Having read Laurie’s response to one of the questions below about her love of African sunsets, I now know this is one of the many reasons I have been enjoying her art and posts on FB for a while now. We share this African experience as well as needing to visit Australasia and Antarctica to have visited all seven continents, and writing for different ages!
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[LE] I’m an author and an illustrator. So far, my publications have mainly been writing – more than 2200 articles in magazines and educational databases as well as twelve books already out or forthcoming, all for older readers. I have five books coming out this year. WANTED Book 1, Grace and the Guiltless, written under the pseudonym Erin Johnson, released last week.
Three other books in the WANTED series will be coming out in May, August, and December. An NA/adult nonfiction book, Cyber Self-Defense, written with cybercrime expert Alexis Moore releases in October from Globe Pequot. I also have work in an English-language reading book for Ethiopian students that came out in February.
I have some illustrations in two middle grade books and a picture book. Although my writing has far outpaced my illustrating, my true love is art.
I alternate between words and pictures, but often the words get put down first. I can’t write a story, though, without imagining the pictures it conjures up, so I suppose I’d have to say the words and pictures occur simultaneously.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that and/or where you have lived/visited influenced your work?
[LE] I was born in New York, lived in Africa for several years, and spent some of my elementary years in New Jersey. Since then, I’ve lived in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. All of these places, plus the many I’ve traveled to, have influenced me. Wherever I go, I always cherish the memories, and the beauty of it remains in my soul.
One of my goals is to visit all seven continents. So far, I’ve been to five. I still need to visit Australia/New Zealand and Antarctica. I have many countries on my bucket list along with about seventeen states I want to see. Africa, of course, holds first place in my mind and heart, but some other favorite places are Italy, Costa Rica, China, Korea, and Denmark. Each of them started a story burning in my mind, so perhaps that’s why I feel a deep connection to those countries. One of the hardest things about traveling is leaving behind the people I meet.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[LE] My love of color began with African sunsets. Those gorgeous colors splashed across the sky spoke to me. I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to bright, vivid colors. In grade school I always made the skies rainbow-hued, even on coloring book pages.
I loved my crayons – the smell, the waxy texture, the assortment of colors – and I still do. But the day I realized I was an artist was when I was eight and my grandfather arrived with a huge paint-by-number picture. I think he always longed to be an artist, but paint-by-numbers was as far as he’d gotten. Anyway, he’d spilled a huge blob of oil paint right in the middle, covering a horse and carriage. Looking back now, I wonder if it truly had been an accident or if he did it to encourage my budding interest in art. He asked me if I could fix it for him. When I was done, the horse actually looked like a horse, and according to my grandfather, it looked better than the original on the box.
I did well in art classes and dreamed of going on to art school, but my high school teachers and my parents insisted I needed a practical degree. I put my art on hold for years after that disappointment, although I always did crafty things when my children were young. I don’t think there’s a craft I haven’t tried. My favorites were designing clothing for my kids and turning thrift shop rejects into works of art. Later I opened a cake decorating business, and I taught at an art museum for a while.
Not until years later did I go back to my original love of art. I found great joy in taking classes at a community art center, and it was like coming home. The woodpecker was from my first watercolor class.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[LE] I love pastels. My grandfather bought me my first set nestled in a wooden box with a metal latch. I was still young enough that the latch amazed me. My best friend and I would wake at 5 AM on Saturdays and walk to the park to paint sunrises. (I’ve never been a morning person, so this reveals how dedicated I was to my craft.)
I still love the look and feel of pastels. I’ve worked in other mediums, but blending those chalks on velvety paper has a buttery, sensory feel that I find satisfying.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[LE] I’m sure you can guess that I still adore sunrises and sunsets. Other things that appeal to me are children and animals, preferably together. They’re both challenging to draw, but they’re so heartwarming.
This was another piece I did in those community art classes. A watercolor of my son with our cat.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[LE] This is my art desk. I’m a neat freak so I like everything organized before I begin. It doesn’t always stay that way, but I try.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[LE] I have so many writing deadlines at the moment (two books due to editors by the end of March and a picture book revision for my agent) that I haven’t had much time to work on my art, so I’ll share two works that are still in progress. Both still need revisions. (And thanks to wonderful critiquers, especially in Mark Mitchell’s class, I know what I need to fix.)
