Illustrator Interview – Tracey Berglund

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Tracey and I ‘met’ on a uTales collaboration project, where she casually mentioned in a comment on FB that should I ever be in Brooklyn, she would welcome me chez elle! Of course, she didn’t realize that I have taken many up on these casual offers over the years and I just happened to be swinging through NY a few weeks later! We exchanged some mails/flight arrival times etc and all was set. Now, those who know me well know how dysfunctional I can be after 10:00 PM, let alone on jet lag! So, when I am ringing on Tracey’s bell on my arrival in Brooklyn that night, in my somnolent state, leaving progressively frantic messages on the mobile and landline, you can imagine my stress levels and how certain juicy adjectives were coming to mind…. Well, a helpful stranger, a hotel, Tracey’s delay at an awkward family birthday meal, apologies on every social network possible and a day later, we got together. Needless to say, we have laughed heartily about this since and Tracey’s hospitality is charming, warm and stimulating. Moral of story: always give a heads up 24 hours before descending on someone! It is truly a pleasure to introduce you to my new friend and talented illustrator today!

[JDM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?

[TB]  Illustrator/author

 What’s your nationality and where have you lived?

[TB] I’m American and was born in Brooklyn and live here now in South Park Slope, but I love to explore new places when I can.

I spent 13 years living abroad (so far) in London, Cape Town, South Africa, Stockholm, Sweden and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

[JDM] How have these cultures/languages influenced your art?

[TB] These experiences have undoubtedly influenced my life and informed my art. – the way I paint, the way I see, the colors I use, the way I think, and the things I try to express in the children’s stories which I started writing and illustrating a little over 2 years ago.

Learning about life from different perspectives and being outside of one’s normal comfort zone, -be it immersed in a place with a different language, a different culture, a different style of government, etc. changed me.

On a purely ‘superficial’ level, Brazil forever changed my color palette. It also affected the type of energy I try to put in my artwork because the energy, life rhythms, and music there is indescribably rich. I can’t explain how that got into my work but it did.

The incredible buildings of many European cities stimulated my love for architecture (which I have always been passionate about), as did seeing amazing nature and wildlife around the world. My sense of space and using space in my work changed when I left tight little crowded cities and lived in more open spaces.

The theatre and movement of daily life in many of the places I have visited in different cultures visually impressed me a great deal too. (I think of many open air markets like in Marrakesh, Morocco, or Belem, Brazil, for example and also people congregating in the plazas  like in Leon, Nicaragua, Cartagena, Colombia, Florianopolis, Brazil, and Oaxaca, Mexico places where I just sketched up a storm because I was mesmerized watching daily life and people and children in motion doing ordinary things. I love that!

When I’m sketching from life I have to try and catch movements quickly. I struggle to capture the true essence of things with paper and pen and color and I love to observe the unexpected moments of life and shadow. It’s heightened when I am not in a familiar place. Though lately I have been really stimulated by Brooklyn, where I live. It’s going through a sort of cultural Renaissance and that’s very exciting! I have been drawing a lot here now. How about you? You also loved what you experienced recently in Brooklyn. Right? Could you tell me about your experience here? [JDMI love your reflections here and how all art forms in a culture can touch us at a subconscious and conscious level. Thinking about it now, I suspect the frequent spontaneous harmonic singing I saw amongst kids in Africa helped me realize how children naturally want to express themselves in some artistic form or another. Nice is very Mediterranean, Tracey, very zen and unhurried…. being in Brooklyn gave me a buzz because of the energy and sense of community I felt all around me. It made me want to be actively pursuing something!

[JDM] Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.

[TB] Like many people who draw starting from a young age, it just seemed to come naturally.  I sketched on little 6 inch x 10inch white paper notepads that my father used to bring home from work. He was a garment cutter in New York and cut fabric for clothing for a living. He often brought me home Italian and French fashion magazines like ‘Lei’ and French Vogue when the designers were done with them. Well, these magazines made a huge impression on my 7 or 8-year-old mind. They were so ‘fantastic’ -the photo shoots, the clothing, the ads, the models, the glossy paper they were printed on; everything was super creative. This was the late 60’s and a really special time in the arts in my opinion. I was enchanted. In the beginning I wanted to be a fashion illustrator.

When I got older and attended FIT, The Fashion Institute of Technology and SVA, The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan I studied illustration and video amongst other things. I suppose with video I started writing stories. One’s creativity constantly evolves throughout one’s life hopefully, don’t you think?

