IF Interview with Jenny Kostecki-Shaw!

On the day I was born, I came out looking both ways
- My Travelinâ?? Eye

I think my travelinâ?? eye (aka, my lazy, wandering eye) inspired me to be an artist from the start. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and spent a lot of time in a cardboard box drawing monsters. After studying illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute, I wrote and illustrated greeting cards at Hallmark for 6 1/2 years. A desire for adventure and change led me to the mountains of rural New Mexico where I live and work in just a slightly bigger box and still love drawing monsters. Fueled by chai and fresh, organic veggies, I am living out my dream as a freelance illustrator and childrenâ??s book author. My other passion is traveling, which I do as often as possible, with my husband and best friend, Patrick.

Website: http://www.dancingelephantstudio.com/visualart/

How did you get started in the illustration field?
When I was 19, I took my portfolio to the Kansas City Art Institute for â??portfolio review dayâ??. John English, who was teaching there at the time. reviewed my work. He asked me what I wanted to study. I said I wasnâ??t sure. He replied, â??Major in illustration.â? So I did. I studied at KCAI and the Illustration Academy. The Academy changed everything for me — it was exactly what I needed at that time. The program is incredible — so competitive and supportive, the knowledge invaluable. I still have several close friends from those summers, and we continue to share our work and inspire each other. I’ve also returned as a guest graduate instructor.

During my senior year, I received a semester-long internship at Hallmark. When I graduated, I was hired in their â??alternatives studioâ? which basically meant I didnâ??t have to paint cute, fuzzy bunnies. Instead, they wanted contemporary, â??hipâ??, and funky. The creative environment there was rare — so much talent under one roof! Plus, I had the opportunity to take art and writing workshops and travel on research trips. I also had access to an amazing research library and had unlimited credit at their in-house art supply store.

While I worked at Hallmark, I was in several group shows and did some freelance work, but it was challenging and exhausting to balance the two. It was hard to leave — my job paid well and had so many great benefits, and I loved the people I worked with. Luckily I had a lot of support and encouragement from mentors and friends and eventually got the courage to leave. I did something I always wanted to do — travel by myself and volunteer with kids. I went to Nepal and taught art and English. I lived in a village with a family of 15 people in a small house. It was amazing — so new and different and energizing. My world really opened up. There was just no going back to a cubicle life under fluorescent lighting.

When I returned to the States, I sold everything that wouldnâ??t fit in my car and moved to a little cabin in the mountains of New Mexico. I canâ??t explain the feeling. I always wanted to live in the mountains. It was so freeing, much like when I traveled to Nepal. Sure, there was a huge shift in finances, but itâ??s amazing what you can live on when you toss out things you donâ??t really need. Creativity really helps, too.

Soon, I got my portfolio together, found a rep and worked really hard. As I developed relationships with clients, I would propose ideas to create work for myself, which really helped in the beginning. Iâ??ve been freelancing for about 5 years now and love the way my life is set up. I can travel when I am inspired to, and I play a lot. I also work harder and longer hours than I ever have — sometimes to the extreme — but I really enjoy it. Itâ??s addicting, in a good way.

How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
I don’t like labels. They seem so narrow. I guess I have my voice from simply drawing and painting a lot — and mixing some of me into each piece.

In art school, I experimented a lot and imitated my teachers and other artists to learn from them. I remember after my first summer at the Academy (where I gained more confidence in materials/techniques) I felt braver to paint how I perceived things. At Hallmark, I was asked to experiment on a daily basis — I got to try a lot of different looks and play with different mediums. It felt like grad school in a way. I think we (the artists in my studio) naturally influenced each other, too. Greeting card images are also very simple — my art directors would often say, â??thatâ??s perfectâ??stop right there!â? when I wanted to keep going.

