Alissa Imre Geis
A Self Portrait
Interview with Alissa Imre Geis
Elaine: When and where did you meet Grace Lin?
Alissa: After graduating from RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) in 1998, I moved to Somerville, Massachusetts and got a day job at a children’s bookstore. When the other employees heard I’d just come from RISD, they said, “Do you know the other RISD girl?” It turned out to be Grace. It also turned out that she lived just down the street from my new apartment.
Elaine: How did you become such close friends?
Alissa: When I left school, I didn’t quite realize how much I’d taken living in an artistic community for granted. My necessary day job, even though it was in a children’s bookstore, was about mostly giving the correct change and alphabetizing. Grace’s apartment was like a little island of RISD in Somerville. It was there I met Anna Alter and Linda Wingerter. We talked about books and did fun crafty things like make piñatas or apple pie. This was just before The Ugly Vegetables came out, so I got to see what it was like to be a working illustrator. Grace was generous about talking about her experiences getting into publishing. It was so encouraging to see her success and be able to ask questions.
Elaine: When did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator of children’s books?
Alissa: I have always loved books, and telling stories. I’ve been drawing since before I can remember. I do remember a time before I could read, when I was sitting in the public library choosing books to take home by the illustrations. I would study them, so young but so critical. I used to copy the illustrations from book jackets. I especially loved John R. Neil’s pen and ink drawings for the Oz books. I would try to copy them but this was so frustrating, (I was only 10 years old.) So, I settled for coloring the illustration in my paperback copies in with colored pencils. Drawing what I was reading about or illustrating my own stories has always been the source of my work.
It wasn’t until I was in high school, with college applications looming that it all came together in the idea of being an illustrator, as an occupation. I remember reading Trina Schart Hyman’s autobiography, and seeing a bridge from a girl who likes to draw and a job as an illustrator.
Elaine: Can you tell us about your first published book?
Alissa: My first book was Winnie Dancing on Her Own by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2001. The project started a year earlier in September of 2000 when I got the manuscript. I had just left the Boston area to move to Los Angeles because my husband was going to architectural school. It was my first actual illustration job and I’d left all my illustration friends on the other side of the country.
I remember getting the manuscript and reading it twice. There were so few physical descriptions of anything. I panicked, what was I suppose to draw? I sent an email to the editor in which I tried to ask a small question to give me a hint of what direction to head in, without letting on that I had no idea what to do at all.
The editor, who was wonderful with a shaky first time illustrator, tactfully reminded me that I was the illustrator and that they wanted to see what I came up with. I read the manuscript again and started to see what freedom I had. I catalogued details, so that I wouldn’t contradict the text and let my imagination go. I love the first round of sketches where everything is unfolding. There are so many delightful surprises. Sometime I will sit back looking at a drawing and say “Is that what you actually look like?”
It was a wonderful project. I was working full time at children’s bookstore, which made deadlines harder but living with a full-time student there was such an environment of industry.
Elaine: What medium/media do you usually work in?
Alisa: I have three ways of working: gouache painting, gray-scale pencil drawings and found paper collage. Each of the three had their own place, on book covers, inside chapter books and in the design of my website respectively. It was so exciting when an editor, who had seen examples of all, called and offered me a manuscript (Our Friendship Rules) where she wanted me to incorporate all three.
Sketch and Color Illustration of Alexandra
Black and White Illustration of Best Friends Alexandra and Jenny
Elaine: Are you currently working on any new projects? Do you have a new book coming out some time in the next year or two that you would like to tell us about?
Alissa: Things have been quieter in my studio since I decided to start a family. Our Friendship Rules was the first project I took after my son was born and balancing his needs with deadlines was quite an act. I am working on several first drafts but they just progress more slowly. I have been taking small projects like the snowflake for Robert’s Snow and an owl for Keene State College. I’ve been doing school visits. I keep my hand in and plan for a time when he’ll be in school part of the day.
This is the owl Alissa created for the Keene State College Festival Owl Project.
Elaine: I attended the Robert’s Snow Artist Open House in Newburyport. I found your explanation of how you came up with the idea for your 2007 snowflake and the research you did very interesting. Would you care to share that with my blog readers?
Alissa: The idea for my 2007 snowflake was so slow in coming. So I started the way I always start when I feel I have no idea, by collecting things catch my eye. At the time, I was still in love with swallows and the patterned insides of envelopes. I sketched and read from my bird book and took a day long break where I try not to think about it at all. As an illustrator a project usually starts with the gift of a text. In this case, I was text-less and as I drifted I wanted that anchor. I thought of Emily Dickinson's "hope is thing with feathers" and got a copy of the full poem. There I found a structure but also a problem. The bird in the poem sings to bring hope. My swallow doesn’t sing. Swallows actually makes a call that sounds of scissors opening and shutting, not at all hope inspiring.
I liked the swallow, the sketch, but I liked the poem. I was caught. I thought my snowflake was splitting into two halves. Then I remembered I had the whole back of the snowflake. I could have both but I needed a songbird.
So my research turned this funny corner. Usually I am choosing my image by sight for its shape, its color or pattern. Instead I was using my ears, listening to winter bird songs on a birding website. I ended up choosing a purple finch, which I had seen many times in my own backyard but had no idea that it sang so sweetly.
You can read about the whole process of making my snowflake at my blog, where I did a step-by-step series.
Here is the snowflake Alissa created for Robert's Snow in 2004. I really wanted it--but I was outbid. Guess who owns it? Anna Alter!
A few other things:
When I set out to draw, my ideas are vague. It is not like Athena coming fully grown out of Zeus’s head. I am not copying out an image from in my head. Drawing is rather more like hiking in the woods and following a sense of direction. I know I am going over that way, because the text is like a loose map. It keeps correcting my course with ideas of what I think I want, with what the text requires but mostly just with those little tugs of instinct. Almost always I listen to music while drawing, which distracts the overly critical part of my brain enough that I can feel those little tugs and keep going. And keeping myself going is critical, because each mark, each sketch builds on the previous and it takes many, many sketches to get to the right one--just like it can take miles of walking to get out of the woods.
Note: The Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards results are out and Our Friendship Rules won the gold medal in the Best Picture Book - All Ages Category.
REMINDER: WIN A PRIZE!!! I do hope you’ll stop by to read all of my Blogging for a Cure articles and to comment about the artists and their work. I have a special prize for some lucky person who leaves a comment at any of my six posts featuring a Robert’s Snow artist: a limited edition giclee print of an illustration from Grace Lin’s book Robert’s Snow! That’s right folks! Here’s a picture of the print that I picked up at the Child at Heart Gallery.Each time you comment at one of my Blogging for a Cure posts about a Robert’s Snow artist, I’ll put your name in a hat. If you comment at all six posts, your name will go into the hat six times! The drawing will take place on November 19th, the day bidding begins on the first of three Robert’s Snow 2007 auctions. I also have several consolation prizes for commenters who don’t win the “big” prize: five small prints of the Robert’s Snow mouse(mice).