[JDM] How has illustration changed for you on a personal level over the past 20 years?

[TB] Well, in the early days when I moved to London with my portfolio after college with only a bicycle and a stereo, I would simply phone up art directors of magazines and agencies and arrange to show my work to them in person. That was amazing. I met some wonderful art directors and got some really fun work as I continued to work on my illustration portfolio. This was true in Rio, London, Stockholm, Paris. It was such an exciting experience to enter all these different studios and agencies…it was more personal and more fun. I often had to supplement my art income by teaching English as a Foreign language to foreign students-The English made fun of me saying as an American I could barely speak English!- and I also worked in art studios doing production type work.

Illustrating has always been fun and I think I’ve improved and found my style as I got older. I really like working in parallel to text.

I learned to use the Mac in the early 90’s and while its totally great to use as a tool, I love sketching in my own sketchbooks and making mistakes and being random at first when approaching my artwork. When I came back to New York I worked in fashion graphic studios like The Gap, Old Navy, amongst others designing graphics and logos. I also designed the Pop Up Video show for VH1which was fun. The show is back on the air now. I also created graphics and illustration for The Food Network for a variety of cooking shows. I created hundreds, if not thousands of funny mock labels for cans and boxes and bottles used for recipes and featured on the shows. That was really fun because I did a lot of silly, totally absurd copywriting on these labels and the cameramen and producers seemed to get a kick out of them. 

[JDM] I know you are not only a book illustrator. What is the overlap with other expressions your art takes?

[TB] I’ve always needed to supplement my freelance illustration career with more consistently paying work on the side.  ( I’d be happy if  illustration and writing moved from the ‘appetizer’ –‘or hors d’oevres’  section of my life menu to the main course (entrees)  one day! )

As I mentioned earlier, I worked in Fashion and TV and even as a Brand Director for a large chain of gyms called Crunch. After that, I was recruited into the dotcom world during the early days and used my creative design and branding skills consulting for Fortune 500 clients like Nokia, Target, Intel, and the Department of Education. I learned a lot about user experience and strategy for the web and mobile. I also worked for IBM for several years. I met great people and learned a lot.

Now I am consulting for a mobile technology company doing very exciting things with music and visual recognition, kind of a ‘Shazam on steroids’, but better. We are called in8 mobile. It’s actually fascinating and I like the people I work, mostly musicians and artists and tech gurus. And we’re in a great office in Dumbo, Brooklyn overlooking the East River and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. (you’ve been there, you know) [JDM] For those who saw the cool photo of me and the Manhattan Bridge on my FB page, it was taken from deck of Tracey’s office!

I’m someone who is curious and I love learning. It also gives me great insight into where technology will potentially be taking publishing and what’s the latest in the mobile app world, which is truly fascinating.

[JDMWhile we all like being paid for our work, I know you give of your creative time to voluntary groups. Can you share one of your most recent volunteer projects?

[TB] One non-profit organization I help is called  Brooklyn Community Services

They are one of the oldest, not-for-profit, non-sectarian social service providers in New York City providing help to people with psychiatric illnesses, adults with disabilities, and enabling people to move from welfare to work. They also offer guidance, education and support to children and young adults.   

I enjoy working with non-profits especially when I can use my art or work with children. In South Africa I ran art classes for children at an orphanage part-time and found it incredibly rewarding. Nazareth House for kids with Aids

(an exhibition we created!)

At Brooklyn Community Services the teens and I made a mural for the lounge at their Adolescent Help Center in East New York incorporating their own ideas and imagery and the Maya Angelou Poem  ‘Still I Rise”.  We were very proud of the result.

 I just finished creating an invitation for big fundraising event at the South Street Seaport in June for BCS sponsors incorporating a Help Center in one of my Brooklyn illustrations.

I recently participated in a lovely volunteer crafts project for women at a local Brooklyn Homeless Shelter this past Valentine’s Day.

[JDM] What children’s books have influenced your childhood and adulthood?

[TB] I’ve been thinking about this question Joanna. Just as our first relationships-with parents, siblings, love, work relationships unknowingly set the template for our future relationships the first stories that a child takes to heart leave an indelible mark. Their minds are so open, free and filled with potential. My personal favorites were: The Madeleine books, and a series not many people may know called “All- of –a –kind family- series as a kid. I loved how nice and normal they seemed. I wanted to be part of a family like that. But wasn’t.

