Illustrator Interview with Wendy Wahman

WendyGet to know Wendy…

Wendy Wahman is the author/illustrator of DON’T LICK THE DOG: MAKING FRIENDS WITH DOGS and A CAT LIKE THAT, and illustrator of SNOWBOY 1, 2, 3, written by Joe Wahman.  DON’T LICK THE DOG was selected as a 2010 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, starred for Outstanding Merit and accepted to the Society of Illustrators Original Art show. Wendy’s editorial illustrations have appeared in major publications including Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and the Harvard Business Journal. She also teaches creative bookmaking to children and adults. For more info, visit her website and blog. Also, be sure to watch her book trailers: “Don’t Lick the Dog” / “A Cat Like That”“Snowboy 1,2,3″.

Quirky Questions

Where is the worst place to be stuck waiting?

In LA traffic underneath an overpass.

If you were to start a new trend and be famous for it, what would it be?

I do Rally obedience with my standard poodle, Jody. I use a hand signal to turn him this way and that, and he looks mighty flashy, zinging around. When other students and the teacher started using it, I dubbed it the ‘Wendy Wave,’ and demanded royalties (kidding).

What great idea did you come up with, but never followed through on?

The “Accupad” is a rubber mat with rounded knobs of varying lengths. You lie or lean on it and it massages your back and neck, feet, pressing just the right tight knots. Another brilliant idea is a dessert shop called, ‘Bites,’ where you can buy bite-sized servings of different desserts. They would also offer home delivery. 

What odd habit or quirk do you have?

I have a thing about water. I like to have a cup of water near me. I also keep an eye on my animals’ (and other people’s animals’) water bowls. I wash ‘em out and fill ‘em up.

Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?

It has to be a place where I’ve been happy. That’s what tweaks the beauty, isn’t it. I’ve been to Hawaii once. The water was incredible, so I’ll say, swimming underwater in Hawaii.

How do you feel about small talk? Love or hate?

Small talk is like dribbling a basketball. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the conversation going. Too much of it, and you get a foul.

What is the oldest thing you own? Where did you get it?

I have a little wrist coin purse I’ve had since kindergarten. Here’s a picture of it. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I do remember wearing it, and loving it like a friend. I struggled to one-handedly buckle it on, and unzip it to get my dime for milk. 

KittyCoinPurse

Would you ever consider living with a tribe deep in the Amazon? Why or why not?

Can I take my dogs? No? Then, no. 

What do you get most enthusiastic about?

Insight Books.” I love making them, teaching them, looking at them, watching people discover them. My new website will have a section on them. You can see some I’ve made on my Behance portfolio, and scattered throughout my blog.    

If you went to a psychiatrist, what would he/she say you suffer from?

Depression, Social Anxiety and OCD.Otherwise, I’m completely normal.

Depression – eh – everyone talks about depression these days. Instead, I’ll share with you my super un-cool secret: I have Social Anxiety.  I’ve learned that millions of people suffer from ‘SA,’ but are too ashamed to talk about it, they just endure, cope, make excuses. Hide.

How to describe? Physically, I start to sweat and sometimes shiver. Freezing hot. I pour sweat. Rivulets trickle down my scalp. Torrents woosh from my body. I shudder in icy trembles. I have trouble speaking, I feel like I’m going to cry, or even die. I can go into such a state of panic and out-of-body fear. Instead of leaving my body though, I retreat to a seat right between my eyes. Like I’m steering an unwieldy craft (me) from behind my eyes. I drew a picture of this feeling once, a long time ago. It was the cover of my first published book, “Asides,” a self-indulgent confessional I drew and wrote when I was 22. Unfortunately, it was published.

The Good News.  I knew I’d have to be visible when my first book launched, so I got into therapy. Cognitive and behavioral therapy specifically for panic disorders.  It was incredibly helpful, and I totally recommend getting help if you or someone you know has SA. I do all kinds of public things now. I still have the occasional panic attack, but have learned it’s not the end of the world and they’re not as intense. I will survive, embarrassed, but alive.

SA Neurosis No. 2:  I’m anxious about going out at night. I’ll find any excuse not to go out. I’ll have every intention of going to something, then The Dread overcomes me. I have trouble breathing, feel like a trapped animal. I know I’m not trapped. I’m not anything! It’s all in my head. Nothing is happening, but you’d have to pry my fingers off the door jam to get me to go out. Panting safely inside my house, I’ll feel like I’ve dodged a bullet when in reality it’s just a friend’s book launch party. But see, it’s ‘out there,’ in the outside world. With people. Unleashed crowds of adults.

What makes you uncomfortable?

Unleashed crowds of adults.”

If you were a farmer, what would be your most abundant crop?

Popcorn.

WendysIllustrating Questions

How do you deal with creativity blocks?

