Stephen Shaskan – Illustrator Interview

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I met Steve and his equally talented wife and artistic partner, Trisha, at SCBWI LA a couple of years back and have been following his/their amazing careers in kid lit ever since.





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

[SS] I begin with ideas. Sometimes those ideas come from things I hear or see and sometimes they are sparked by something I draw or write down. A Dog is a Dog began with the words “A dog is a dog.” From there I created the poem that would become the book. It wasn’t until several months later that I drew the first sketch for the dummy book I eventually sent out to publishers. Toad on the Road started with a little drawing of the toad in my book. It sparked the idea of a book with one million toads in it, but that was all I had. I put that idea aside when I came up with the lines “Toad on the road! Toad on the road! Oh no! Oh no! There’s a toad on the road!

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?And, please tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[SS] I grew up in Syracuse, NY, and Albany, NY. I went to college at Rhode Island School of Design, lived in Brooklyn, NY for about 6 months and moved to Minneapolis MN to be in a band with a fellow RISD grad who lived there.

I was always interested in art and my parents encouraged my art. My father who was a stock broker, did oil paintings on the weekends. My grandmother on my mom’s side lived with us and always did fun and creative projects with my sister and me. I remember her taking school glue and sawdust and making small animal sculptures. I took classes at the Everson Museum in Syracuse and later at the Albany School of Visual Arts, which was really just a one-room studio with one teacher and a great name for her business.

I went to RISD and received my BFA in illustration. The best thing to me about RISD was the school’s emphasis on critical thinking. I was taught to really have a reason behind all the choices I made in my art. I made great friends there and had a lot of serious discussions about art with painters, print makers, architects, photographers, graphic designers and other illustrators. I did as many things as I could outside of the illustration department: I took photography, stain glass, pottey, sculpture, and fell in love with screen printing. It was the early 1990s, Post Modernism questioned the validity of art with the likes of Jeff Koons and at the same time the government also questioned the validity of art with Senator Jesse Helms fighting to end the National Endowment for the Arts. The first George Bush was president, Operation Desert Storm was in progress, and when Maurice Sendak spoke at my graduation, he encouraged us all to, “Fight the good fight.”

After moving to Minneapolis, I worked at screen printing shops to train myself to be as efficient as possible, something you don’t learn at art school. I formed a band with friends and designed and screen printed posters for my band, friends’ bands, local theatre companies, and record shows. I transitioned from working full time screen printing to part time and teaching afterschool art classes. I eventually worked full time at an elementary school as an educational assistant during the school day and as an afterschool art teacher. I met Trisha Speed (soon to be Trisha Speed Shaskan) there, she was doing the same but teaching afterschool creative writing. We both shared picture books we loved with our students and each other.

I transitioned from elementary school to becoming a full time lead teacher at a preschool. With these combined experiences and especially with the help, support, and vast knowledge of Trisha, I began to put together a portfolio of children’s book art and  writing my own stories.

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

[SS] Screen printing was my favorite medium to work in, but I’ve fully gone over to digital art. There’s no set up, no clean up, my clothes don’t get messy, and it’s easy to fix mistakes.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[SS] These are spreads from the third Q & Ray book: Case #3 Foul Play at Elm Tree Park (Lerner) due out in Fall 2018.

Here is a spread in the sketching stage.

This is a spread in the beginning stages of inking.

This is a finished spread.

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

[SS] Comic books, and lots of them. I collected mostly Marvel and DC. My favorites were Xmen, Dare Devil, Teen Titans, and Dr. Strange.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[SS] We moved into a new house two years ago and I’ve had so many deadlines in those two years I haven’t had a chance to really make my workspace my own.

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

[JM] At what point in the picture book creation process do you start thinking about end papers?

[SS] When I start dummying out a book. Most of my books don’t have full color end papers because they don’t have paste down pages. In order to have full color end papers you lose several pages to tell story. Most picture books are 32 pages; without pastedown pages you start your story on page 4 and end on page 32; with pastedown pages you start on page 6 and end on page 29. So it all depends on where you want the page turns to go and how many pages you need to tell your story.

[JM] What was your favorite comic strip as a kid?

[SS] I loved Garfield and later Bloom County.

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

[SS] I’m still a sucker for Disney World.  In Minneapolis I love going to Minnehaha Falls and walking around Lake Harriet just 5 blocks from my house.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[SS] Both.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[SS] I’m color blind. And yes, it does mess me up sometimes. Luckily editors, art directors, and Trisha catch most of my mistakes.

[JM] So cool that you never let this hold you back. What was your first paid job?

[SS] Mowing lawns.

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

[SS] Coffee, gin, and pasta.

Gin is a first in my interviews! I am more a post work G&T gal myself! 🙂




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1 Response to Stephen Shaskan – Illustrator Interview

  1. Stephen is definitely a kid with a lot of heart. I see it in his love of comics and in the energy in his work. How lucky he is to be doing what he loved reading as a child! Excellent interview.

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