Today’s the release day for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, a beautiful collaboration between author Renee Watson and my good friend, Shadra Strickland. An award-winning illustrator, Shadra poured her passion and talent into this new book—these beautiful sample illustrations will give you a sense of how she captured both the innocence of kids in New Orleans, and the terror of living through a devastating hurricane.
You recently gave a talk about the healing power of art. How do you approach the challenge of representing trauma, and what impact do you hope your art will have?
My talk was called “Framing Social Issues in Books for Children” and was mainly about how I approach books that address heavier social issues. In that, there was a section called “Life Can be Scary,” where I discussed some of the questions I ask and how I decided to show some of the more graphic ideas in the stories. In some cases, the direct approach works best to drive an idea home, like showing the flooded New Orleans after the storm. But in BIRD, it was less important to show Marcus getting high directly. We had enough information about what his habit was doing to him and his family throughout the book.
Every book is different, as is the motivation behind accepting the projects; both BIRD and A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN did similar things by addressing issues that we wouldn’t expect from children’s books, and I felt that both stories were important to share with children. With APWHH I wanted to be a part of a project that recognized the people of New Orleans and their struggle during and after Katrina. I felt like something should be done to honor the people who suffered through it and those who lost everything.
As we approach the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast is once again in crisis. The visuals coming out of the region are rather grim. How do you think these images will impact the imagination of children living along the coast? Which has more power–“real” media images or imagined illustrations like yours? Do children even distinguish between the two?
Good question. I was just talking to a friend recently about the oil spill crisis and feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of it all. Sometimes I wonder if art is more therapeutic for those who engage with it or just those who create it. With all of the damage that this oil spill is doing, I wonder how much life will be sustained along the coast at all. Families will have to move and start lives in new places again. I’m no psychologist so I’m not sure if this trauma will encourage children to be any more imaginative or creative than they already are, but the disaster certainly does raise some interesting questions and ideas about our world’s priorities. I have been questioning my own responsibilities as an image-maker and storyteller.
I think kids definitely distinguish between “real” images and art. Representational art may be a little harder for them because the more photographic the images appear, the more likely they are to believe that the images are “real.” I wouldn’t say that either is more powerful. There are some photographs that affect us in the same way that paintings do. Whether it’s painting or photography, the driving factor is the artist and statement behind the medium. The difference in art is that there is immediate control and manipulation of the truth. With drawing and painting, we can omit certain details or add things that wouldn’t naturally exist. So I think there is more opportunity to control in painting as opposed to taking photographs where the truth is automatically captured through the lens.
One of your strengths is your ability to capture the unfiltered emotion contained in the faces of children. How did you develop this ability to convey the innocence and complexity that children feel, yet often can’t articulate for themselves?
I’ve never thought there was any real trick to it. I’ve been really fortunate to work with stories that feature characters I connect with. When I am faced with conveying a specific emotion I think mainly about how I would have responded in that situation as a child. Memories of my childhood are pretty vivid, so it’s not too difficult for me to think back on how I felt or reacted to things when I was young.
I do use models, but never to copy emotions from a photograph. You can’t feel technique. Feeling comes from the emotion you put into the drawing and painting. Most times I capture the emotions I want in my loose thumbnail sketches, from there the trick is to retain that raw feeling as I refine the drawing and bring it to a finished painting. There’s no real trick to it other than to draw it or paint it over and over until I feel something click inside.
I’ve always loved drawing faces. I took a summer course in portraiture when I was about 10 and was hooked. I’ve drawn and painted faces ever since. [The above sketch is one of Shadra's early portraits.]
A Place Where Hurricanes Happen is in stores NOW, and you can purchase prints of Shadra’s beautiful illustrations at her Etsy site.