I started with a rough idea for a two-page spread to illustrate a manuscript I wrote in free verse, NAVY QUILT OF NIGHT. I began with very rough thumbnail ideas that I blew up. When I saw it enlarged and folded, it was obvious the little girl’s head would be in the gutter,
so I rearranged it and placed her to the right, which meant I needed to move the fairy to the left. I did a more finished sketch with the bed on a slight angle and the fairy swooping in and around.
As I was working, I thought I might prefer to have the fairy sweep in from the left rather than from the right. I tried it that way,
but the full swoop ended up working better.
I still have more work to do on this, but I’m pretty happy with the overall composition at this point.
Another book I’m working on using the same model is about a girl and a mischievous teddy bear. This is a rough draft for that one.
[JM] How do you juggle your different hats (illustrator, YA and Adult writer, editor)?
[LE] It isn’t easy. I work long hours most days, but I love what I do (except when I’m feeling deadline pressures or I’m not happy with the quality of what I’m doing). I enjoy switching back and forth between the various jobs and stimulating different parts of my brain. And with so many project, I never have to worry about getting bored.
One things I’ve found is that I have more working hours in the day than most people because I’m usually curled up with my computer while others are vegging in front of the TV. The only thing I wish I had more time for is reading. I used to read 20-30 books a week when I was young. Now I spend those hours writing or editing instead.
[JM] Are there any courses you would recommend to other illustrators?
The course that I’ve found most valuable is Hollins University’s Picture Book Illustration Certificate. It’s an intense six-week course held during the summer in Roanoke, VA. It takes two summers to complete, and you spend mornings in classes and afternoons in studio work. With the small class size, you get to be friends with the awesome instructors – Ruth Sanderson, Ashley Wolff, Lauren Mills, Elizabeth Dulemba – as they give you one-on-one instruction. And the visiting illustrators are amazing: Eric Rohmann, Dennis Nolan, Chris Soentpiet, Charles Vess, Judy Schachner, Paul Zelinsky… to name just a few. The schedule is also filled with visiting authors and children’s book scholars, so it’s picture book heaven.
Working on a linoleum print of this jaguar in Ashley Wolff’s class was fun. I enjoyed Hollins so much, I’ll be returning to complete my MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating.
I also received a degree from Vermont University, another wonderful program that I highly recommend.
Online classes I’ve taken include Mark Mitchell’s How to Be a Children’s Book Illustrator and Mira Reisberg’s Art and Craft of Illustrating Children’s Books, both of which are great introductions to children’s illustration, especially for newbies. I also like the specific craft classes at Will Terry’s Folio Academy.
[JM] What art do you have hanging in your house?
[LE] I’m unusual in that I create best in minimalist spaces, so I prefer rooms with plain, light-colored walls. My imagination is so vivid that I’m always mentally projecting pictures onto those bare spaces. When I need a bit of color, I prop up a few favorite children’s book illustrations on a mantelpiece or dresser. Other than a few family photos my husband insisted on hanging and some Raku pieces I made years ago, I surround myself with walls that are blank canvasses for my mind.
Five Fun Ones to Finish
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[LE] Dreamer. If I could have two, probably hard-working would be a close second. I think to reach your dreams, you need a combination of both.
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a few months, where would you go?
[LE] I’ve always dreamed about living in either Bali or Belize.
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[LE] I love water with lemon, and at the moment, I’m partial to popcorn with melted butter.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[LE] As you can see from my childhood picture, I loved reading from an early age. I’m 10 months old in the picture I use on all my social media, and if you look closely, you’ll see I was absorbed in a book about dogs. At that time I had a cocker spaniel I adored. But I have to admit, now I’m partial to cats. This is a watercolor I did of our cat.
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?
[LE] I have to admit, I love troublemakers. The one I’m partial to at the moment is actually in a picture book I’m writing. He’s a bully and creating havoc, but I like his spirit and “can-do” attitude, even if what he’s doing is making mischief.
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?
Thanks so much, Joanna. This was lots of fun!
[JM] Laurie, thank you so much, i loved learning more about you and what we share in common. I especially appreciate how clearly you shared some of your process with us and that you chose to share the two illustrations you did of your cat instead of photos. They are adorable. To your continued success, especially with all these books coming out this year!
Grace and the Guiltless http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Guiltless-Curious-Fox-Wanted/dp/1782020772
Hollins certificate program http://www.hollins.edu/grad/cbi/index.shtml
Hollins MFA http://www.hollins.edu/grad/cbw/index.shtml