Cheryl Johnson, a lifelong Maine resident, has been interested in art and writing since childhood. She graduated from the Maine College of Art in 2000. She has published eight children’s books that she wrote and illustrated, with more projects in mind. She is currently a puzzle designer for a wooden jigsaw puzzle company based in Vermont, but her first love has always been illustration. She is active in her town’s art guild and exhibits her wall art in several venues. For more info, visit her website.
What’s the biggest inconvenience about the place you’re living?
I live in an old three story Victorian house in a small town in Maine. The biggest issue for me is in the winter time. It’s cold. My studio on the third floor has no central heating and I rely on a small electric unit to thaw me during the long winter months. My left side is tolerably warm but my right side, including my dominant drawing hand is usually frozen. I love my home, I raised 4 children there but the challenges of heating and maintenance are pretty daunting at times, given my small income. But I choose to live here. It suits me. It’s big enough to hold my dreams.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal?
I know what it wasn’t! Pea soup. When we had a ham for Sunday dinner, I knew I was in trouble. On Monday, there would be nasty pea soup for supper and I hated it. My father was a military man and from the old school where children ate whatever was placed in front of them, even if it gagged one to death. I like being a grown up. I haven’t eaten pea soup in years.
What do you do every day without fail?
I walk three miles. I breathe deeply. I eat as healthy as I can. I find reasons to be grateful, even if the furnace breaks down or the toilet won’t flush properly. I write, draw, and listen to music. I dream every day. Anything is possible if I work hard and stay focused on my dreams.
If you could dis-invent one thing, what would it be?
I would completely obliterate all weapons of war, and the thoughts and memories of them as well. People in conflict would have to talk or duke it out instead. Much more personal, much less messy.
What makes you want to throw up?
Any story, picture or audio recording of violence makes me physically sick. It’s hard for me to understand that some people consider violence a form of entertainment. I will never get it.
What was the worst grade you ever received?
In high school, I got an “F” in Geometry. It was the only class I ever failed to get a passing mark. I failed the course even after completing weeks of extra credit and after-school help sessions. Arithmetic and I are not on friendly terms, either. I’m fine with adding and subtracting–even fractions are a piece of cake. But I’ll leave the rest to the engineers and rocket scientists.
What song could you listen to on repeat?
I am a music addict. At 18, I saved my money and flew to London to go find Donovan back in the 70’s. I loved his music so much. Still do. Never did meet him. It’s on my bucket list. But, back to the question, I suppose right now the answer would be Paul McCartney’s Venus and Mars. It makes me cry. “Standing in the hall of the great cathedral-waiting for the transport to come”. I have always felt like an alien on this earth.
If you could make up a school subject, what would it be?
Empathy. Pure and simple. It was the one trait I hoped to instill in my own children.
Whose ideas totally conflict with yours?
I am in direct opposition mentally and spiritually with anyone who justifies hatred as a way of being in this world. I’m not saying that I’ve never felt hate, but I immediately examine my feelings, try to understand why I am responding in that way, and start actively nurturing compassion for my so-called enemies. I don’t want anything evil happening to anyone, whether or not I agree with their choices or belief systems. It’s taken me some years to come to this place of acceptance, to learn to let things go. I believe I’m a better, happier person because of it.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
I don’t get them. I never have. Well, at least not yet. Years ago when my children were little and all still at home, the brief blocks of time that I got to draw or write were few and far between. I dove on them as voraciously as a starving vulture, and filled an hour here or there with all the pent up creative energy I could. My books Mish and Pobkin were conceived and drawn in a single night of frenzy as the kids slept. Like a dam bursting. Now I have ALL the time in the world that I need and it’s a profound joy. I have a sunami of ideas coming out of me all the time, every day, every minute. I have a lot of time to make up. I hope I have some years left so I can do half of what I want to. I have no regrets having children, but they were my main focus for a large chunk of my life.
Can you visualize a finished project before you begin a book?
Yes. They are always completely done in my head when I start to draw and write. At least in theory. I do, however, add lots of details as I move through the process.
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
When I’m on my daily walk, I constantly get great ideas. The last four books came to me on my walks. I should carry a pen and paper because I’ve had to scratch notes into the sides of the road’s shoulders in the sand to remember an inspiration. I get home, then go back with the car to read my note to myself. I HATE losing a great idea!
Who or what has helped you persevere through the challenges?
