Telling Beautiful Stories: Speaks with the Illustrator of Seeds of Change

Sonia Lynn Sadler recently won the 2011 Coretta Scott King Award for new talent in children's book illustration for 'Seeds of Change.' caught up with her to find out how she became an artist and what inspires her work in literature and illustration.

By Megan Driscoll

Sonia Lynn Sadler What's your educational background, and how did you become interested in being an artist?

Sonia Lynn Sadler: I graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art, then transferred to Parsons School of Design and graduated with a Bachelor's in Fashion Design.

I've always been an artist. I went into design as a career, but I was sketching and painting around six years old, the usual time when kids who are artistically inclined start to show signs of being an artist. It was therefore a natural progression from design to go full force into painting and scratchboard art. What led you to children's book illustration?

SLS: Well, that again was a natural progression because the way that I approach my work is like storytelling. There's more than one thing going on in the pictures, more than just one simple subject. Sometimes a painting is like a little story within itself.

My style of figures, color and graphicness also lends itself to children's book illustration, so I pursued it thinking it would be another venue to make a living with my artwork. What works have you illustrated in addition to your recent award-winning project, 'Seeds of Change'?

SLS: I've illustrated two other projects previously. Ma Dear's Green House is a story about a young girl who goes to her grandmother's house and spends the summer. The Goat Goes to Town is a West Indian fable about a little boy who saved the day from a mischievous goat. How do you begin new collaborations with writers?

SLS: Usually I get a project from the publisher. They give you a script and an idea of what they want, but there's still a lot of creative freedom. I don't really get to speak with the writer, but I read the script and the dialogue carefully and formulate my ideas from those words. For Seeds of Change I had quite a lot of control on how I'd like the pages to look. I wanted big vistas and very lush scenes so that people would feel like they were in the heat and seeing beautiful flowers and patterns.

In fact, I did a lot of research for the project since I haven't been to Kenya, which is where Wangari Maathai, the book's protagonist, grew up. I had to do research on everything from clothes to hair styles to homes to the way the land itself looked.

There's a lot of preliminary sketching before anything is finalized, which then goes back and forth to the editors and page designers. But you typically don't work directly with the author at any point, although sometimes people get together and do a joint project, and sometimes artists write and illustrate their own books.

Seeds of Change, illustration by Sonia Lynn Sadler Do you have any new books currently in the works, and if so, can you tell us about them?

SLS: I don't have any new projects from publishers right now, but I am working on some of my own things. I've written a couple of manuscripts, but I really need to work on those a little more, so it's going to take a little while for them to come out because I want to present the writing with the images, and that's a lot of work.

So there are two things that I have in the works, but I'm not quite ready to talk about them. Both projects have to do with color and telling a story and conveying a moral related to self-esteem. Your work as an artist is not limited to book illustration. Can you talk about some of your other projects, such as the paintings, scratchboards and collages?

SLS: Coming from a design background, I'm trained to think outside the box and do different types of things. My artwork has expanded from scratchboard painting into another series called 'The Heritage Collection,' which uses acrylic, oils and collage to portray actual people. It's more of a retrospective type of series, talking about families and depicting little stories.

Then there's my abstract work, which actually took a lot of time to get to the point where it is now. Going from the figurative to the abstract was very difficult. I'm used to being very tight and controlled in my artwork and abstraction is something that is totally freeing. But I think that people who are creative have to do more than one thing, and I think you should develop each of these things. You never stop learning and you should always add to your creative repertoire.

I've also started working with linoleum block prints. I was lucky to be mentored by Brooklyn artist Otto Neals. He's done everything - printing, watercolor, oils, acrylics - and never stopped learning. Is there any particular inspiration for your artwork, and does that inspiration also influence your illustrations?

SLS: In college I studied illustration and a lot of Japanese block prints, as well as a lot of European styles. I was inspired by the way they held their lines. I was also exposed to Jacobs Warren and people like James Denmar as well as Otto Neals, and that contributed to how I was viewing and working through my artwork.

There's also still some of the graphic illustrator style in my scratchboards in the patterns and colors and sometimes the compositions.

Artists are also always influenced by things that happen today. As a designer you draw things in from your environment and they come out in the products you're developing, or the paintings or the scratchboards. You're influenced daily. Sometimes there are stories you see or you want to tell a story of something that happened so it's not forgotten.

That's also what a lot of my work is about. I started getting deeper into artwork after some of my older relatives passed away. I had a bevy of great-aunts and uncles and they were these lively feisty people who lived through a lot and they were storytellers in themselves. Rather than just let these stories fade away, I started putting them into my artwork. It helps the viewer see how my work has progressed and how the people who came before me influence me, from family members to historical figures. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in his or her career as an artist?

SLS: You'll get your basic training from a creative standpoint, but you also have to build on that and do as much studying as possible. Explore other artists, experience contemporary artists, go to museums, go to gallery shows and, if there's a crowd of serious artists, be with and talk with them. That's how you'll become one because these are people who will share information with you.

Also, if you're going to be a full time artist you really need to know something about business. It's important to learn how to handle that side of it, and explore how to promote yourself as a business because if you are a full-time artist then art becomes a business as well. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your work and your career as an illustrator of children's literature.

SLS: It has been a real joy. I was very excited to do Seeds of Change because I like to tell stories, and this is an important one. Wangari Maathai is a historical figure, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, so I knew that I absolutely had to do my absolute best and put all my guts into doing the story right. It was a big milestone in my career as an artist.

Sometimes being an artist is just about who you are inside. I cannot imagine doing something that's not creative because that's just how my brain works. I want to use my talent to the best of my abilities, and I'm really happy that I've been able to have the career that I've had for the last 15 years, producing I don't know how much art. Of course, I do hope other projects will come my way, and I plan to continue to make my own projects.

I also have to give my parents and family a lot of credit for being supportive throughout my career. My family were not in the creative world - they were educators and they were in the military - and here I was, this artist. But they were very supportive, and you really need a lot of support as an artist to be able to achieve the full extent of your abilities.

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