Library Fest-Gordon C. James
6:03PM Mar 31, 2021
Hello, Hello, Hello, Library Fest listeners. Welcome to Out Loud in the Library, a Durham Tech Library podcast. I'm your host Courtney Bippley, reference librarian extraordinaire, and I'm here today to share an interview with Gordon C. James, who is an artist and illustrator. He will be with Derrick Barnes on Monday, April 5th at 10am. To talk about their book I Am Every Good Thing. The duo also collaborated on the book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. Both books won the Kirkus prize. Crown in 2018. And I Am Every Good Thing in 2020. They are the only ones to have won the Kirkus prize twice! Gordon's awards extend to more than just his recent book. He's received the Caldicott honor, Coretta Scott King honor, and Ezra Jack Keats honor awards. His art is amazing. And in particular, his paintings of people are vibrant with emotion in their eyes and body language. I was honored that Gordon could fit me into his schedule for this discussion. And I hope that you enjoy listening.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Gordon C. James, you are going to be at Library Fest in April. And you're going to be talking about I Am Every Good Thing.
Yes. Derek is the author and I'm the illustrator.
When you do a book, what is the process? Like, does he write it first? And then you illustrate it? Is it more collaborative than that?
So generally, and this is working with Derek or any other author, generally the process starts with a manuscript, I will get the manuscript from the publisher. But Derek and I are friends, I've known Derek for over 20 years, we met each other when we both worked at Hallmark Cards back in the day. With I Am Every Good Thing, he just emailed it to me.
And that's nice. It streamlines the process.
So each page of the book, are they each oil paintings, like real oil paintings?
These are, these are, these are oil paintings. The only difference is if I were, um, painting for myself, I probably do these on maybe a wood panel or a stretch canvas. And I do these on illustration boards, because children's books, they're 17 to 24 illustrations a pop. And so if you can imagine the amount of artwork that will start to pile up, yeah, you know, you don't want them to start to get damaged because of how they're being stored or anything like that.
That makes sense. Your art is amazing. I know that you work a lot with arts programs and kids. When you do that you go and teach kids how to draw or how to think about illustrating. What is it you are trying to teach on like a deeper level?
I think the main thing I'm trying to teach is creativity and confidence. I believe in this world that one of the most important things that I can be is flexible. And so in my business, one of the things that happens is that what a lot of times you'll do something and someone will say, well, we're not sure if we like this part of it, or it can be a little bit better here. Or even sometimes you hit it right on the nose. And sometimes you have to just start over again. And I think that for kids, sometimes that's difficult, you know, that whole idea that your first idea may not be your best idea, or that if you are to do it again, it's actually easier to do it a second time, and it may well be better. So I try to teach kids that confidence in their abilities to know that that thing that they just did is not magic, it's not going to go away. If you have to do it again. Or if you have to make a change, it's okay. And if you have to make change, it doesn't mean that you aren't good. It just means that this thing you did can be better. But it doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means that we're out here, and we're learning.
Really important lesson. I'm not an artist. But I think those lessons apply to more than just art.
I think so.
When you approach a book, do you approach it differently than you do your fine art pieces?
I believe the process is about the same. The way I paint, if I do a sketch before a painting, the way that I draw like the way I do it is the same. I believe that kids deserve that same caliber of work, that same quality of work. I work in a very traditional way. So I'm, hopefully if these kids go to art museums or something like that, or they see, you know, the portrait that was done for their pastor at church or for a judge or for a president. I hope that they make the connection between the way that I paint the kids in these books because they should see themselves honored in that same way.
That's wonderful. Are the kids in your paintings, real kids? Are they coming out of your imagination or photos?
Most of them if you look in most of the illustrations, at least all the main characters are from photo reference. A lot of them are friends. The young man on the cover is my son Gabriel. A lot of times I'll call friends that I know have kids of that age, or I'll do a call on Facebook or Instagram, and I will just hire kids. And I pay them, which is really cool. They like that part. And then the families like being in the books when the books are out. Because if we have a great book like a classic like Crown, or I Am Every Good Thing, hopefully, hopefully this book will be around for them to buy for their kids. They could be in the book, if they will, I did the I was in this book when I was seven, you know?
that's a huge opportunity. One that they may not appreciate fully until 30 years down the line. What has been your relationship with libraries in your life?