With freelance work, I could do just that. My images developed more — in medium, concept, compositions, and storytelling. Also, the majority of my work (painting and illustration) is inspired by or infused with details of experiences Iâ??ve had in my life, so the more I travel and try new things, the more my work evolves. With “My Travelinâ?? Eye”, it was the first time I got to develop a story over 20 paintings instead of just one. It felt more like doing a body of work for a show, which I really like.

In my illustration, sometimes I paint more dreamy and narrative; other times it’s more graphic and kid-spirited. It just depends on the project. I think if you are true to yourself, your work is going to feel like â??youâ?? no matter what you create, and no matter what medium you use.

What is your process when working with clients? (Can you run us through a typical job?)

A client will call or email with the job, timeframe, and budget. Once that is agreed upon, we talk further about their needs, and what they are drawn to in my work. If I have the time, I like to think about the project â??in the back of my headâ?? for a day. Then, I take long walks with my dog Oso. I get a lot of work done on long walks (!) and write ideas down in a tiny sketchbook I carry. If it is product related — say a childrenâ??s educational theme — I think of how the concept can translate into multiple products.

After initial brainstorming, I research using the internet, books, photos, articles, etc. I make a lot of concept roughs to test ideas and then choose the strongest ones to develop further. I present these sketches to the client. When we decide on which idea to go with, I find or photograph references and play more with composition and value. After the final sketch is approved, I go to finish. I think about color last. I create all my illustrations conventionally (paint/collage/crayons, etc.), and do detail work or lettering in Photoshop. Once I finish the illustration(s), I email a scan to the client. When they give the ok, I upload it to my iDisk or (for my books or larger work) I ship the originals to the client to have scanned.

How do you market/promote your work?
A lot of my work is with clients Iâ??ve built long-term relationships with. With my children’s licensing clients, in addition to specific commissions, I often present my own concepts (for products, toys and wall decor). My new clients come from a variety of directions, but mostly from printed work that a client sees or thru my website. I have a blog on my site, too, that shares new work, process and inspiration, which has led to new clients. I think my website is the best tool for showing my work — especially since I live in such a rural place, far from NY. Knowing this, I recently redesigned and expanded my website — to attract new clients and to promote my new childrenâ??s book(s). It has already proven to be a wise investment since itâ??s much more thorough and easy to update/add content toâ??which I think is key for attracting visitors. I gave a lot of thought to who it was for — art directors of course, but also publishers, bookstores, libraries, teachers, parents, kids, artists, galleries, art-buyers, etc — and designed it to fill their needs.

I donâ??t like to send out mass postcard mailings anymore, but I do like to target potential clients with customized emails introducing myself and my site and follow up with postcards in the month following. For me, this has proven to be a better use of my time and finances. Occasionally, I go to NY to show my portfolio around. I really enjoy meeting with art directors, especially since I live in such a remote place. It’s great to network and branch out. Sometimes I do projects that pay little or nothing but are interesting or for a good cause and have total creative freedom. The printed samples can lead to new clients.

Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
I have a literary agent for my childrenâ??s books, but they donâ??t handle my illustration work. I was with a group for the first 3 years of freelancing. My rep really helped me get started. She was both a mentor and an agent, and I learned a lot from our relationship. I left the group because I wanted to pursue childrenâ??s books, which wasnâ??t their focus. It was a scary move, but it forced me to focus on my dream and go after it. Three weeks after I gave my notice, I found a publisher for my first book, which confirmed that I made the right decision. At times I consider finding another illustration rep for different reasons, but I stay very busy on my own. If I do join another group someday, Iâ??d want it to be the right match and long-term.

