Today on Tuesday Tours I’m happy to feature the Springfield, OH studio of NYT bestselling author and illustrator David Catrow. David is the Illustrator of over 70 children’s books, including some of my all time favorites—I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More (written by Karen Beaumont) and Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon (written by Patty Lovell). I never grow tired of hearing these stories and absorbing the over-the-top, energy-infused illustrations. My daughters and I laugh out loud every time we get to the end of I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More, and the protagonist, who has painted most of his body, decides to drop his tighty-whities and extend his living canvas to his tush—until that is, he runs out of paint. And who wouldn’t love Molly Lou Melon and her buck-teeth that she stacks pennies on, and her adorable short stature? David creates fantasy worlds of the best kind in his illustrations–tempting us to see a better reality, one which buck-teeth are beautiful and creative energy can’t be stilled, even by a mom who’s had enough with the mess. I’ve been drawn to David’s work for years, never knowing he was a self-taught artist, but it doesn’t really surprise me–some of the best artists (and most of my favorites) are. In addition to his multitude of books, David is also credited with the visual development for 20th Century Fox’s Horton Hears a Who and Despicable Me. He has worked on the animated television series Stuart Little and Plantzilla (based on the popular children’s book by Jerdine Nolan). His syndicated editorial cartoons have run in over 1000 newspapers across Canada and the US. And his scholastic book series Max Spaniel has sold over a million copies.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your creative medium.
I was born an artist—there isn’t any better way to say it than that. From the moment I was able to hold a crayon in my hand and not eat it, I have been communicating visually. I am comfortable being a self-taught artist, but at times it’s a double-edged sword. The up side is when I am forced to rely on one of my jury-rigged, build my wings on the way down strategies; it’s hell on the gastro-intestinal tract but in the end it yields some truly novel solutions. Life as a self taught artist is also fraught with tiger pits. I often think about the vast amounts of time wasted early in my career searching for answers in an unfamiliar technique or medium; I was like a Neanderthal carpenter searching for a rock to pound a nail—completely unaware that someone had invented a thing called a hammer. Those are the times that made me wish I’d gone to art school.
How long have you had your space and how does it affect your creative process?
While I would love to report that my studio overlooks the ocean from a wind swept hill, that is not the case. My window view is a typical city street with trucks and cars and buses—dogs barking at the UPS guy, kids playing hoop, and airplanes streaking overhead. The fantastic visions that come into my work, in fact originate from within the quiet solitude of my skull—so I think an ocean view would be a distraction.
I moved into my studio in 1991 and as any new space, it needed to be made mine. That process I am sure is different for every artist. Mine, for lack of a better description would be similar to any burrowing rodent or underground dwelling life form. I occupy the space and then proceed over time to cover the interior surface with an organic energy, producing tissue I can draw—this tissue is comprised of anything that suggests undiscovered potential or hints at new possibility. When I stumble upon something it’s like the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind— sees Devil’s Tower in his mashed potatoes and it means something. In other words, any meaningful thing I can get my hands on, I drag into my burrow.
Describe a typical work day. Do you have any rituals you do before you start creating?
I usually begin my day with caffeine. That might suggest a problem but I limit myself to two cups a day. Plus, I don’t think it’s any different from shaman who chew entheogens to put them into a trance to converse with Mother Earth—I just brew mine in a French press and add a dapple of ½ and ½.
If you could share a studio with anyone in the world, who would you pick?
If I could possibly share my space with someone it might be Jackson Pollack, because everything I have read makes me think we might have shared sensibilities. Responding to a critic who asked why his drip-paintings never included nature, Pollack rightly answered, “I am nature!”
Describe how you work. Is there any rituals you do before you start creating?
Initially, the ideas for books are simply favorite characters or environments, and it is from this that the story emerges. Most importantly, I approach the visual story as if words have never existed—all I have available to me is my ability to communicate like the cave artist: visually. In my mind the only difference between editorial cartoons and picture books, is the subject. I believe my work as an editorial cartoonist was most powerful when I could tell a story without any words at all. But I do enjoy word play too, so captions are an important and easy ingredient to help crystalize the joke or the opinion. Outside of picking out my socks, I’ve never actually planned a thing in all my existence on this planet—but my path has always seemed apparent to me as I moved through life. So when an opportunity presents itself, hey you have to leap!
Is there any special item/trinket in your space that inspires you?
When I was on a mountain bike trip in central Mexico in 2006, our group stopped at a tequila ranch for a breather and a little hydration (no tequila, just water). We were all a little tired so everyone was looking for a place to plant themselves. I found an old stump that had a lot of prickly growth to lean against. When something suddenly poked me in the side, I turned around to see this gnarly horn sticking out of the brush. Carefully parting the thorny branches, I found myself face to face with the most comically evil painted wooden mask I had ever seen in my life. I am not usually this forward but I found the farmer who owned the land and asked him if I could buy this amazing thing—which he agreed to sell to me for 40 pesos (about $20, maybe?). I carried him, piggy back, out of the bush on my bike. To this day, I have absolutely no idea where this object came from or what his story is but he lives in an honored place on the wall of my studio and is, on occasion a muse that nurtures my darker side.
Please share with us a memory of one of the best times you had working in your studio.
I have many moments working in my studio when there is no better place in the universe to be. Moments when I am discovering what no other person has laid eyes on. Like stepping onto a high ridge to see a vast new alien world for the first time; and then getting to name the planet after me.
What advice do you have for people who want to make a personal space where they can be creative?
My advice to anyone, whether they want to do art, write, be an acrobat, or just create a space where they can explore their interior universe, is to keep searching and moving forward in pursuit of what you love or seek. If you can make some sense of who you are, then maybe the guy standing next to you on the bus won’t seem as dark and threatening as you first imagined. Accepting who we truly are allows us to embrace and appreciate the differences in all the other beings that walk on this planet with us. And what kind of world would that be?
My new book Fun in the Sun is a story about my all time favorite thing to do—pack up all my stuff and head out to the beach. Needless to say, my goal was never to make the trip vicariously as a french bulldog in a speedo. I just think anything wearing a speedo is just too funny, and I also thought a french bulldog was a fitting candidate this time around. After all I am a dog person and all of my books start out as a desire to experience something new. I hope you enjoy my new “pet” Fun in the Sun. You can see more of my work on my website or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
Thank you, David! I love how you described moving through life without a plan and leaping when you see an opportunity—it’s an inspiring way to work and live.
I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Fun in the Sun and seeing your speedo-wearing dog!
Join us next week when we get a chance to visit the writing studio of teen author and Pat Schmatz.