I am tickled pink to be sharing with you the work and wit of Adam Gustavson, this fine fall day!
I first met Adam on another fine fall day, a few years ago in New York. We met up to peruse the artwork on display at the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show. And after that, chatting over a cuppa coffee, I was totally stoked to discover that, not only is he an amazing illustrator (I knew THAT already), but that his talent, creativity and humor spill over into his family life as well...
In talking about life as a parent of two small boys, (something we have in common), Adam regaled me with a a story about how he and his wife taught their eldest son about fractions by sitting around their kitchen table, taking it in turn to be human numerators and denominators! Now, this may sound odd to some of you, but having grown up in a home where one of our favorite games was looking for prime numbers on license plates...
Well, lets just say I knew I had found a kindred spirit!
We begin with a bonus question...
(Don't worry, there's no math involved.)
Bonus Question! Coffee or Tea?
COFFEE. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever refused a cup of coffee.
The rest of the QUESTIONS....
1. Describe yourself in five words:
(Police describe the suspect as) Medium height, boxy head, effusive.
(Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt! written by Leslie Kimmelman. Peachtree Publishers, 2009.)
2. Now, please tell us how you got started in picture book illustration (in more than five words)...
When I was in my senior year at Rowan College/University in South Jersey, I spent a lot of time at newsstands, looking for magazines that I thought might hire someone with work like mine; I copied down their staff boxes, and sent off color photocopies of my work to several, including The Oxford American Magazine and Cricket (who at age 12 I'd won two art contests in the back of).
I heard back pretty quickly from these two, and in the Spring semester had two commissions to finish up, each stories with character driven arcs and three or four images apiece.
This was pretty representative of the sort of work I got hired to do over the next year. With a few bits of serial work in my portfolio (if you could call it that...it might be more aptly referred to as a "body of work"), I started looking around at childrens' sections of book stores, much in the same way I had newsstands, writing the the names and addresses of companies I thought might consider me. I sent off packets of my samples to as many of them as I could, monthly.
The Autumn after I'd graduated, I received a call back. Ann Bobco, at Simon and Schuster's Margaret McElderry imprint, called me with my first book, Good Luck, Mrs. K! At the time, my portfolio was full of funny looking people, feral hog wrestling, oddball flying farm animals... The offer was to illustrate Louise Borden's sensitive portrayal (in blank verse) of a third grade girl whose favorite teacher receives an diagnosis of cancer.
So I threw myself into it, particularly the pacing of the story and finding a dynamic but natural looking way to design the art around the long columns of intricate, asymmetrical text. I learned an awful lot from it; aside from the page breaks and design, it was an amazing crash course in finding my way into a story that I wouldn't have necessarily seen myself in, but that Ann had the presence of mind to trust me with.
It also helped me develop a thick skin; it was a finalist for a Christopher Award and well reviewed in childrens' trade publications, but the New York Times wrote a scathing critique of it and another cancer-themed title released the same month. The year it came out, I met — at age 23 — a number of people who viscerally disliked my art for it and told me so in no uncertain terms. Things that are still in my imaginary list of the meanest things I've ever been told about my art. Things I would never tell some kid after his first book was released.
In the past 16 years, I've constantly promoted myself in all avenues of illustration, but picture books are where I've always found the most work, and the pacing and large scale problem solving of it have become a very comfortable
(Lost and Found written by Bill Harley. Peachtree Publishers, 2012.)
3. If you had to describe your work in terms of your artistic influences, you would say it is...
Thomas Nast's people in a Bonnard composition with Balthus' paint surface donning the light and color of Fairfield Porter, acting in a community theater production of The Big Lebowski for an audience of John Tenniel's animals.
4. Of the six fundamentals of 2D design (line, shape, volume, perspective,shading, and color):
a. Which is your greatest strength?
Color. This is weird, because I totally didn't GET color until I was out pretty well out of college.
b. Which poses your greatest challenge?
Perspective. This too is strange, because it's the thing that, for a long time, I thought was my strength.
(Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story written by Sebastian Robertson. Christy Ottaviano Books, 2014.)
5. Given that illustration is different than many day to day jobs, how to you manage your time and maintain a daily routine?
Egads. I need to get better at that. I'm indebted to deadlines for what routine I have, to be honest. Things just need to get done, and time needs to be spent in the studio for that to happen.
Before I had kids, I was far more disciplined. I would get up, give myself an hour to adjust to the world, and get to work. I would take my coffee breaks out of the house/studio, and sketch wherever I was. Now that I have a family and I've been teaching a fair amount, I still take what time is available and approach any given project in the same order:
Look for inspiration. Troll through art books. (I have enough of these stacked in the studio that I'm occasionally worried about the structural integrity of my house. For the first ten years or so I was working, I allotted a hundred bucks or so from every job to book purchases.)
Dig out more inspiration.
In between sittings at easel, revisit inspiration.
***Do some other creative thing as a reward for how disciplined I've been.***
Paint some more.
6. What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given as an illustrator?
Paraphrasing, it's something like: Pull your inspiration from things other than what you do.
As in, if you want to be an illustrator, don’t try to be your favorite illustrator. Be your version of that long sentence in the beginning of this interview, and borrow from unlimited sources. The world doesn’t need another version of someone who’s already out there and accepting work. And even if the market does, you don’t want to meet Brad Holland one day and introduce yourself as the guy who does all those crappy jobs he said “no” to.
7. What new projects have you got coming down the pike?
My latest book, Lost and Found (by Bill Harley), just came out and might be my favorite to date. After all these years, someone (the lovely folks at Peachtree Publishers) offered me a book that is downright silly. I take silliness very seriously, mind you. It’s a level of problem solving not to be taken too lightly.
So I put a taxidermist prepared flying badger in it.
(Lost and Found written by Bill Harley. Peachtree Publishers, 2012.)
I’m finishing up a children’s book biography of Robbie Robertson (of The Band), penned by his son Sebastian Robertson, for Christy Ottaviano Books right now, due out in 2014. Between the likenesses, a protagonist that ages 36 years in the course of the narrative, and all the scenes of guitar playing, it might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m very excited to see it all printed up, though for now the cover is still in the “fiddling with” stage.
I also just finished up a 5 page monochromatic zombie comic for inclusion in an anthology called “Dead Anyway,” to be released simultaneously with an album by the band No More Kings. It’s a first for me, and it has a nice moral to it: Zombies cannot metabolize the ennui of college undergrads, and feeding on them leads to nothing good for anyone.
Well, I think it's safe to say that Adam's work offers something good for everyone- even zombies. To enjoy more of a good thing you can visit...
See you back here next week with another mini interview!