I’ve persevered because I’ve always believed that I have something valuable to share. Even when I wasn’t actively pursuing an artistic career, it was always on the back burner. My grandmother, mother, sister and brother, (now all passed away), were all instrumental. My mother was a third grade teacher for many years and she kept urging me to get my books published. Thirty years ago it was much more difficult, as I had no contacts and no resources. I sent Mish out to about twelve publishing houses and my book was rejected by every one. They were not looking for new authors. I wish my mom could be here now and see the eight books I’ve published since last fall. She would be so proud.
If you were no longer able to illustrate, how else would you express your creativity?
I’d have to be blind to stop drawing. If I lost my right arm, I’d learn how to use my left. If I lost both arms, I’d learn to draw with my mouth or my toes. But if I were blind, I’d continue to write. I’ve ALWAYS written stories all my life. So I’d be cool with that.
What has been your greatest sacrifice that enabled you to become the illustrator you are today?
I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything. Maybe I’ve sacrificed the regular paycheck that I used to get working as a cake decorator or a waitress in a diner. I believe that if I follow my joy, it will work out. I believe I was created to do precisely what I’m doing. Someday I’ll make the money I need to stay warm in January and to pay off my student loans. It will be by drawing and writing, NOT by waiting tables or scrubbing pots in the kitchen of some restaurant. I don’t regret doing those jobs and I don’t think less of myself for doing what I needed to. But I want to draw. That’s truly what I want to do.
What words of inspiration were given to you that you you’d like to pass along to others?
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” –Oscar Wilde
If you knew you only had one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you convey to others?
Be excellent to the earth and each other. It’s the only way.
When did you realize you had a gift for illustrating?
I realized I wanted to draw when I was around ten. There was a girl at my summer camp who could draw women and men out of fashion magazines beautifully. I remember looking at her perfect pencil sketches and thinking: “I want to draw like her! I could do that!” So I started practicing more and more. I drew the Marlboro Man off the TV guide, the Beatles, and Donovan from my older sister’s magazines. That little girl at Camp never knew how instrumental she was in encouraging my desire to be an artist.
How do you balance your personal life with your creative endeavors?
My house is messy and neglected most of the time. I’d rather draw. I do exactly what I MUST do in order to not live in total squalor. I cook, wash dishes, shop for food, do laundry, scrub bathrooms, feed the cats, change bed sheets. That’s about it. My husband is patient and supporting. I feel very guilty sometimes but not too much most of the time. I spent years cleaning, cooking, diapering, and working minimum wage jobs in order to feed my kids and keep a roof over our heads. It’s my turn to fulfill my destiny now. Someday I’ll be able to afford a maid perhaps. I like a clean house. I’ll love her to death and pay her well. Until then, I’ll draw on the dust on the coffee table as I walk by on my way to my studio.
What is your typical day like?
I get up around 7 am unless I’ve drawn until 2 am that morning. Then I may sleep til 9. I walk three miles, eat a quick breakfast, then work in my studio. Lots of music and good energy there. I’m a bit lonesome sometimes but it’s the price I pay to get my work created. I use social media to stay connected to the outside world and to share what I’m working on. I’m friends with lots of other artists so it’s like hanging out with cool coworkers. It helps relieve the sense of being alone all day. Then my husband comes home from work and we eat dinner together. It’s a good life.
Do you have any family members who are writers or illustrators?
No one in my family history were writers. My grandmothers, parents, and even my older sister journaled, but no one chose to go any further. I had a great-great aunt who painted wonderful landscapes in the 1900’s. I never met her but I have some examples of her work and they’re lovely. I’m the first children’s book illustrator and writer. My own daughter; however, self-published two children’s books. I’d like to think it’s because of my influence.
Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?
I love all my books but Sidley’s Story is my favorite so far. He was born in London, and that has a personal attachment for me. He’s a survivor and proactive. I feel a significant connection and affinity to his character. I cannot converse in Latin, though, without the help of Google translator.
How do you think you differ from other creative people in your genre?
I started writing and illustrating at a late age. I guess I’m the Grandma Moses of the children’s book world. It doesn’t bother me though. I’ve been waiting so long to do this. I feel like my life is just starting! I don’t know much about the in’s and out’s of this business, so everything I do is a first for me. I know I’ve made mistakes and I will certainly keep making different ones but I’m not afraid.
When do you feel most energized?
I feel very energized most of the time, but especially when I get a stupendous idea. (Or what I think is a stupendous idea). I can hardly wait to start drawing and fleshing out a new story. It’s SO exciting. Better than fireworks!
Does your illustrating reflect your personality?
That would be a big YES! The images I create live in my head first, swimming in and out of my brain’s electrical currents. I just coax them out so the rest of the world can see them.