I also adored Dr. Seuss, of course. Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish, Two Fish were my absolute favorites.

With my own children I enjoyed a renewed passion for kids books, and the ones we liked were usually the really silly ones. ‘If my dog had a job’ by Bernice Lum was one of our favorites And I think our true favorite was ‘Dr. DeSoto’ by William Steig where a tiny mouse dentist and his wife worry over whether they should help an ailing Fox with a very bad tooth or if he will ultimately eat them after their good deed. It’s fantastic and the illustrations are class. I also liked to adlib the stories around the pictures with my kids and add to them.

Now, my personal favs are Steig, Quentin Blake, Oliver Jeffers, David Shrigley (who is an artist/humorist) and I have always admired Sara Midda, the English author illustrator. You may be familiar with her Sketchbook from Provence? [JDM] I am not, so thank you for the recommendation!

My favorite artist/illustrator is Saul Steinberg. His work was both deep and humorous, i constantly refer to his work for inspiration.

[JDM] Can you share a piece or two with us?

[JDM] Five Fun ones to Finish? 

What word best sums you up?

 [TB] Ooooh, that’s hard one word? Only one word?

That’s like having only one wish….!

I can’t do it.  You pick one of the 2 below.

‘curious’    or   ‘true’ [JDM] You can have  both, since I see both of these in you!

[JDM] Cats or dogs (or turtles)?

 [TB] Probably birds, though I love dogs and have a 12 year old turtle Max, which I let roam around my apartment. You’ve met and fed him. [JDM] I have never met such a social turtle as Max. He seriously begged to be let out of his tank to have a chat and a wander!

[JDM] What do you do for non-art related relaxation?

[TB] “I like to watch” as Peter Sellers once said in the film “Being There.” I stroll, look, listen, purposelessly.

I think society is too tightly wound about doing, constantly doing, achieving, that’s fine. But sometimes it’s important to just be.

I also love music and like to listen to my son rehearsing or play my favorite music.

Chelsea Hotel

I love to read and am slightly unhappy if I am not immersed in a great novel. My favorite book which I read this year was “Just Kids”, by Patti Smith. I am reading “Capital”, by John Lanchester right now and read and reread great children’s books every day for inspiration. [JDM] Living in Africa taught me a lot about the value of just being, Tracey, but actually I am butting in to say that I read “Just Kids” last summer and loved it. I was reading it at a café in San Francisco and got chatting to the lady at my table, who just happened to have known Patti well and had hung at in the same places as her when she lived in New York!

I also love to look at art and try to visit museums and galleries regularly. [JDM] Well Manhattan and Brooklyn are spectacular for this!

[JDM] What’s your drink of preference while you are working?

[TB] I work best in the early morning and this is often aided by a cup of coffee made in my French press. When I’m working in the middle of the day at the weekend, I don’t deny myself a nice glass of white wine or a beer.

A perfect time to ask you the same Joanna, you live in France at the moment, you must have a plethora of great options available. What is your preferred working beverage of choice? [JDM] Haha, well, Tracey, I am very similar to you. I am a morning person and during the day  enjoy fresh coffee from my old italian stove top espresso maker. But if I work in the evening then it is occasionally with a glass of rosé in the summer or red in the winter!

If I were in France I’d be drinking a citron presse at an outside bar and sketching away! Or a tiny glass of calvados!  [JDM] I love the little French bistro with one or two tiny tables squeezed onto the sidewalk!

[JDM] Is there anywhere you haven’t visited where you would like to live for a season?

[TB] Oooh that’s a good one. And I’m not going to over think this.

Back to Brazil up in the north top of the list-I could practice my rapidly disappearing Portuguese and soak up the street life and sounds, which are so rich. And of course it would be near the sea.

I’ve been told I would flip over the color and everything else in India, so I KNOW I have to go. As you and I discussed over dinner recently, Calcutta, for some reason is also on my list. Louis Malle’s documentaries floored me and though it would not be an easy trip, my best ones have never been easy. Memorable and life changing is what I expect from an adventure.

Another part of me would love to stay in a nature reserve, not fancy for the pampered set, but a real nature reserve with simple cabins and animals and walks and –I’m thinking of some of the ones I visited when I lived in South Africa 8 years ago. Every step, every sound, every thought, every smell, every plant…sparked something precious and new for me.  It would be wonderful to have the time to experience that again. Time, more than money always seems to be the issue. I still have one son in High School and a four -day a week job I need to be at.