Is it ok if I say I don’t get creative blocks? I suppose I could call lack of inspiration or dull ideas, creativity blocks.  But I think those are just part of the process, the dance. Quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow. That’s how it goes.

Can you visualize a finished product before you begin a book?

Yes and no. Too many miles between start and finish, all that growth and whacking away. The big old field of dreams to the solid ground of reality. All grown up, off you go, little thing from me.

Do you feel that you chose your passion, or did it choose you?

It chose me, or I should say, I had no choice. I was full of art from the get-go.

Both my grandmothers were artists. My father’s mother worked as a Hearst newspaper illustrator in the 1920’s. Little would she know, had she lived, that her granddaughter would also work for a Hearst newspaper as an illustrator.  I didn’t find this out about my grandma until years into working at the P-I. My stepmother, Carla Saunders, sent me this newspaper article, blown up and framed. That’s my grandmother, Maurine Griffin.  

MaurinePaintsBacksIs there a particular place where you feel most creative?

In my head. It’s a pretty creative place – and I get to take it with me wherever I go.

Who or what has helped you to persevere through the challenges?

My friends and my husband Joe. My critique group friends, Kevan Atteberry, Jennifer K. Mann, Elizabeth Rose Stanton and Ben Clanton, and my story guru, Erica Silverman. SCBWI and the many wonderful individuals involved with that group. And of course, my brilliant, talented, hard working and very funny agent, Erzsi Deak. 

If you were no longer able to illustrate, how else would you express your creativity?

Immediately my mind asks, ‘why can’t I illustrate?’ Am I blind, did I lose my fingers and toes, what are the parameters? Ok, I’ll pretend I Just Can’t. I just learned how to needle felt, and I’m making little animals, so I’m sure I’d make more. I love stabbing things into shape, it’s very satisfying. I’d make handmade books, write, draw, paint, collage, sculpt… speaking of sculpting, my poodles would surely sport elaborate hairdo’s. Poodles as topiary.

What has been your greatest sacrifice that has enabled you to become the illustrator you are today?

Not taking full-time jobs for longer than I need to so I have time for illustration and all the business that goes along with it. We often live on the edge, financially. Many times I’ve wished I didn’t feel compelled to create stuff, and could be happy just working a job and going home. I’ve tried, but I get physically and mentally ill when I don’t make things.

What words of inspiration were given to you that you would like to pass along to others?

“This is what you do, you’re an artist,” said Lynda Barry, sitting across from me at the Canterbury Restaurant on Capitol Hill, some 30 years ago. I had shown her my tiny little pen & ink drawings, crammed onto cheap paper as if it were my last piece of paper. Lynda told me to go buy good paper – lots of it –and give my drawings the space they deserved. She gave me permission to draw, and draw as much and as big as I wanted.

If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?

Be kind to animals and children.

When did you realize that you had a gift for illustrating?

I was unearthed by creative director Kelly Frankeny, when she was came to redesign the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper where I worked. I wasn’t doing many illustrations. I mostly drew locator maps, charts and graphics – whatever needed to be done, I was happy to do it.  Kelly loved my contemporary style and said “Let there be Wendy illos throughout the re-design!” Or something to that effect. From then on I illustrated stories every week until the Hearst Corporation closed down their 146 year-old paper in March 2009. I loved the P-I. I loved, and still love, the people. It was the best job-job I’ve ever had.

How do you balance your personal life and your creative endeavors?

Not very well. 

How much of your own life is reflected in your work?

Animals, animals, animals! I’m working on a story right now that was inspired by my little white Standard Poodle, LaRoo.  It’s the easiest character to draw, since I know her front, back and upside down. 

Do you have family members who are writers or illustrators?

My grandmothers, Maurine Griffin and Sylvia Leventhal. My sister, Sharon, is a verbal genius, I love her writing. Her son, Nick, is a good artist. There’s talent scattered throughout my family, come to think of it. But none lately have been as bull-headed as me to pursue art as a career.

What was your childhood like? Did your upbringing influence the way you illustrate today?

I was painfully shy. I didn’t start talking to people outside my family until I was about seven. I drew all the time, on big chalkboards we had in the playroom of our house in Torrance, CA. I’d draw on the patio with chalk. 

Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?  

Are they listening? No? Then, A Cat Like That, because it just rolled out in a couple of hours. Of course, I’d spent nearly a year on a completely different version. Frustrated, I asked permission from my editor to start over.  A Cat Like That, slinked into being. Just like that.

When do you feel the most energized?

After yoga, being with good friends, doing something nice for someone.

Does your illustrating reflect your personality?

My colors are very bright and saturated, hopefully conveying friendliness and expression. I like people. I’m usually talkative and open. But I need plenty of down time to recuperate after being around people, even friends. I love coming home and being with Joe and the poodles. I love illustrating more than any other thing I do. So, if my artwork looks loved and at home, then I’d say, yes, my illustration reflects my personality.

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