Jennifer K. Mann – Illustrator Interview

I love it when artists form cooperatives. I know several, both locally in Brooklyn and in other parts of the US. I have visited Seattle twice in the past year, in part because I have so many kid lit friends there. I discovered I had interviewed a ton of people in the region, including several that belong to the Whatsits— a crew of five picture book builders (a.k.a. author/illustrators): Ben Clanton, Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Jennifer K Mann, Kevan Atteberry, and Wendy Wahman. I still need to nab Ben for an interview, but I am very happy to add Jennifer to my list today.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?  If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?         

[Jennifer] Author/illustrator. Hmmm, I think I begin with words most of the time.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[Jennifer] I grew up in Western Massachusetts. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1987.  I am not sure if it has influenced my work in a very big way, except maybe my current work-in-progress, which is definitely set in the Pacific Northwest, and came about because of my adoration for this region.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[Jennifer] I started my professional life as an architect who really wanted to be a practicing artist. I think I went to architecture school because I loved to draw. And although I did draw a lot while practicing architecture, it wasn’t until I re-discovered picture books (via my children!) that I realized that was the sort of drawing I wanted to be doing! When that realization hit me, I went in search of courses and books and people who could help me teach myself to make children’s books. It took several years, but I did it!

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[Jennifer] I mix it up a little for each book. But, my books always start with drawings made by hand. Some are then colored by hand with acryli-gouache or watercolor, some are colored digitally, some are digitally collaged, and maybe one of these days, some will be actual glue and scissors collage.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from your recently released Josie’s Lost Tooth, and the process of creating them?

[Jennifer] The work for Josie’s Lost Tooth is a combination of traditional drawing, and digital painting and collage. I am for the most part self-taught, and my work process is definitely the result of that. I know how to do in Photoshop only that which I need to be able to do, and I am absolutely certain that I use that powerful program in ways that would make most educated users shudder! But here is how I made these images: I drew the characters and the setting with pencil on drafting vellum, which I then scanned into Photoshop. I smeared real chalk pastels in big dots on drafting vellum to make a color palette, which I also scanned into Photoshop. Then I used the rubberstamp tool like a paint brush, and dipped it into the scanned version of the pastel swatches, to paint the spreads! (I still don’t know how to use masks, for those who are wondering, but I think that is okay. I like the almost analog use of a digital medium—it keeps my work fresh and a little messy!) When I need big areas of detailed texture, like asphalt, or the brick wall, I just collage those textures in digitally and adjust their tone and scale until it feels right. Lots of trial and error! It’s all a little like lost wax casting—I can use a particular process/technique consistently for one whole book, but maybe not for any subsequent projects. Anyway, it’s fun to mix it up a little!

Josie Play yard

Josie Squid

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

[Jennifer] I remember getting books through the Scholastic Book Fair. I loved the process of selecting books on the order form, and then sort of forgetting about them until the carton full of new books arrived in our classroom weeks later. What a treat to be handed all the books I ordered from that form! I particularly remember receiving The Diary of Anne Frank from that box full of books in fifth grade.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[Jennifer] Right now, my workspace looks like a total mess! My studio is the back half of our long skinny garage, and it is loooong overdue for a purge. I don’t have room for all of my favorite picture books! This photo is from a while back, but it really hasn’t changed much, except that it is a little messier at the moment!

[JM] Do you have themes or characters that you keep returning to?

[Jennifer] I seem to return to tender hearts and friendship in many of my books. I love stories that tug on my heart by illuminating the real and delicate work of being human, and I strive for that in my own work.

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your home?

[Jennifer] I have art work by various talented family members, some of my own printmaking, and a lot of miscellaneous artful tchotchkes and found art. 

lino cut of Grand Forest, by an artist friend

painting by my mom and ar clock

[JM] What are a couple of things that you love about island life? I was lucky enough to visit Bainbridge Island in February with a mutual writing friend of ours, Brenda Hanson. 

[Jennifer] Well, I never get tired of riding the ferry. I am always amazed by the views we have from here: across water to the beautiful Seattle skyline, across water and land to huge mountains, across water to layers and layers of greys when we are really in the middle of our wet winter. I love our big trees and forest trails, and the twelve months of green that we get to enjoy. Bald eagles and orca whales are awfully nice too.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

[Jennifer] That’s a tough one—we have many really beautiful parks here on Bainbridge Island, and of course Seattle and the region are known for spectacular parks. We like to camp as a family, and have explored many state and national parks here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d have to say, though, that I get daily joy from walking my dog in a park here on Bainbridge called The Grand Forest. And it really is just that.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[Jennifer] Two dogs–Lottie who is a big beautiful mutt who likes to sleep on the sofa, and Cody who is a fancy lapdog who lived in Florida with my mom for most of his life, but is having an entire second life here in the Pacific Northwest; a cat named Frannie, and three nameless chickens.

[JM] Love the menagerie. Please recommend a coffee shop or restaurant for me to visit in your city/town!

[Jennifer] Oh, there are so many! For a pretty small town, we have a huge number of excellent coffee shops and bakeries.Blackbird Bakery, right in downtown Winslow, is all around best for coffee and extra-good baked things, but a few doors down is a bakery cart called Coquette that really has the best French pastries anywhere! On sunny days,

[JM] What was your first paid job out of high school?

[Jennifer] I was a lifeguard at a public pool the summer between high school and college. I taught swimming lessons in the morning, and sat in the lifeguard chair in the afternoon. It was sunny and smelly (boys’ bathrooms at public pools—yuk!). I didn’t want to make a career of it, but it wasn’t the worst way to spend a summer.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[Jennifer] Earl Grey tea, with milk and honey, and avocado on toast–my two favorite things, any time of day.

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Check out Jennifer’s soon-to-be-released, JOSIE’S LOST TOOTH. 

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