Cheryl Johnson – Illustrator Interview

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My VERY FIRST published book-Mish the Mushroom Man. 

I came across Cheryl’s humorous illustrations of The Rooster Gets Chickenpox by Michelle Andersen recently, and decided to find out more!






Illustrator or Author/Illustrator- If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

Generally I start any story by playing with pictures in my head. I can’t keep them out. I invite them in. This entails a flash of an inspired character or an odd scenario which just takes over my imagination, as I go about doing normal things such as walking down the street daily. Sometimes an entire story line will explode in my brain but most often it starts with a weird little face or situation. A flash of an idea thread which often starts knitting itself into a tent as the day goes on. I get my best ideas when I walk, it seems. Or when I can’t sleep in the middle of the night. When I’m out walking, I get hit with an idea that seems instantly spectacular. I’ve been known to find a stick and write key words or phrases in the shoulder dirt so I can come back later with my car and write them down. Several of my books have started that way, one was Cloud Hill.

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

I grew up in the small town of Gorham in a neighborhood called Little Falls in Maine. It was a place where everyone knew everyone else and I went to school with the same children all twelve years. I was a solitary child and I spent a lot of time wandering the roads, forest paths and fields on my own. I was quite content to dream days away and have continuous conversations in my head. Fantasy and make believe were very important to me. My favorite books were science fiction and fairy tales. They fed my voracious imagination. In my daydreams, I could control everything. I could be anyone I wanted to be. Anything was possible. The world of my own making seemed much more real than the physical world to me.

When I graduated from high school, I had saved enough money to buy a ticket to London, England. I wanted to meet Donovan, the singer. So I got on a plane a week after graduating and found myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. I had very little money with me and I knew no one there but I managed to live the whole summer in London. It was like living in a fantasy world for me and I felt divinely protected, in a force field bubble. I made friends with some friendly outcasts and moved into an abandoned row house, also known as a squat. It was quite an experience for an 18 year old girl from the sticks of Maine. It definitely set the tone for choices I made later in life. Living in England absolutely impacted me, both emotionally and artistically.

In England

Now I live in an old Victorian house in Bridgton, Maine. The town is small and everyone knows everyone else. I guess I’m comfortable here. There is beauty and history and relative safety which lets me dream and create at my leisure.

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

When I was 3 or 4 years old I drew a big space ship and a television set with rabbit ear antennas on the floral wallpaper in our dining room with crayons. I remember being punished for it. Artwork, on or off walls was not really encouraged. My family consisted of hard working middle class people-my mom was a school teacher and my father was a mechanic. Music was what drew our family members together. My mother was an excellent musician who played the piano and a dozen other instruments very well.

Her father was a banjo player in Rudy Valley’s band. My grandmother played piano in a band until she was 90 years old. All offspring got piano lessons and were encouraged to play various instruments. I took up the saxophone very reluctantly and played in my school band for six years, to please my mother. But all I wanted to do was draw. When I got a beautiful sax for Christmas in the eighth grade, I cried secretly for days. I didn’t want it. I wanted paint and paper, easels and brushes. I still have that confounded saxophone. I’m glad now. I was sent to a girls’ camp when I was about ten for two weeks during the summer. There I met a girl, a cabin mate who could draw like a grown up-like a real artist. I was amazed at her wonderful skill. I watched her during any free time we had and she showed me how to draw like her. She was very patient and not at all stingy with her expertise. I realized that I could do it as well as she did if I kept practicing. I got better quite quickly, because I was obsessed with learning. When I came home, I started spending every Saturday drawing and all my spare time was spent filling notebook pages with drawings. My brother and sister were out riding bikes and playing baseball, I stayed in my room and drew.

Drawing to me was like magic. I could take visions out of my head and manifest them on paper. The characters and worlds I created were real. At 12 I started writing stories in notebooks to go along with my pictures. I believe that I stayed away from drugs and alcohol in my teen years mostly because I had no time for anything that took me away from my fantasy worlds. I wanted no distractions.

Now as an adult I am most at peace while I am drawing or writing. I fashion my own worlds. I am a Creator. It’s a good feeling.

What is your preferred medium to work in?

A few years ago I would have said that my favorite medium was Prisma markers.

squash – The next picture is a Prisma marker mandala drawing I did my last year of college at Maine College of Art in 2000.

But as recently as three years ago, I was introduced to the Wacom Intuous drawing tablet and Photoshop by a good friend. It opened up brand new worlds of possibilities for me. It offers endless color selection and no wasted paper. It has been like a magic art wand for me and I’m still shocked and amazed at how much fun it is to use this technology. I have been, to put it simply, unleashed. I have been able to write,illustrate and self publish over twenty books of my own in the past three years and about a dozen of other authors’ works. I still paint traditionally with acrylic on Bristol paper occasionally, but I prefer drawing digitally, there’s no doubt to that.

