Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) When we hear your name, we immediately think of your prolific and multiple award winning children’s book career. But you first broke into the world of illustration from nightclub scene, then to whole bunch of jazz album covers. I am curious to know if you ‘fell’ into children’s books rather than having that as a goal when you started? Also, can you let us know briefly how this progress happened?
Being an artist was a path in life I chose very early on, but children’s books as a career came as a surprise to me and started shortly after getting the attention of Lee and Low Books, then winning the Coretta Scott King Award Honor on our first project, The Palm of my Heart; Poetry by African American Children. These events all came about during my development as a person new to being social and new to New York City. I chose to pursue a career in illustration as an after thought to applying to an art school, before then the education in art was my time spent alone with my paints as a teenager, no prom, no class ring or social life just many weekends learning about what the various mediums could do in my hands. That being the case, my first years as a young adult in NY were about P-A-R-T-I-E-S! I was a terrible art student, not in terms of my draftsmanship but in the aspects of my discipline.
I came from a small town in NJ and decided at that point it was more important to develop my social skills and to learn how to be comfortable around people. So I went from being shy and antisocial to a social network in night clubs. After some time I saw that although it was fun I couldn’t turn from my nature, the art had to be there with me, so I decided to put my time to better use and approached the manager of my favorite nightspot, asking him how he felt about bringing some culture in to the place. Surprisingly he said “sure”, and a one time experiment turned in to a steady gig for me. Before I knew it, these slide shows became a bi weekly event where I asked friends to show work, gave them a guest-list, payment and drink tickets. Other promoters wanted this idea and soon after it escalated in to live paintings along with the presentation and this opened up opportunities to paint in Malaysia, London, Amsterdam and Sweden and kept those years very interesting.
During one event I stopped one of the members from a group called Justice System as they left the stage from a live performance and went in to their dressing room with color copies of my artwork. The manager loved the idea of original art on their debut album and when he signed his group to MCA records, he signed me as well. It was my earliest and most publicized job and some editors at Lee and Low Books put me in the running for my first award winning children’s book.
I love the freedom and purpose that comes from illustrating but as a child I never intended to become an illustrator, so I am really shocked to see my work in books, to have awards on my wall and to set down cultural seeds for a generation that isn’t even born yet.
2) Your work as a whole has consistent feel and vibe that are nothing other than “Greg Christie’s vocabulary”. At the same time, you seem to intentionally change the way you paint according to the audience; some are more painterly, some are more realistic, others graphic, flat, distorted, etc. Can you let us know how you make those decisions according to the project, and also, can you explain a bit about your creative process like your choice of medium?
It’s similar to what I think a character actor would go through. Adjust the emotions and viewpoint of your own art to fit the demeanor of the writing. I’m drawn to projects that will challenge me and give me a little bit of fear because I have no idea how I will approach it. I’m not the type of illustrator to stick to one aesthetic or keep a visual consistency from one project to the next. I want to explain what I feel with a new set of visuals and gain excitement as I use my artistic range… I also choose my projects to right the wrongs I see in the American educational system if not in American society. There are so many enriching stories about brown people’s history and America has often neglected these amazing tales. I never learned about the heroes that I’ve found today through reading and I want the society to have a balance when it comes to learning about every culture’s historical achievements.
Anyone curious about America’s past should learn about George Washington Carver whenever he learns about Thomas Edison. Phillis Wheatley or Matsuo Basho whenever studying William Blake. A Multi cultural lesson plan, builds self-esteem, cross cultural understanding, empathy and I think creates a well rounded society. I truly believe this, but unfortunately our world history is brutal and in such cases I only choose to do a historical book when it’s honest and gives a sense of dignity to the people it’s about.
It takes a type of sophistication to leave your own current day problems in order to have empathy for other ethnic cultures’ past injustices and it takes a open heart to be inspired by their survival. I use my work to parallel these sentiments for my historical paintings. I try to create art that will be a challenge to a viewer and hopefully it will stop them from just taking a quick glance.
However after some time as a means of survival, I have chosen much lighter subject matters to illustrate. Jazz Baby, The Deaf Musicians, Yesterday I Had the Blues, these are my whimsical light stories and I adjusted my style accordingly. As I suspected many people love entertainment over education so these top sellers have eclipsed my heavier historical books that often are a real challenge to educators and parents to put in the hands of a child. Certain history will raise certain questions but a lot of thought is given to the preparation of these books.
We the manufacturer’s of these tools know they are for children so, it’s treated that way, often these stories are meant as a doorway to things that they can learn in detail as they get older. For me, the aim of the work is to tell a story without having to read the words but hopefully the viewers will feel the emotional direction I’m trying to bring forth. I want a bridge between abstraction and realism and tend to alter the proportions of the figures. But I always direct you to the faces, the excitement, anger, fear or happiness in my characters’ expressions. At the end of the day I’m influenced by the feel of the story through the author’s words.
3) You seem to be always traveling around the world! (I think you told me that you travel about 6 months of the year, if I remember correctly…) How do you divide time and work schedule between when you are in New York and when you are somewhere else? What do you get most out of traveling?
I’ll start with the later part, because It’s the most clear answer in my head, I get peace of mind out of traveling. At the end of the day, as social as I am I’m still shy in many ways and I have a strong need to understand people. Often a need to comprehend people’s actions rather than their words. Simply stated, I understand the actions of the cultures I come in to contact with overseas.