For me time is more precious than money, I wish I had a bank to put my pennies of time.

And what about you? I know you are keen on moving to Brooklyn, it is a vibrant creative place for sure right now, where else do you yearn to stay for 3 months? [JDM] I haven’t been back to Latin America for a long time, and I would love to spend some time in Southern Argentina, Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego… it would be a good opportunity to scrub up on my rusty Spanish!

 [TB] Other thoughts:

If one is lucky enough to find something they love to do in this lifetime they simply must do it.

Never give up the things that sincerely bring you the most pleasure, even when they are a struggle and you don’t achieve the success you aim for right away. I like Steve Jobs quote, Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

If we as writers and artists love what we do, we come closer to creating something that may be truly meaningful for others as well.

I think brilliant children’s stories bring lots of joy.

And I don’t think there is a more important audience than children.

Thank you for featuring me in your blog and doing what will certainly have to be a heroic editing job on all my ramblings!

Tracey, thank you for your wise words of encouragement to us. We do indeed have the best audience ever! Thank you for this thoroughly enjoyable interview exchange. I wish you great success as a children’s illustrator/author. Tracey is actively looking for an agent and is submitting her most recent PB manuscript, “IDA THE MUSICAL WITCH”.

Tracey’s websites:,

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31 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Tracey Berglund

  1. That Steve Jobs quote says it all! And it’s horses for moi! I work best in the morning too. Coffee in one hand, keyboard in the other. *wishing I could illustrate* What a bodacious interview. Thank you for giving back! *waving*

  2. Wow! What a lovely, inspiring, and insightful interview!
    Thanks for sharing Tracey & Joanna!

  3. Wonderful interview, more like a conversation enticingly overheard! Tracey you are so much braver than me! I’m always second-guessing, doubting, wondering, when in actual fact sometimes we should just go out and do. I also wish I could have traveled as much as the two of you, how fantastically adventurous. You’re like intrepid explorers discovering the breadth as well as the length of your lives, I stand in awe.

    I wholeheartedly agree with following your true bliss, it’s SO vitally important to hold on to this truth no matter what. I haven’t always managed to do this but I’m making an effort now to love my life and live my love. Thank you for this interview, so inspiring!

    • Joanna says:

      Good job everyone isn’t as adventurous as the two of us, Helga, as we need those who build and consolidate long-term, too. I think, though, as illustrators and writers, we pursue a different type of adventure, and then we are as free as we allow our inner wings to transport us. I, too, try and follow those loves and passions. Thank you for your comments!

  4. Lori Sokol says:

    Who ever thought that our humble beginnings in Brooklyn would now have such cache.
    This interview truly captures who you are professionally, which is built on who you are personally and, as such, reflected in your art.

  5. ok, word of the day is “bodacious!”we must all check out this album called
    Bo-Day-Shus!!! -love the song names!
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Studio album by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper
    Released 1987
    Genre Rock, Psychobilly
    Label Enigma Records
    Producer Ron Goudie
    Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper chronology
    (1986) Bo-Day-Shus!!!
    (1987) Root Hog Or Die
    Professional ratings
    Review scores
    Source Rating
    Allmusic [1]
    Bo-Day-Shus!!! is the fourth album by Rock/psychobilly musical artists Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, released in 1987.
    [edit]Track listing

    “Elvis Is Everywhere”
    “We Gotta Have More Soul!”
    “I Ain’t Gonna Piss In No Jar”
    “The Polka Polka”
    “I’m Gonna Dig Up Howling Wolf”
    “The Story Of One Chord” [*]
    “Gin Guzzlin’ Frenzy”
    “B.B.Q. U.S.A.”
    “Positively Bodies Parking Lot”
    “Wash No Dishes No More”
    “Lincoln Logs”
    “Wide Open”
    “Don’t Want No Foo-Foo Haircut On My Head” [*]

  6. Wow, don’t where to begin. Very interesting and inspiring itnerview Joanna. Tracey I love how all of your life experiences are channeled into your work. What a very interesting career you’ve had, beginning with your fashion designs as a child. Never thought about that someone designing the labels on cans. HA! I love the variety of things you’ve done in your career and hope that you are able to really pursue your passion as an illustrator full time — liked your illustrations and website. I also have a great love for Brazil, its color and culture. One of my favorite counties. Great interview ladies.