What was one of your favorite assignments?
My favorite assignment has been my first childrenâ??s book, “My Travelinâ?? Eye”, published by Henry Holt. It didnâ??t feel like an â??assignmentâ? though. It felt much more personal and was SO fun and exciting. My other two favorites are the books Iâ??m presently writing and illustrating.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
The whole process really: brainstorming (I often get my husband or anyone around to play with me!), researching (itâ??s fascinating and I learn so much!), painting (the best partâ??getting messy!), working with clients (the interaction and creative collaboration!), seeing it in print of course (!), and even more, seeing how others respond to it. I also enjoy working for myself, and the freedom that comes with it. Illustration is an exciting and vast field to be in. It is a blessing to have a job that is so fun and inspiring. There is SO much talent out there, and the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher, which challenges us all in the best way.

Describe your work setting.
I live in an inspiring, rural artist community. It’s quiet and peaceful out here — the most beautiful spot in the world to me. We live in a little house in the woods. It’s open, bright, with tons of plants. My studio is part of our studio home. Windows in each direction frame the mountains, garden and mesa. Loads of books, art, fun junk, and bits of collage fill my space. A good illustrator friend is a five-minute walk away, just past the Buddhist stuppa, and we often get together to share our projects. At sunset, everything turns golden.

Do you have side projects you work on?
Yes, always, and one particularly exciting one now. My husband and I are collaborating on a book together. It is about the tradition of drinking masala chai (that yummy, spicy, milky tea drink) and the culture and people who created it. Each page-spread is a story and a journey. The inspiration came from our love of drinking chai and our connection to Indian and Nepali culture. I know it sounds funny — you might wonder, how much is there to say about chai? Well, a lot! In 2006, we traveled by plane, bus, train, rickshaw, and foot for 4 months around Nepal and northern India experiencing â??chai cultureâ??. We went to small villages, remote tea farms, peaceful ashrams, and populated cities, connecting with locals all the way. We documented our days in journals, sketchbooks, photography, interviews, stories, video, etc. This was FAR different than researching on Google! It was an adventure and so tactile. It was also the most challenging â??assignmentâ?? Iâ??ve ever had. These kinds of projects demand a lot of endurance and faith but are the most rewarding. Itâ??s so important to follow your passion (and instincts) and go for something you believe in.

We are self-publishing our book, Chai Pilgrimage, and printing in India. Our hope is to use profits to do some positive work in India, helping widowed women start chai stalls and working with small farmers’ tea cooperatives. We recently launched a website/blog to share our process, galleries and audio/video of our journey, and to hear from readers. Check it out!: http://www.chaipilgrimage.com.

I saw that your first kids book was just published — Congratulations! Can you tell us about the process of working on that? What was it like to work with the publisher?
Thanks! It’s been a dream come true. A few years ago I went to NY to show my portfolio to art directors and publishers. While I was there, I met with a friendâ??s editor at Henry Holt. I had contacted her years ago with a story I wrote, and although that wasn’t a match for them, she liked my work. I showed her my portfolio, but she said sheâ??d like me to present some of my own stories. At that time, I didnâ??t have any. As I was walking out of her office, I said, â?? Well, there is one story Iâ??ve been playing withâ?¦about my lazy eye.â? She loved the idea and encouraged me to finish it and send it to her.

Eight months later, I was inspired to rewrite it from another angle, draft number 20-something. This time something clicked. I made a black and white dummy of the entire book. A friend had suggested I do this, and it helped immensely. (You can see this dummy in the process section of my website.) It helped me because when you start putting the words and pictures together, you can see clearer what is needed or isnâ??t. And when you read your story out loud, you hear it better. When I finished it, I sent it to the editor at Henry Holt. I think timing is everything because she called the day she received it to say she wanted to publish it.

My publisher was great. So easy and fun! I was given a lot of freedom, and my editor offered advice in the perfect places. I really trust her. Also, because she liked the way I designed my text in my dummy, I got to work closely with the designer, who did a fabulous job. My experience may be a little rare in the publishing world, but I think itâ??s because my editor is amazing at what she does. Iâ??m excited to be working on my second book with her now.