I spent a lot of time my parent, my mother was a teacher, she taught every elementary school grade except for kindergarten, and she actually retired as a reading specialist. So that was one of our main activities when we were kids is that we would go to the library. I spent a lot of time in, in libraries growing up. I enjoyed the spaces, I really liked the quiet in old school libraries and new libraries now are a lot of fun, you can make a little noise your new library is a really like the the peace in the in old libraries too. And so I think that I've had a really good relationship with libraries. And I hope that we continue to fund libraries. Fund with a D. Fund libraries with you know, with some vigor and with the importance that they are because you know, not everybody has access to the internet, you cannot buy every book unless you're just independently wealthy. So if you can imagine if you're a kid, when I was a kid, I read a lot when I was very young, I read a lot. And so you know, what parent can buy 10, 15, 20 books a week?
And, when you're a kid, and you're reading picture books, you can go through that many books. So you know, libraries, really, they're really, really helpful.
Yeah, kids come in, and they take a stack out, and they bring it back next week, and they take another stack.
Imagine if you had to buy all those books, it will be it will be cost prohibitive, it doesn't matter how much you love your children at a certain point. The money's either there or it's not, right?
Has your relationship with libraries changed? Since you became an illustrator?
I think it has. I really, well, part of it is a it's, it's just like, it just feels neat to walk into a library. And you know, maybe your book is, you know, maybe it's on top of the shelf, right? That's very cool. You can say the library, hey, I illustrated that book. So that is really, that is really fun. And I've gotten to get around the country to so many different libraries and how see libraries are done in different cities, see what cities have what programs and so it's, it's really fun to see how libraries vary from place to place.
Do you have to do research for your paintings? And if yes, how do you go about doing that?
Yes, I try to if I'm doing a book about a place. If I can get there, that is going to be my first option. You know, other than that, you know, the internet is a good source, or you can find people that are from that place, or that are living in that place. Because I've always felt that my strength has been the way that I paint the people in the books. I feel that I paint them with a lot of feeling, a lot of empathy, I feel I get that color right. That, that life in them right. I love that. Now I feel the next step, because everything can always be better is getting that environment all the way nailed down. And so you know, I like to think they're very good.
I think they're very good.
But, we can always, you know, we, we there is always room for improvement, even if it's around the edges. Now it's doing that research, you know, for the environment, the clothing, that kind of thing, you know, now you can go buy if it's, if it's a certain era, you can if so. Is it safe to say, ah, say it's a it is a military book, you can go to a army surplus store, you can buy the uniform now, and you can have it sitting in the studio. So like you can get these things right. That is really cool. Because sometimes the children that are reading your books will never go to that city, certainly we cannot travel back in time, you are giving them the, you're giving them the means to do so. So it is I believe it's important to get it as right as you can and show respect to the to the subject in the book and to where they lived. And.
I do feel like your people you paint it's like you do it in a very empathetic way. Do you get to pick the books you work on?
I do I do. Um, that has been really fun. I will tell you, and I'm because I'm very much an open book kind of guy. So there are some times when you just have to do a book, at least with me. I'm not an independently wealthy man. So there are plenty of books that I have done that I was just happy to have. Someone asked me to do a book. And I've been lucky that the books that I have been asked to do even when I really needed to do a book have been great books, you know, that's when I got my Patricia McKissack, when I was able to do the Scraps of Time series. She's a legend and that was great and it was great for my family. And so you know, they, it kind of, it kind of goes both ways. But now I have a lot of things on my plate and so when I get a manuscript I can, I can think about whether this is the subject matter I want to do, or the time that, or a it comes at the time when I want to do it, or do I want to work in this medium that, that they're considering. So like, it's nice to have a little bit of freedom. But it's important to when you can pick, you know, you want to pick things that are still challenging. Things that are still important, and things that challenge you as an artist and things that are going to matter for your readers.