  7. muita obrigada Patricia! 🙂

  8. Hi Joanna, I smiled when you made mention of staying in friends’ places when you travel because I very often do that myself. 🙂 Tracey is indeed very gracious to make such a lovely offer. I love the interview – questions were very insightful. The illustrations are likewise glorious. I think more than anything I was drawn to Tracey’s sharing that she does volunteer projects – I have a huge thing about doing community service, and I have great respect for talented people who devote their time and energy to doing worthy causes. 🙂

    • Joanna says:

      She was indeed very gracious! It is my preferred way of travel, to stay with local friends! I am so glad we waited to do the interview until after I had stayed with Tracey as it gave me opportunity to ask more interesting questions. She was working on some voluntary stuff while I was there. 🙂

    • thanks Myra, the funny thing is that these volunteer projects always (usually) bring me great joy and open my eyes; it’s not like I have this huge ‘do-goody’ streak…:)

  9. Daniel Cristancho says:

    I hope you can travel to India soon… many interesting places to visit!

  10. Another great interview. Thanks Tracey for sharing about all your work. I loved reading how you loved those magazines your father brought home from work. Sounds like you are in the middle of many exciting projects.

  11. great interview and i love the artwork!

  12. Wonderful, interesting and inspiring interview! Thanks so much Tracy and Joanna! (And I loved the part about the turtle – I never thought of turtles being social :))

    • Joanna says:

      Susanna, I was dead surprised. He kept trying to crawl out of his basin, and Tracey had told me that she let him wander in the apartment. So, I lifted him out of his basin and he seriously came over to chat!

  13. Max the turtle is a survivor, I got him in Chinatown, NY over 12 years ago when he was just a little baby…he’s not your average turtle….he’s super fast, and always zooms into the kitchen in the morning when I’m making coffee, I wish I could teach him to talk like a parrot, but we make meaningful eye contact..:)

  14. Claudia says:

    What a wonderful, energetic, colorful, inspirational interview!thanks for sharing!!!

  15. Joanna says:

    Aw, Thanks, Claudia. You know, it has been so wonderful for me to connect with illustrators like yourself and Tracey and all the others I have interviewed. As a truly inept artist, I have always felt a little in awe of artists and consequently, until now, haven’t allowed myself the pleasure of drawing close to them or their work. I am learning so much and being so inspired by you guys, your journeys and your illustrations!

  16. Jackie Kramer says:

    So nice to start my morning in sunny NY today…sans the french press coffee, yummy, for me green tea and read about Tracey’s beginnings, middle and where she’s headed. Nice interview Joanna…I’ve had funny starts as well arriving to new places like Venice and Athens and there’s a lot to say for spontaneity and the kindness of strangers! Tracey, I too, have sweet memories of my father bringing home paper and a typewriter and cutting out the Sunday funnies creating my own picture books.
    Also, what is it about the creative soul and “wanderlust”? I too, have itchy feet and spending time in one place, is the way to know the people and places. I was able to combine volunteering and travel in Israel and Ecuador and the experience is the gift that keeps on giving.
    I so enjoy your illustrations and your stories on uTales…look forward to more! Oh, btw, must go to India…the energy and “bodacious” people. Oooh, idea…Joanna and Tracey…I’m in if anyone wants to go!!

  17. Joanna says:

    Jackie, giving to and receiving hospitality from, “strangers”, has blown my mind…. it happens on every continent, though comes more spontaneously and with less fear in some cultures! I love this sort of unconditional kindness!

    I have spent many life-changing months in India and would love to return, especially to the south, which I don’t know at all…. let’s start planning, girls!

  18. yippee! yes! my older son is doing an internship in mumbai this summer too, I think something called “synchronicity” may be occurring….I’m in! Great idea Jackie and Joanna! We will look like a bunch of spies, sketching and writing on different streets!

  19. Oh wow! this was an excellent interview/discussion, Joanna. What a talent Tracey. The times we have been in New York, my hubby and I never got to visit Brooklyn and Chinatown (we just drove through) so we intend to explore those area’s next time we are there. Your travels has given me itchy feet and I am hoping to be in Chile, Argentina and Brazil in early 2013, hoping to combine it with a trip to New York’s SCBWI meet…. who knows!
    One thing I loved most about this discussion was the interesting look at the volunteer work Tracy does, how creative and inspiring it is both for us to learn about but for the kids and others she has helped. Incredible! (I hope we meet some day)
    Thankyou Joanna for this.

    • Joanna says:

      Sound alike you have fabulous plans for 2013, Diane! It would be wonderful to get to the winter SCBWI conference!

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