Any advice on how others can start on their own children’s book?
Write everyday — carry a small notebook with you and write down any/all ideas because you will forget some of them if you donâ??t. READ books, tons of them, and read to kids. Join or form writing groups with others who have the same goal. That kind of support is so valuable. (I was in a really special group in KC with some amazing artist friends — ALL of who are now published.) Donâ??t be too attached to a story when you are still developing it — write it from different angles, just like you would make tons of compositional studies. Write from your own experiences or something unique to you. And be patient — I can share from experience, some stories demand a long incubation time to manifest. You can ask people for feedback or advice, but take it all lightly — everyone will have different opinions. When you finish a story, read it out loud, and read it to kids. Hearing the story out loud and how they respond helps so much. If you plan to illustrate it, make a dummy of your book in pencil and focus on your point of view and compositions. This helps a publisher see your vision and character development. From my experience, publishers prefer this to any finished illustrations. Show, donâ??t tell — let your images and writing complement each other, not repeat the same ideas. Again, read your dummy to kids and learn from their reactions. When you get your â??dummyâ?? finished, show it (along with examples of your illustration) to publishers who publish books you admire and where your book might naturally fit in — not as in a category or box, but like you would choose an agentâ??s group or a gallery. Stay positive and keep writing!

You also do gallery shows. How do you balance between illustration work and gallery work? Is the work itself different? Or does it all feel the same to you?
I love doing shows and down the road I would love to paint full-time. I have been showing in two galleries the past several years and recently decided to take a break, except for occasional group shows. I was doing one big show a year, as well as sending new work to my galleries throughout the year. It can be challenging to focus on shows amidst a full workload. They are energizing but also draining. I want to make space for my paintings to evolve on their own and without any expectations or time frames. For now, I am excited to work on my writing and books and simply paint for myself.

For me, illustration and personal work balance (and inspire) the other. As far as comparing the two, they are different. With illustration, I am trying to solve someone elseâ??s problems keeping in mind parameters, application, concept, and sometimes color. I also think about how it will look in print. My personal work is personal, often stream of conscious, sometimes abstract and uses symbolism. There are no parameters. I think more about the surface and how the physical piece feels in a space. I paint because I’m inspired to. It’s natural for me to communicate that way. The link between the two is probably in the narrative sense. Both have layered stories going on in the imagery, assembled with paint and collage, and often inspired by personal experiences and travelingâ?¦same, same, but different.

Do you usually send galleries a proposal to start showing with them?
Most of the galleries Iâ??ve shown in have happened from meeting the owner through another show I had or from buying my work. They invited me to participate in group exhibits and then offered me shows of my own.

How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
Like most artists, I tend to â??workâ?? all the time. Itâ??s easy to do this when you love what you do. What keeps me balanced? yoga, hiking, gardening, painting and drawing for â??meâ??, and mostly, my husband and my dog.

Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Sure, sometimes, but they are mostly short-lived. When they happen, I take time in the garden, hike, read, buy a new album, go junking, ski or swim in the river. I visit artist friends, discover new or old artists, go to the library, bookstores, galleries, museums, or listen to live music. If itâ??s really slumpy or I simply need a radically different perspective, I leave the countryâ??nothing like a culture outside your own to inspire and refuel you!

What has been inspiring you lately?
Being in the garden, sleeping under the stars, and lichen rocks.

Do you have a favorite color?

Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?
Do something every day towards your goal, and remember why it is youâ??re doing it.

Thanks, Jenny!
Life images:

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Posted by admin on 07/15/08 under Interviews
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  • http://www.ianchristy.com ian christy

    Really a wonderful and inspiring interview, thanks for taking the time!

  • http://www.sarajofrieden.com sarajo

    jenny is such a talented and wonderful person! I’m a big fan of her work and what she is about…

  • http://www.firstborn.wordpress.com mary ann

    enjoyed reading the interview very much! thank you!

  • Deb White

    Thank you for sharing your story. Sounds like your life would make a great book too.