The next few drawings are from my first book of butterfly fairies. They were all drawn free hand on the Wacom. 

The bridge and the dog are both acrylic paitnings. 
Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe a work in progress and the process of creating them?

I start out with rough sketches on the Wacom, usually and over the course of time, sometimes about ten hours with images of a lot of detail. Then a world is revealed. I look at some of the pictures I do and I can’t believe I had anything to do with their creation. I’m just the tool that the Universe is working through.

The next few drawings are from my first book of butterfly fairies. They were all drawn free hand on the Wacom. The chicken pictures are from an illustration job I just finished. It’s a book called The Rooster Gets Chickenpox by Michelle Andersen. I enjoy drawing for other people very much.

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

In my home, money was scarce for us kids. We didn’t get an allowance and birthday money was used to buy Christmas presents for other people. But by the time I was twelve I was baby sitting. I spent my 50 cents on Archie comic books. We were given nice books at Christmas and birthdays, plus we had access to a most wonderful one room library in Little Falls. I spent many happy hours there. I also took books out regularly from the school library. In fact I still have one large fairy tale book that was going to be discarded, and the librarian offered to give it to me. The drawings are by an artist named Adrienne Segur and I loved them more than I can say. Her art was instrumental to developing my style. I tried to copy her faces and detail. I treasure that book still. It went to England with me in my back pack when I was 18.

What does your workspace look like?

My studio is 18′ by 30′ on the third floor of my big old house. It used to be two bedrooms but we knocked the walls down to let in more light. When I was 15 years old, I dreamed of a space like this. I love it so much. Plenty of book shelves and floor space to dance if I feel like it. It’s cold in the winter and stuffy in the summer but I’m very lucky to have my own personal space, this I know.

What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

I have a very eclectic collection of wall art. Some was done by family, paint by numbers, children’s drawings and one great great aunt Mabel Applebee who was actually a wonderful artist, the ONLY one in our family! My father brought home my mother’s portrait done on silk by a Korean artist and I’m very blessed to have it hanging on my bedroom wall. She keeps an eye on me.

Five Fun Ones To Finish
What’s your favorite park? (State,urban) in the world?

I think I would have to say that it’s Tavistock Square in London. I spent a lot of time reading and writing letters sitting under Ghandi. If I every get the chance, I’d like to see the Grand Canyon or the California redwoods, but for now, Tavistock holds much affection. It was my little oasis in the great big city.

Tavistock Square London

Cats or dogs?

I had a beagle growing up, and always cats. My favorite one I named Dog after the song “Walkin’ my Cat Named Dog”. Nowadays I have just cats. I like to come and go, sometimes taking off for weekends and a pup would complicate that. Maybe someday I will invite another canine into my home but for now, two cats are my limit. I have a feral rescue gray tiger about 5 years old and another gray tiger called Nelson,not quite a year old. They are my studio buddies.

Dog My Cat


Cheryl and Frick

Fact most people don’t know about you?

I hate pea soup and any chowders. I guess to answer that question, it would depend on who you ask. Close friends and relatives would know that. I waited until I was 59 before I launched my life long dream career of writing and illustrating. I’ve worked very hard for the past three years.  I walked 40 miles in a mushroom suit three years ago. I am a breast cancer survivor of almost 17 years, opting not to go with chemo and radiation, but curing myself with alternative methods. I started college at 38 with 4 children and as a single parent. I worked full time in a local bakery decorating cakes. Only took me 7 years to get my degree. I’m not sure what else I could tell about unknown facts. Oh! My name is Cheryl but it’s NOT pronounced like “SH-eryl” it is pronounced like “CHAIR-ul” thanks to my father. My nick name as a kid was Cherry Pie.

What was your first paid job?

I’m not sure if you mean art related job. I got paid 50 cents a week at 12 years old to walk a kindergarten boy home from school every day. My first art “job” was lettering someone’s father’s truck when I was 14. I think I got 10 dollars for doing that. I felt rich!

Go to snack or drink to sustain your creative juices?

This question made me laugh. I don’t have a go to snack or drink. I’m trying NOT to be a coffee-holic but when it’s cold up in my studio, it’s difficult. Music is my go to snack that sustains me. It always has been. I grew up with headphones on listening to the Beatles and Donovan. I have to have music on when I’m drawing. When I’m writing, lyrics can be distracting so I listen to instrumentals. I love it all. Electronic, Hip Hop, Disco, old time Rock and Roll, classical piano,folk and Celtic…I’ve been known to get up and dance to Bowie, Prince, Thievery Corporation,wild gypsy music or Super Tramp. It’s all good.

Chairul!! It is a courageous thing to start the career of your heart at 59. And I certainly admire your approach to healing and health, and commitment to make it work as a creative. It’s a challenge even without health issues in this nation. I love your first jobs! I wish you success in all your pursuits.



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