When you're working on a book. Does the author get to see it? And say, maybe change something? Or do you get like, complete freedom in the art?
So these books, they're, they're a team effort, you know. You have the author and the illustrator, and you also have your editor and your, your art director. There is a time during the creative process when the author gets to see what it is I'm doing. And they can decide, oh, well, this is way off base, you know what I mean? Like, oh, this is this is just going in direction that I don't like or, you know, could you tell them to maybe consider this, or maybe consider that. But with all of that I do try to remember that, like, my role is very important. And I want to bring everything I can to this role, so that you want to make sure that you're not just not thinking and just doing, just executing other people's ideas. Because you're there because you have this visual sense that you worked at honing over, I guess that at my age, it's like, seriously, almost 30 years now. And so you know, some things you just go find, and you fix them and other things. You say, well, you say, well, I I really wanted to go this way. And here's why. And you state your case, and between the four people that really helped to bring the book together, and the the representation, the book comes out a certain way, nobody gets all of everything that they want. It's definitely a collaborative process. And I think it's better for, I think the books are better for it.
How long does it take?
It depends on the book, you know, it depends on the book. The book that I'm working on now is taking a very long time. It's a historic book, there's a lot to learn and working with a new medium, and there is a lot to research with the history. And then you know, I would, I would like to say six months will be awesome, but sometimes they go longer. And also, I try to keep a few books going at a time so that if I ever feel like I'm hitting a wall with one project, I can pick up another project. And I do the same thing with the illustrations within the project. If I feel I'm hitting a wall with one illustration, okay, we take that one off the easel. We put a new one on the easel. And that way, we're not wasting time just staring or beating the piece up. We're always moving forward. And sometimes by working on A, you may realize something about B.
Do you have a favorite children's book, that you didn't work on, that you maybe read to your own kids?
Oh, I really, when I was when when the kids were little, little little, I really love Whose Toes Are Those and Whose Knees Are These? Those those two are great. I know that, ah, was so sad because I know both the creators in the book and both names are completely out of my head, right this second. One fantasy illustrator.
I will look it up and put it in the show notes.
Please, they're just the best board books ever. And they're just, they were just so cute. The wording is really nice and the, um, the illustrations are really brilliant, simple. And so those are two that just, worn out books, you know, like, those are books both they're just worn out so that those are a big deal.
That's awesome. So you have been doing art since high school, or possibly even before, have you always known that you wanted to do it professionally?
I remember being young, young, like in the first or second grade, you know. People said you should be an artist and your friends tell you you can draw. And I just really thought it. I thought I was going to be a docter. Just as I got older, I just gravitated more towards it. And another thing that helped is a cousin. His name is Dave Cooper. And he did work for DC Comics in the 80s and illustrated like toy boxes and things like that. And so he really showed me a lot about drawing and painting whenever I would be in New York visiting family. He'll be like we'll take a look at this. Take a look at that. What really sealed it was when I took a trip with him to DC Comics. He had to deliver some artwork and that was back in the day. You couldn't just email it, right? He had take it there. And so just to walk in there and see everybody just go nuts over his artwork. I didn't want to be a comic book artist. I knew that. But I wanted to be an artist in some form and have people love the things that I created.
I guess you could tell your younger self, you achieved your dream. Durham Tech has an Associate in Fine Arts program. Do you have any advice for students who may be just beginning their career or education in art?
