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Interview with Susan Gaber

Boy from The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind

Susan Gaber began her career working at Newsday as a free-lance illustrator for ten years. Her illustration work has appeared in numerous magazines and she has won many awards for her illustrations. She has illustrated over twenty children’s picture books. Whether working in muted impressionistic tones, in more vibrant colors, or in a folksy, homespun medium, Susan Gaber has built an impressive list of illustration credits, and has garnered much critical acclaim for her work.

Nikki: What was your first artistic experience?

Susan: I remember in either kindergarten or preschool doing a picture that I did not think was very good and my parents being very impressed with. It was wet paint that was brushed over dry paint and underneath there were multiple colors, and we were scratching in a design into the wet paint to reveal the colors underneath. It was just a flower, done very quickly. I remember thinking, “My parents really like this; this is interesting.”

N: How did you get started creating art professionally?

Susan: My parents both had art backgrounds so I was exposed to art at an early age; we went to art museums, and my mother enjoyed children’s books. I remember looking through books that she would bring home from the library. I think my interest grew both from a fine art point of view and also from a field that might at some point be profitable as a business to go into.

N: How did you get into illustrating children’s books?

Susan: When I was in college, I knew that fine arts was not going to support me, so I very practically thought I’d go into illustration. The closest thing I knew of illustrations were magazines, children’s books, and newspaper work. That’s where I sort of aimed, and I did not use an agent.

At that point, they had open portfolio interviews. You could call an editor and go see them, be that in a magazine or be that in a publishing company, even in a newspaper. You could just call and make an appointment for a portfolio review, and you would be able to see someone. Later they had portfolio drop offs. When I graduated college, that’s what I did. I just headed into New York and hit those spots with many interviews. I worked for Home Magazine, House Beautiful, Spider Magazine for children, and I did a few things for Scholastic.

N: How is working in children’s books illustrations different from working with magazine illustrations?

Susan: There is always a difference depending on your audience. As an illustrator, you always have to be aware of that. Your content and your approach may be different because each audience has a different sophistication, and you want to keep that in mind. Initially, I got newspaper work and some illustration work doing cookbooks when I first started.

I did some work for Dover Books; I did a few books, two of which were spot illustrations for food. They were little drawings of food-related pictures, and I still see those in diner menus. It was a flat fee, and I did about 200 little drawings of different things related to food, and they still pop up every so often.

N: What is the process you follow for illustrating a children’s book?

Susan: I think it’s pretty much like everyone else’s I would imagine. You get a manuscript, you read it over multiple times, and then your imagination starts to kick in as to what the characters and setting are going to look like. Then you move to sketches for a “dummy.”

First I create small thumbnail sketches, then I move to a full scale “dummy” where I test out how those sketches are going to move through the pages. When I’m happy with those, they go to the publisher for editorial comments. When those are cleaned up, I finish it.

N: How did you meet Heather Forest? How did you begin collaborating as creative partners?

from The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies

Susan: Heather and I met when I was in my 20’s. I had graduated college, and I was working part time making signs for an upscale garden center that was near my school. Heather’s to-be husband was working there as a manager. I was looking for an apartment, and he said that his girlfriend had a great apartment in Huntington. I went to look at it, and I met Heather, and that’s when we started to become friends.

At the time, Heather was connected to the arts community in the area, and I had some friends who were involved in the arts. I just loved her; it was one of those moments when you meet someone. She was a few years older than me, and I felt like I had met a sister that I never had. She was just wonderful. That developed into a friendship. I had always been trying to break into the children’s book market and was unsuccessful. She wanted to try publishing, so we decided to try and do a project together [The Baker’s Dozen].

N: Heather typically sings her stories before she commits to writing them, do you follow a ritual to your artistic process?

Susan: Heather’s work was performance-oriented. In the past, she had never written a story for publication. All of her stories were aimed at performance. I don’t do anything with my work, they’re just straight artwork for me.

N: The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind employs a lot of texture, how did you utilize this style and why? What was the process?

Susan: When I first started in children’s books, I was getting used to the form and what was expected of me. There’s not a tremendous amount of time, I felt, to be creative and explore an art form in and of itself. The wind you can’t see, the sun is a symbol that people recognize, so that was a little easier, but the wind presented a major challenge. I thought, “How am I going to create the energy that the wind implies in a book?”

I just started experimenting with brush strokes. I didn’t want to make [the wind] into a person or an animal. I’ll experiment before I move into the finished pieces. As I’m doing the sketches, I’m thinking about how the paint is going to form on the page. I’m also experimenting with the paint and what the paint can do for me.

N: The Little Red Hen garnered a lot of attention when it was released and was featured at the main branch of the New York Public Library. What is so unique about your illustrations in that story, and why do you think it did so well?

Susan: I have no idea. I think it depends on who is looking at what, what their tastes are, and what else is out at the time. Then I thought, maybe because there’s a kitten and a puppy in it, because that’s instantly popular, but I don’t really know. I tried to be creative doing some different languages for the mouse, and doing somewhat of a collage.

Again, it was fun and I made it creative, but I don’t know why the book was able to do so well. Maybe people identify with the lesson of the story: you do a lot of work and no one helps you and then they’re there when you don’t really need them.

from The Little Red Hen

N: Stone Soup is the most popular book from your collaboration with Heather. What makes the illustrations so special?

Susan: There are things about that book that I wish I could do again (one is always wishing that).

N: Why is that?

Susan: I think I know so much more now as an artist than I did when I was working on it, but one is always working with the clock when you’re an illustrator. You’re always watching what you can do. Should you do it over again? Should you try it this way? Should you try that? Now with the computer, it’s so easy. At the time, that wasn’t the case. I think because the story is on diversity, I really pushed it. Ethnically, I wanted to see all different ages, cultures, everything, and I think that’s what resonates with society, in general, because it’s such an important message now.

N: No one seems to be satisfied with their own work?

Susan: Yes, and you look at someone else’s work and ask what’s the matter with it. I think that may be what makes someone more successful, because if you have that quality of self-acceptance and you can represent yourself without a tremendous ego while balancing things in the world, I think you do better. But I think if you have that self-doubt it’s a real stumbling block. It’s very challenging.

N: Is there a medium you prefer to work in?

Susan: I’ve worked in a lot of different media. For illustrations, it’s easiest for me to work in acrylics, because if I change my mind about something, I don’t necessarily have to do it over. I can shade tones and move things around, and it’s easy to make those adjustments.

N: What is your favorite picture book and why?

Susan: Each one has things that I wish I could do over again. I do like the experimentation of The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind. I think that book was the most fun for me.

N: Who is your favorite illustrator and why?

Susan: I have so many people that I like. There are more people from the past, when I was concentrating on children’s books: Peter Sis, because [his work] was just so different, and funky, and out there. To me, there was a lot of substance behind his work. I also love Chris Van Allsburg, Lane Smith, Angela Barrett, David Shannon, Fred Marcellino, Paul Zelinsky, Kadir Nelson, and Mark Buehner. Those are people who were working further back, like 10 years ago.

I haven’t really kept up with all the illustration work that’s being done now. It’s not so much my taste, because it’s sometimes more computer-generated, but some of it I really like. It’s more design-oriented, and I think it takes less time to do. People are smart to do that, because you can’t survive otherwise.

N: From where do you draw inspiration?

Susan: The book is a recipe and you get to add your ingredients. Depending on what the basic ingredients of the recipe are, you’re looking for different things to include. It’s nature, it’s other people’s work, and it’s just so many different things. Who the heck knows where it comes from? And you never know, something may just hit you.

from The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind


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