I like how societies are still living with a collective sense of what’s morally important and the places I’ve seen where corporations still have a fear of the public. It’s refreshing to visit societies where paying taxes actually help you in terms of health care and education. I’ve found that when those two things are taken care of you can often walk down what’s considered that societies “worst” street without too much of a worry. People get outside, know their neighbors, have a love of geography, history, culture and down time.
It’s very inspiring and stimulating to me and the way technology has made the world smaller as governments and businesses get larger, I feel that I want to see as much as I can while it’s still my idea of…”clean”.
I often hear people talking about living life to the fullest and being unique in ideas and actions but I think if you don’t get out of your circle and see the world a bit you are missing out on a clear perspective of who you are and what you need to do during your short time here.
Go to Senegal and see children with hand me downs and bare feet, fighting over a free book given to them and compare that to cursing NY teens spitting on a subway car, fighting over which celebrity has the most money. Watch a grandmother ride her bike in a small town in Holland or China and compare it to unhealthy people in the American south on golf carts riding in public to get their next fried Twinkie.
None of these scenarios are the norm but they all exist and go on whether or not you are there to see it. As for myself I embrace it all, reflect on it and know that I am very fortunate for my opportunities and for being born in the United States. So I do work hard, but have a job rather than it having me; I take breaks in order to be humbled and to use my opportunity to really live and reexamine my life’s purpose.
We are just visiting the surface of this planet until we go back inside of it, but what we can see during our short time here?!
I made a conscious decision in my childhood to get as much as I could from the world. Not in a monetary sense but to develop my talents and myself as I leave something behind. I have balance these days and embrace my lazy do nothing days the same way I embrace the all night-ers and painting marathons. It works for me, works for my personality and lifestyle fit for a freelancer, so I make the best of my time and use technology to free myself from one set environment. I keep in contact mainly through email, internet phone calls when needed, often will buy a pawnshop scanner then give it away as I leave a place. I take sublets, rent rooms and live in extended stay hotels all based upon the energy of the room. I’d turn down a castle and estate if I felt it was wrong for my paintings, it tends to be all about the feeling and energy of a spot.
The trips inside the US and abroad are gifts to myself but they come with the price of time spent inside. Sure when I walk out there’s a mountain, metropolis, cafe or beach with beautiful women running around but the key words are when I walk outside (not beautiful women.. at least not today).
Unfortunately I don’t get outside too much these days. Illustration for me is spent with a duo lamp, (dented from baggage handling) the British Broadcasting Channel, painting set up and an internet connection. Cat naps, late night painting sessions to get the work completed and the aroma of a soup or stew cooking in the background is the norm. No more parties in nightclubs like I did during my first years in New York. These days the price is a lot higher than a twenty something’s morning hangover, if I like this lifestyle then I have to earn it. I do this by consuming all I can about art, painting in mediums I am not familiar with, taking classes, observing techniques then putting them to use and finding the discipline to sit in front of that canvas.
4) American illustration world is still dominantly white. (As a minority myself, I constantly feel this.) I am curious to know if you are conscious of this fact when you are creating new projects. As one of a very few African American illustrators on the top of the career, do you feel that you have messages that you can send to the young readers and artists of the next generation?
Absolutely, and its a simple one — Your hair, skin, features and culture are all beautiful and with the new technology, guard the tangible things as a keepsake for the future. I challenge anyone to find a blond blue eyed child in my body of illustration work. There’s enough of that out there, that and colonization has damaged people’s perception of what’s attractive.
Also I think that specifically as an illustrator of color it’s important to get in the door the best way you can… then show them what you can do. One must be very calculating as an artist in such a competitive industry. First and foremost find a niche, this goes for any type of career if you plan to make your mark. I think that one must be true and honest about the art, to take a chance and find something that separates you from the thousands of other artists out there. Also be sure you really want to do this, does it wake you up in the morning? Do you think about what you have to do in your day in order to clear the night for your art. I can honestly say yes those questions. For me it’s not about money on the largest scale, it’s about having enough to survive and keeping my art pure.
5) what’s on your horizon? Upcoming projects? Next travel destination?
Mainly kids’ books and this year will see somewhere new. I am tempted to go see Rio, but I think if I go to Brazil I’m going to catch “Brazilian fever” become Gregorio and throw my passport in to the ocean, so NOT there but I would like to go visit friends either in Europe Africa and Asia again as I see a new place near by them.
I really miss my friends overseas, every trip brings new experiences and new friendships. On the other hand, we shall see because although children’s books in a way seem economy proof, these are rough times and the world is changing. I’m back in NY again and have put a clamp down on gallivanting across the planet.
I used to joke with a friend that I’m Clark Kent in America but Superman once I leave the shores. Amazing things always happen due to my perception of the circumstances and openness to them.
These days I will find that excitement with my American story. So I am at the daily planet for a little while and will focus on completing the portrait commissions, books on contract, jogging, learning a language, paying bills and other respectable stuff like that. Professionally I have a book about the history of Blues and the southern experience called Roots and Blues coming out. A book of poetry for children about the word black named Black Magic another in the sketch stage called Pettina and the Windrope about a sailor girl and her talking dog, a biographical book on Bill Traylor and a couple more ideas that I think will be good for society.
6) If you have any thing you want to add, want to say… please do!
Just that it’s an honor to be interviewed and that I thank everyone for taking the time to look at my art. Also want to encourage anyone reading this to take planned chances in life and with your talent. Please do these things while you are young, do them now, responsibly, in a balanced way and without guilt.
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Find more of Greg’s amazing work here.