I believe in the importance of live drawing. I know that that is going out of Vogue. But you know, some college programs are even taking it away like the figure drawing and the still life drawing as a requirement. But if you can draw what you see you can draw anything, you just learned the skill and then you choose to do it, whether you want to do it, you can decide whether it's useful to you or not. But being good at it will never, never hurt you. You know? And the other thing that I would say is that you don't have to start at the bottom. You can always start at the top and let those people tell you. I know that in my young career I was not always confident enough to show people what I was working on. I thought it was great but I would really only talk to the people that already knew me and get that positive reinforcement from them. And the first job that I got was the the only job i ever applied for. Which is when I, when I got for Hallmark and they looked at 1000s of portfolios from cities all over the country and I got hired. And they only hired two people that year so that tells you that if I had maybe dropped off my portfolio somewhere in New York City I probably would have gotten some work. And so, I would just say you know have a little bit more confidence. The worst that'll happen is if you do get rejected maybe they'll tell you why and you'll know what you need to work on. So just don't be shy about your talent. And the next thing is share your goals. I think that that's going out of vogue too. People act like, oh, well, if you share your goals with somebody they're going to steal your idea or they're going to try to discourage you. Well when you share your goals and your dreams it makes you accountable for those things and then you will start to meet those people that have similar goals to you and you guys can all push that rock up the hill together. So really, you know, be open with the things that you are trying to accomplish and let people know what you're doing and really go for it. Don't be afraid of the "no" because you might well get that "yes." Odds are decent you might get that "yes." You never know
That's great advice.
You have to give people a chance to tell you "yes." That was something that I just wasn't doing, you know?
That can be something that comes with more life experience unless you're willing to listen to the advice of wise people. Do you have any advice for, more specifically, black students and students of color who are going into the art space?
Hmm, I think so. So there's going to be those pieces of advice that, you know, they've heard from their parents about, you know, your work ethic and all of those things. So I'm not going to repeat those. But I'm going to say that, in my opinion, being an artist of color is, it's an awesome, it can be challenging but it's also an awesome responsibility. Because you can put these things into the world that can, like, truly advanced the culture. And the other thing too is that if you are unfortunate, I don't wish unfairness on anyone's professional world, but I've experienced it, and I hope that none of you do, but if you do experience the unfairness just remember that those people that are being unfair are really just, they're just making you better and stronger because these things are not necessarily handed to you. These advances, these opportunities, and so it sucks at the time but they are helping you in a way that they can't even see which is the irony of the entire situation.
Incredible advice. And you are shaping, literally, the next generation with your books I Am Every Good Thing and Let 'Er Buck and Crown. It's literally advancing our society. I don't think that's an understatement.
That is one of the awesome things about being an artist in general, and being a Black artist specifically, is that you know you have the opportunity to literally advance and change culture which is which is really awesome and so I hope that people take that seriously.
What was the last book that you read?
The last book that I read was, I read It Doesn't Take A Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and it is a middle grade novel. I believe it's a middle grade novel. I hope I get this right. About a young man who is gifted who goes to a camp where everyone is gifted in some sort of way. And so it's how he's learning how to navigate these spaces where his overwhelming brain power doesn't always get him through and it's it's a really good book. And it is the sequel to a movie, I believe it's called Little Genius, but it's the sequel to a movie as starring Miles Brown from Black-ish, and so he is on the cover and so I got a chance to work on that and i did the book cover. And that is the last book that I read. It was great, I got to check, I actually had the time I got to read it cover to cover so that was fun.
That's awesome. Is that also an oil painting?
Yep, that is also an oil painting.
That's really cool.
It should be out pretty soon. It's available for pre order right now.
We'll definitely get that for our library.
Oh, thank you.
This podcast episode has been brought to you by Library Fest and the Durham Tech Library. Durham County Library, in partnership with Durham Library Foundation, is hosting their first ever Library Fest starting Monday, April 5th, going through Saturday, April 10th, 2021. Library Fest is a community celebration during National Library Week that showcases the library's exceptional services with a fantastic lineup of speaker events. Including one with today's interview Gordon C. James. Library Fest will be a diverse representation of the many ways the library can be a part of our lives. The link to the Library Fest website is in the show notes. So check it out and register to attend the Gordon C. James program with Derrick Barnes and more of the many programs highlighting science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Along with business offerings, humanities programming, local history collection, Spanish language events, and much more. The Durham Tech Library is a proud partner of Library Fest and we look forward to seeing you there! Remember to hit subscribe or follow this podcast so you don't miss the next Library Fest interview.