  • http://www.indigeneart.com indigene

    Wow, it was an amazing interview. This was such a well-rounded interview, with information about Jenny, her life, projects, dreams, process,etc. I love it! I’ve added her website to my bookmarks, since I can visit the site for on going inspiration! Thank you Jenny!


  • http://www.arkansasarts.com/programs/registry Ramona Wood

    How very nice of both Penelope and Jenny to share of their time and passion for children’s book creation. Thanks for a great interview!

  • http://jess-messyjessie.blogspot.com/ Jess

    I really enjoyed reading this interview, what lovely lively work Jenny has. I think I’m going to add her blog to my ‘favourites!

  • http://www.jaysennett.com Jay Sennett

    Thanks for the great interview. Very inspiring.

  • http://dancingelephantstudio.com/visualart/blog/ jenny

    Thanks for your nice words everyone. I hope it was helpful or inspiring in some way for you.

    And thank you Penelope for the honor. I have loved each and every interview on IF! As illustrators, I think the more we share, the more we find we relate to each other on a lot of levels. We go through a lot of the same things, only we often do it on our own, in our studios. I really admire Penelope as an artist and a person, and I think it’s amazing how she created this community for all of us to connect and inspire one another. Horray for manifesting such creative visions! jenny

  • http://ponosmom.blogspot.com Karine Swenson

    What a great and uplifting interview! Thank you to both Jenny and Penelope.

  • http://www.chezslaughter@typepad.com/red_thread_art/ KathyS

    What a brave person you are Jenny! To take your life into your own hands and live your dream. Inspiration for all of us! Thanks for your generous sharing~

  • http://www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.com Hanna Whiteman

    I really needed that! Thanks Jenny, can´t wait to see the next childrens book, I´m working on one myself right now…..Hanna

  • http://www.adotco.wordpress.com Lisa Schwaberow

    Thank you so much for the inspiration! I am going to try harder to get out of my rut and work towards my goal everyday!

  • surya


  • http://www.carlasonheim.wordpress.com Carla Sonheim

    Jenny, great interview and wonderful artwork, as always. I think you’re my favorite illustrator/painter right now!!! Thank you for sharing…

  • http://cecelia-throughmyeyes.blogspot.com/ Cecelia

    Very interesting interview! Lots of good information here.

  • http://www.psillustrations.mobi starr

    I started reading the article and could not finish so time went past and I am now
    able to return to it and finish reading. What a great article and Jenny YOU are an
    inspiring being! I thank Penelope for doing this interview. I enjoyed it so much
    I printed the article out an put it on my INSPIRATION BOARD!

  • Fred Kostecki

    That’s my sister! I love you!

  • http://www.common-paradise.net/illustration/ Isabelle Stolar

    Thanks a lot for this interview. It brings such amazing esthetic emotions and sharing of experiences in our home. Loved Jenny’s work!!!

  • sheila ryan

    Hi. Jenny–I was a friend of your brother Fred’s while in college and met you in St. Louis in 1985 when my friend Kathleen and I were working with children in St. Louis. I just googled your brother’s name because another long lost friend from from college just called me, and I came across your name and this delightful article. I’m thrilled that your life has turned out so amazing. I’ve just bought your book for my 3 year old son, Patrick. all the best, sheila ryan

  • http://www.jennabowles.com Jenna Bowles

    Hi Jenny,
    thanks so much for this interview! It was very inspiring and I am such a fan of your work! I can’t wait to read Chai Pilgrimage. I am a fellow illustrator, just starting out and your work has been a great inspiration.

  • http://poetry4kids.wordpress.com/ MILOU

    Hi Jenny,

    I like your work ….very inspiring:-)

    Ciao, Milou

  • http://adelaida.deviantart.com/ Alex

    This was so inspiring! There’s no doubt that with this way of thinking and seeking new adventures in every single day you can reach your goals and stay happy all the time (: You must be a wonderful person to talk to and spend time with!

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