This interview arose from one of those serendipitous moments. I had been liking all Lita’s posts on FB about her new picture book FLIGHT SCHOOL for several weeks and had been thinking that I must see if she would like to be interviewed. She contacted me first to see if I would like to review the book, which I of course jumped at (see this Friday’s Perfect Picture Book) and she agreed to the interview.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[LJ] I almost always start a story by drawing. I sketch hundreds of rough gestural sketches to get the movement and personality of a character, whether it’s a human being or an animal. Then these drawings prompt the idea for the story. At that point I begin working on a storyboard with loose sketches and words at the same time. I have to work with both words and pictures early, so that they weave together with the right balance for a picture book.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that and/or where you have lived/visited influenced your work?
[LJ] I was born in Alaska and spent most of my life living in the west, often in some pretty remote areas. My dad was a soil scientist and we often lived way out in the woods and mountains. I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents too, in their home in Wisconsin. They were wildlife biologists, and because of their work, we lived with a variety of eagles, owls and hawks. The fact that I grew up surrounded by nature has influenced my work a lot. Most of my books, whether they are fiction or nonfiction, focus on animals and nature.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[LJ] My early paintings were all of wildlife. I spent a lot of time outside photographing animals, watching them, and sketching them from life. The animals I watched and drew inspire many of my characters now.
Then I started painting landscapes outside, with oil paints. Most of all I loved trudging my fold up easel out to the mountains on a beautiful snowy day and painting. Despite cold fingers, and frozen toes, it made for some beautiful adventures creating art. I also loved painting in Europe. I travelled wherever there was a great museum, looking at artwork, and painting on location in the streets to pay for the trips. The museums of Europe were my art school. Eventually I started selling my paintings in galleries.
But eventually I realized what I really wanted to do was create stories through art. So I turned to creating books with words and pictures and never looked back. I know I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life!
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[LJ] I love drawing with a soft lead pencil and painting in watercolors. I also like to play with ink and brush.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
I love characters that are exuberant, and ready to go out into the world and chase after their dreams.
For my latest book, Flight School, I created a little penguin who wanted to fly. Of course he wasn’t meant to fly with his little round penguin body, but that didn’t keep him from going to Flight School, a place where birds teach birds to fly. In the end his enthusiasm wins over the other birds and they find a way to get him to lift off and soar above ground.
Friendship is another theme that seems to keep cropping up for me. My characters often start out alone, but their journey brings them to making strong connections and new friends. I think it’s my own desire to connect with people shows through in the stories.
The reason I create art and stories, is to connect with others.
[JM] Lita, like me, you are an adventurer, animal/nature-lover AND you have an interest in paleontology, wow. We have to hang out some day, but tell me how this early fossil fascination has influenced your work?
[LJ] I would love to hang out together someday! And my fossil fascination has a great influence on my work.
First of all, it was dinosaurs that led me to discover I wanted to be an artist.
I started life wanting to be a paleontologist. As I kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I volunteered the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, and went on to study geology in College. Eventually I realized what I really loved about dinosaurs was drawing them! That led me to painting them and writing three books (so far) about them.
Fossils are also very cool in that they taught me most of what I needed to know to become an artist. I never went to art school. But paleontology and geology are sciences that involve a lot of observation. And knowing how to see, how to really look at something closely, is really the same as learning how to draw it. Trying to identify a little fossil, or map out a geology formation, or look at the mineral composition of a rock to figure out how it was formed was my training ground as an artist.
And lastly, this fascination influences my work because I love creating books about dinosaurs. It’s an old topic, but there is always something new to discover. I love creating books I wish I had had as a kid. I created How Big were Dinosaurs because, when I was a kid, reading a bunch of facts about how long and how much dinosaurs weighed didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. I wanted to SEE how big a dinosaur was! I hope kids today find this book lets them understand the concept of how big (or little) dinosaurs really were.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[LJ] From the outside my studio looks like a big red barn attached to the house. On the roofline, I have ravens, which I carved in cedar as a fond remembrance to the Tlinkits (the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast). I was born in Ketchikan, Alaska, and it is my connection to their art and culture which inspired these carvings.
The inside of my studio looks more like a church — with a giant gothic window that I found and salvaged.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[LJ] I’m writing a book about my Parrot, Beatrix and Kitty. It’s called “Good Morning to ME!” and it was inspired by the fact that Beatrix wakes up EARLY every morning saying “Good Morning,” and wants everyone else in the family to get up too. Yes, it’s both a very fun way to greet the day, and sometimes a little annoying. But Beatrix eventually wins all of us sleepyheads over to her way of thinking and we have a lot of fun.
I started this book as I always do – drawings lots of pictures of my parrot and cat, long before I had an idea for a story. My pets are great muses because they’re always playing and moving and have beautiful expressions.
I was drawing Beatrix one day when she was being loud and rowdy and the inspiration to the idea was sparked. After doing many loose sketches, I begin to focus on getting more detail into the drawings, then creating loose watercolors around them.
I’m also working on a story inspired by a trip to Paris. This one started with little field paintings done on location. Then my imagination kicked in and soon I had two little owls, playing on the rooftops. Here is an early sketch of this story.
[JM] Who is your greatest inspiration?
[LJ] My grandmother, Frances Hamerstrom. She was an ornithologist and conservationist in a time when few women were scientists. She spent 60 years working alongside my grandfather to protect endangered birds and save natural habitat on a Wisconsin marsh. She lived on the marsh, in a house without running water, but shared her home with eagles, hawks and owls. I spent every summer with her, helping to raise birds of prey. She greatly influenced my love of nature and science. She was also an author, and inspired my own love of writing and illustrating.
[JM] What art do you have hanging in your apartment?
[LJ] I live in a big house, so there is a lot of art. Most of the paintings are actually my own – painted on location. My husband and I travel a lot and I take an easel and paint wherever we go. We have paintings from all the places we have loved – like Russian, Venice, Paris, Sweden, my grandparents home, and Yellowstone. So our walls are full of beautiful memories.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What word best sums you up?
Obsessed (with creating!)
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a few months, where would you go?
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
Green tea and cinnamon toast.
Cats or dogs?
Cats and a parrot!
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?
Cromwell in Wolf Hall.
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?
I frequently post new work on my website and blog at www.litajudge.net.
[JM] Lita, this was wonderful. You gave us just the perfect balance of text and pictures in your responses in order for us to discover more about you and your art. I am so glad Beatrix is sneaking into a story. You won’t believe how many illustrators have been so dearly inspired by their grandmothers! To your continued success!