Author/illustrator Johanna Wright grew up in Eugene and studied puppetry and children’s books at Evergreen State College. After college she moved to New York City, where she sold her artwork on the street outside the MOMA for four years and then worked as a painting assistant, helping with large-scale backdrops for photo shoots, film and television. While in New York, she also studied picture book illustration with Brian Floca. Wright now lives in Portland with her husband and ten-month-old daughter, Juniper. Her debut picture book, The Secret Circus (Roaring Brook Press), was published in 2009. Her second picture book, Bandits (Roaring Brook Press) came out yesterday.
Wright blogs here and sells some of her artwork at craft shows and on Etsy. Check out this PBS segment about her on Oregon Art Beat. And, if you live in or near Portland, we recommend attending the kick-off for Bandits at Green Bean Books in NE Portland this Saturday (August 20) at 2 pm. The event is free.
NWBL staff writer Brian Juenemann asked her a few questions.
You and I determined that we probably met several years ago at a crazy-crowded Christmas Crafty Wonderland show in Portland. It was so frenzied you had to crouch under your table to use your credit card machine! So if you had your choice between a crazy craft show or a day selling on the crazy streets of NYC, which would it be? As much as I love NYC, I would most definitely pick the crazy craft fair. The camaraderie between the artists and crafters at a fair is infectious, and the support and enthusiasm of the customers can be dizzying at times. I did an outdoor event (the Renegade Craft Fair) in Chicago several years ago during an actual (small) hurricane, and it was really one of the best events of my life. The people that participate in and attend those things are just so dang awesome.
And that winner, versus a day in the studio? Hmm, tough one. Being an illustrator can be extremely solitary, and going to events like craft fairs and conferences fill me up with the energy and gusto that I need to spend so much time alone. On the other hand, a good long day in the studio is rare these days (now that I have a wee baby crawling around), so honestly, I would love either. Especially if coffee is involved. My favorite local coffee shop is called Ristretto. I go there every morning to write; it’s fantastic.
How about selling your work and yourself at a book event when all eyes are focused on you? Where does that rank on the comfort scale now that you’ve done it a few times? For many years, whenever I did any public speaking, I felt like I was about to be eaten by a tiger. My heart raced, I couldn’t stop sweating and I had an overwhelming urge to run, run, run! Several years ago, I did a reading for a group of librarians. I got so freaked out in the middle of it, I honestly had an out-of-body experience. My words seemed to hang in the air like cartoon speech bubbles and everything went in slow motion. The librarians were very kind about it all, and not tiger-like in the least, but I was so mortified. I spent two years going to Toastmaster meetings and giving practice speeches, to get over my fear of public speaking. It worked! These days I actually enjoy it, which is really nothing short of miraculous. I still get nervous, but normal nervous. Not tiger-eating-nervous.
Your raccoon banditos in the new book are adorable. What’s your actual experience with these little mischief makers? Because, I have to be honest, they ripped off half of our roof and our neighbor’s roof, so it’s kind of war in my neighborhood. I think the roofers should have thrown in a copy of Bandits, just for levity, along with the $7,000 bill. Maybe a cross-marketing opportunity you could arrange? Oh man, sorry to hear about your roof! I feel an odd responsibility for the chaos and destruction of raccoons these days. The funny thing I’ve noticed since making this book, is that basically EVERYONE has a raccoon story. Some are worse than others . . . You definitely deserve a prize for the most expensive tale that I’ve heard! Raccoons are incredibly smart and pesky.
I have a vivid memory of my dad standing on our roof in Eugene when I was a kid, and spraying the garden hose at a family of raccoons that were living in our willow tree. He wasn’t hurting them, just ‘encouraging’ them to find a new home. But there was something about that raccoon family that stuck with me. What if they weren’t so different from us? You know, minus the roof ripping, the garbage can tipping, the cat food stealing? The family of raccoons in Bandits is actually based on my family!
Your artwork feels comfortable and familiar, yet I cannot pin an overwhelming influence. Who are your favorite artists? Whose influence do you see—or feel—in your work? Well, first off, thanks! Comfortable is a great compliment. Sometimes I feel like my work is a mash-up of my life experiences. I worked as a painting assistant in New York for many years and learned so much from artist, boss and friend Sarah Oliphant. I see her influence in the painty, textural aspect of my work. As for illustrators, Gyo Fujikawa and Errol Le Cain are two of my favorites. I love how they are both able to create not just beautiful work, but illustrations to get lost in. Steven Kellogg will always be a favorite as well, for different reasons. His characters are just great.
How about your all-time favorite kids book? What would you choose if Jennifer let you come into Green Bean before your Bandits release party and make your own “Johanna Wright’s Faves” display? Oh geez, I have so many, but my all-time favorite book from childhood is Just Only John by Jack Kent. Everything about this book is perfect to me. Simple story, beautiful illustrations and a little magical. I also adore Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Errol Le Cain. Anything by Errol Le Cain, really. Gorgeous. The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg is another childhood favorite. My three favorite books that have come out in the last few years? Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser, Mama, Is It Summer Yet? by Nikki McClure and The House That Mouse Built by Portland artist Maggie Rudy, Pam Abrams and Bruce Wolf (editor’s note: Check out the miniature diorama Rudy made for Green Bean Books recently.)
What do you read to your little one now? Besides The Secret Circus, of course. Just about anything by Sandra Boynton will crack up my 10-month-old. Sandra Boynton is truly a genius. Other than those books, my little baby is oddly discerning. She likes certain pages of certain picture books and will go right to them, skipping the rest. Lately, her favorite pages are greeted with wet, slobbery kisses of approval. Basically what an editor or an art director does, only . . . wetter.
What’s on the horizon in the book or art world for you, short and long-term? Well, I just finished up the illustrations for The Best Bike Ride Ever (by James Proimos, Dial Books 2012), and I have final art illustration deadlines for Clover Twig and the Perilous Path (Kaye Umansky, Roaring Brook, Summer 2012) and Rabbits on Skates (Roaring Book, Fall 2013) in September. As soon as I get those out the door, I’m starting the art for Orchestra Pit (Roaring Brook). And I have a few craft fairs and promotional book events mixed into the next few months. Whew! I’m tired just typing all of that. It’s been a very full and lucky year. I hope to just keep making books, connecting with the awesome humans in this industry, getting better at what I do, and sneaking moments of sleep (or coffee . . .) whenever I can.