensibilities were well rooted in the soil, as are mine. They taught me the value of hard work and how to appreciate the simple joys of everyday life. My father was a hunter and fisherman and often took me with him. While I did not take to hunting, my father would instruct me to sit down and wait and watch. There’s only so long one can gaze at one’s shoelaces! These images are indelibly etched in my memory. My father gave me the gift of thorough observation. It has taken me a lifetime to realize how much those early experiences in nature have defined my identity as an artist.
[JM] Hence your frequent collaboration with Jean Craighead George?
[WM] Yes. Jean and I viewed the world of nature in much the same way. We traveled to many places together – Alaska, The Everglades, Yellowstone National Park and more. I was collaborating with her on a book just before she died last year. Galapagos George was the last of the Saddleback tortoises on Pinta Island in the Galapagos, and amazingly he died shortly after Jean. Her daughter, Twig, helped rework the book to honor her mother’s and George’s passing.
As Twig stated in her dedication, “They were both one of a kind,”
The book is coming out in spring 2014.
[JM] You must miss her!
[WM] Yes. Enormously. She was our honorary east coast mom! Her whole family is quite amazing. She was a true matriarch. With Jean leading her pack, there was never a dull moment. Her extended family is full of energy and curiosity, and they have a love and are involved with all the various natural sciences.
[JM] How does collaborating with your wife (wonderful author, Florence Wendell) differ, if at all, from collaborating with other authors?
[WM] We talk through ideas and I scribble thumbnails and the story develops simultaneously e.g. the Penguin and the Bear books. The Penguin book started out as a garden flamingo, but Harper Collins suggested penguins, so we took on the challenge and decided to come up with a unique twist to the well-used subject. In 2009 IF YOU WERE A PENGUIN was selected by Pennsylvania’s One Book, Every Young Child program and we visited 41 libraries, schools, and day care centers and gave away 115,000 copies to give to children in the state. We have two manuscripts in the works and one more pending. After twenty-two years, we have become a great team, though Florence can’t write as much as she would like as she takes care of all the business side of things – exhibitions, school visits etc.
[JM] What illustrators influenced you growing up?
[WM] Beatrix Potter. I have many of her books. I loved the complete tales of Beatrix Potter including such favorites as THE TALE OF TOM KITTEN and THE TALE OF The Flopsy Bunnies. She was revolutionary – making a name for herself in a completely male-dominated society. With her success she bought thousands of acres and preserved them in their natural state. I have a book containing a collection of her watercolor sketches done directly from nature. She was a wonderful naturalist and armature biologist. I also greatly admire Robert McCloskey, Garth Williams and, of course, many of my contemporary colleagues.
[JM] I have been fortunate to visit Beatrix Potter’s home and garden in the Lake District in England. What advice would you give new illustrators trying to break into this challenging business?
[WM] I am often asked this question. One thing I always say is join SCBWI. You will connect with people with similar goals as well as agents, editors and publishers. Secondly, educate yourself. Know children’s literature history. Know the history of your chosen craft. Read everything that Leonard Marcus has written (e.g. Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon and Dear Genius: The Letters from Ursula Nordstrom, and more!
Learn to collaborate. You owe authors the respect to read and understand their work, the work you will be illustrating. If you can’t forget the preconceived ideas of what are considered the do’s and don’ts in our field, you are not thinking creatively. Learn to circumvent obstacles with enthusiasm and a healthy dose of good humor.
I am in my fourth decade as a freelancer and Florence and I still enjoy the challenges of our ever-changing industry. All manner of social media has proven to be a very useful tool that we use to connect and keep up to date with our publishing community. That’s how Florence and I connected with you, through Facebook!
Know the business side of things. We subscribe to Publishers Weekly and to other publications to learn what we can about who is doing what in the children’s book world. Learn about budgets, acquisitions committees, and how every publisher has different criteria for acquiring new book projects. Prepare yourself to respond to negativity with a positive outlook, and be prepared for the slow pace of progress on a potential project. If you take all of this into account, using patience and persistence, you will eventually reach your goals!
Five Fun Ones to Finish
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[WM] Just one word? For me it’s hard to keep it to only one word. So, how about a few words: dedicated, idealistic, passionate and sometimes a bit relentless.
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season where would you go?
[WM] If it were in the US, it would have to be New Mexico -The Land of Enchantment, (I painted there for several summers in the past). It is where the three cultures meet (Native American, American and Hispanic). New Mexico has great energy! In Europe it would be South of France or Tuscany, where the light is unique and artistic history is grand.
[JM] What’s your go-to snack/drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[WM] Nantucket Nectar Cranberry.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[WM] Cats. I love dogs and grew up with them, but we travel so much. Willie and Mouse were two very special cats we will never forget. I painted their portraits on the cover of “Cat, What is That?” by Tony Johnston. We now share the studio with Cindercat and Sofie.
[JM] If you could spend the day with one children’s book creator, with whom would that be?
[WM] Ursula Nordstrom. By the way it was Ursula’s assistant, Charlotte Zolotow, who gave me an early break. She had given Ursula a picture book manuscript about the seashore many years previously and Ursula placed it in a drawer to consider later. Many years later, it was unearthed from its hiding place and I was offered the chance to illustrate it. The Seashore Book was published in 1992 by HarperCollins and is still in print and selling well, 21 years later! It was a NCSS/CBC Notable 1992 Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies, NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children, and Featured on PBS ‘s Reading Rainbow.
“Children’s book illustration is the last frontier of creative freedom for the artist…the last pond in the Serengeti. It is the one place we go to drink for inspiration.” Wendell Minor
[JM] Thank you so much for sharing from the heart with us today, Wendell. I know we share the same passion for nature, genuine connections and cats! I love that we have had a sneak preview into two books you have illustrated coming out in 2014. I also want to wish you great success in your upcoming one man exhibition, Wendell Minor’s America, opening on November 9th, 2013. I am trying to plan a summer road trip with friends up the east coast and will make a big effort to visit you and this exhibition. Wishing you and Florence continued creative flow.