Interview with Shadra Strickland

My very first semester in the Children's Literature Graduate MFA at Hollins ended last month, and I still can't believe it! The whole summer flew by so fast, and I am grateful to have made friends with my peers in the major. I also had the chance to meet some incredible instructors and visitors, including our Visiting Illustrator, Shadra Strickland.

I had heard of Shadra through my undergraduate illustration classes- one of my professors is a friend of hers, and Shadra teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), which is very close to my alma mater. It's always special to meet the people you've heard of, especially in the children's book world. During her weekend visit to Hollins, she lectured on her career in children's illustration, sharing details of her education and background. The following day, illustration students were invited to participate in her Linocut workshop, which explored layers and color in a traditional illustration medium.

All in all, we enjoyed meeting with Shadra, but I wanted the chance to learn even more about her experiences in the children's book industry. From her debut work as an illustrator in the award-winning Bird (2008) to her recent journey as a children's book agent, I speak with Shadra to get to know her process and interests as an illustrator in the children's book industry. 

Meeting up with Shadra at Hollins University during her summer visit. 

Meeting up with Shadra at Hollins University during her summer visit. 

How did you get started in illustration? 

I studied design, illustration, and creative writing at Syracuse University, but decided that illustration was where my heart really lied. After I graduated from college I became a substitute teacher which led to a full time position as an art teacher with Atlanta Public Schools. It was there that I started reading picture books to kids. That led me back to New York to pursue my M.F.A. in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. After many years of hard work and rejection, my big break came at an impromptu meeting with an editor at the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show.

What drew you to work in the children's book industry? 

Picture books made sense to me because it combined all of the things that I enjoyed - storytelling, design, art, and kids. 

As a working illustrator, educator, and children's book agent, what does your work schedule look like?

I keep pretty standard work hours in the office. I’m up at 7 to walk the dog and get a run in. I try to work from 9-1, take a break, and then finish up from 2-6 or so. When I’m working on a picture book, the hours extend into the evening. My role as an agent is flexible. I respond to submissions on Fridays, but I talk to clients whenever they need me. Sometimes we chat over the weekend if we’re developing a story. During the school year, I teach three classes a week. Classes are six hours long, so when I’m teaching a morning class, I get into the studio in the evening. It’s harder for me to work at night, but I try to stay disciplined and get at least a few hours of work done on school days. Teaching evening classes are a bit better because I can be in the studio in the morning before going in. My summers are devoted to being in the studio full time and squeezing in a few vacations here and there. It is becoming more difficult for me to squeeze in school visits and appearances, but do try to get at least 5 in throughout the year.

I’m always interested in artists’ routines. There’s a great audiobook on Audible titled “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey.

Shadra's studio space in Baltimore, and her sweet dog, Lucky (image courtesy of Shadra).  

Shadra's studio space in Baltimore, and her sweet dog, Lucky (image courtesy of Shadra).  

You work in a variety of mediums. Do you have a favorite one, or is there a certain reason you choose to illustrate books with different tools and techniques? 

I really enjoy watercolor, watercolor dyes, and gouache, but I tend to switch media based on the story I’m working with. Each book has a different voice and different emotional weight. With water based media, I tend to render more and play with pattern and light, which works well for stories that are more rooted in reality, but for a book like A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings, the challenge was to find a technique that would make me simplify forms and communicate with shape and color - printmaking was the best solution. 

The other simpler reasons that I work in multiple mediums are I’m an artist, I’m curious and always looking to play, and lastly, I paid a lot of money for art school so I want to use all the tools that I invested in.

 Other than the story itself, what inspires you and your illustrative process? 

I’m also inspired by other artists. When I lived in New York I always visited galleries and museums. Art is everywhere. I’m influenced by other artists as well as inspiring sights and sounds in the world around me. I also try to travel to source ideas and inspiration for projects. The act of doing so opens doors to the creative process the I would never have accessed by looking at pictures on the internet alone. 

What do you find is the most rewarding part of being an illustrator? 

It may sound selfish, but honestly being able to put my talent to use is a huge reward. I’m not an art for art’s sake kind of person. For me, the motivation is knowing that others will appreciate and find some small joy in the work that I do. Outside of that, being in such a wonderful community of talented people is like being in an elite club of art superheroes. 

Check out Shadra's website, and follow her on instagram @shadrieka