LIKE A 6-YEAR-OLD

“I’m mostly inspired by art made by children, which is so expressive and playful. I’m continually striving to loosen up, in both my fine art and in illustration. This keeps the process fresh and exciting.”
—JENNIFER GOLDFINGER, fine artist, children’s book illustrator and author

 

. . . . . 

 

interview by CAROLYN SWARTZ
portrait photography by WINKY LEWIS

Jennifer Goldfinger, fine artist,
children's book illustrator and author.
In the studio with Mabel.
Amelia
18 x 18 inches
Deep Sea Debbie
36 x 48 inches
Dunk
24 x 24 inches
Girl in Red Suit
24 x 24 inches
Cover of My Dog Lyle.
Inside My Dog Lyle.
Inside My Dog Lyle.
Cover of A Fish Named Spot.

The combination of fine artist and author and illustrator of children’s books is pretty unusual. What was your trajectory?

In college I majored in fine art, but really had no idea where I wanted to take it. At the time it seemed important to pursue realism: the idea that with that under my belt—like the master’s—I could take it anywhere. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake.

Why do you say a mistake?

Because once you have that foundation, that grounding—it’s hard to shake off the bonds of realism, hard to loosen up and get more playful—which is what I’ve been trying to do for 30 years.

After college, did you go first into books or fine art?

Neither, really. I got work painting trompe l’oeil murals for restaurants and private homes. You can’t get much more realistic than that! I also did marbleizing and faux finishes, which were popular back then. It was excellent training in that I got really good at mixing colors and using different kinds of paints to get a finish that I wanted.

In my mid-20s, I was dating a guy who was an author and illustrator of children’s books. We used to go mountain biking a lot. At some point, when he was sketching illustrations for Rudolf’s Second Christmas, by Robert L. May (the author of the original book about the red-nosed reindeer), he had a bike accident and broke his wrist. The publisher asked if he could find another illustrator to imitate his style. At the time I had never illustrated, so he didn’t even think to ask me. In the end, I tossed my hat into the ring with some samples, and the publisher chose me.

So you were off and running?

Hardly. But I did get the bug. I began to send my illustrations on postcards to publishers, and got some positive responses. Eventually I made a connection with an editor at Little, Brown Publishers. By then I was married (not to the illustrator) and eight and a half months pregnant with my second child. According to the contract, I’d be delivering first sketches a month after delivering my baby. Since that wasn’t going to happen, we adjusted the contract and it all worked out.

And after that you went from one book to the next?

Not even. It’s such a tough business. Sometimes I had an agent; at other times I didn’t. When you’re in between, editors take forever to get back to you. That would inevitably bring on a creative crisis that would push me through to the next level. That happened several times over the course of my career. Now I have a great agent and good relationships with editors and publishers. So I’ve always got projects at different stages of development. But I’m still always pushing to break through—to make my illustrations more expressive. That goes for my fine art, too.

When did you get back to fine art, to painting?

About eight years later—by then we had two daughters. We bought a contemporary house with a lot of terrific wall space for hanging art, but couldn’t afford to buy any yet. I had always assumed I’d get back to fine art; the question was when. Then those bare walls started calling out to me. I kept working on the books, but also began to paint again.

What's the creative crossover between your illustration and fine art?

Well, both are collage, and in some ways each feeds off the other. All of my work these days seems to deal with isolation—a feeling I had throughout my childhood. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, and lived far away from other kids. My children’s books all tell stories of kids who don’t fit in, who are different or don’t know anyone. To some extent, every child feels that without fully understanding that others do too. In my paintings, as well, I depict children who are emotionally boxed in, apart from everyone else. Still, it’s not like I say to myself, “I’m going to write a book about isolation.” I start the process, and then it’s there: a discovery as I go. Slowly, my newer paintings seem to be about other parts of me—such as girl and boy empowerment, and daydreaming.

Can you give me an example from one of your children’s books?

Hello, My Name is Tiger, published by HarperCollins, is about a kid who dresses like a cat, which sets him apart. He doesn’t say how he’s feeling; you just observe the way he behaves and reacts. He climbs a tree (like a cat) and watches all these other kids play. While up there he comes across a kid who’s dressed as a monkey, and that kid helps him get down. So both kids find each other while going through their own struggles, and eventually find friendship. I like to show kids that everyone feels different, but that different is actually the norm. That is, we’re all in good company but often we don’t know it.

Do you think kids understand this?

My work is not didactic; the message doesn’t have to hit kids over the head. But I’ve talked to kids after they’re read my books and they do get it. Children are amazingly intuitive.

In your fine art you work with found photographs of children from decades past. Why is that?

I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of old and new. There’s something about the period from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s—design, clothes, colors, textures of everyday life—that intrigues me. People, especially children of a certain age, were not so aware of their image and how they came across.

What makes a photo one that you want to work with?

It’s partly the facial expression, although I do a lot of manipulation and I almost always swap out faces and bodies. I’m also drawn to photos of children close in age to those I write for: 4 to 8. When they get a little older, they grow more controlled and self-aware—better able to stifle what they’re feeling inside. That split second captured in time always makes me try to imagine what these kids were doing, thinking, feeling before and after they were told to stand still to have that picture taken.

(Above: Dunk, 24 x 24 inches)

Is your work inspired or influenced by any other artists?

I’m mostly inspired by art made by children, which is so expressive and playful. I’m continually striving to loosen up, in both my fine art and in illustration. This keeps the process fresh and exciting. Part of that, as I mentioned, involves trying to unlearn what I was taught, what I know ... to be able to draw like a kid again.

Of course, I’m always looking at work of other artists, too. A couple of years ago in London, I saw shows of (Jean-Michel) Basquiat and Jasper Johns. And I was blown away by both the work and the techniques they used to achieve it. I’d already been scraping, using wax and encaustic, but after I came home, my art got a lot thicker and looser, my backgrounds drippier and less controlled. It’s possible that the textures and luminosity emerging in my backgrounds will start to move forward in my paintings. We’ll see.

It sounds like your process is both intuitive and cerebral. But always evolving.

I get excited when I do something I feel really works. I can’t stop looking at it, exploring it, playing with it. Then after some time and some success with it, it can feel a little stale to me. I’ve done it and I need to push through to the next level, to experience that next moment of discovery. In between can be painful: trying to find that next thing. If it doesn’t come, I can lose confidence and have a short, awful period of self-doubt—of wondering if I should just give up. Then inevitably I get that inkling, hear that whisper, feel that inner ripple of inspiration that turns into an idea, a direction. And the cycle starts all over again.

I often come back to something Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” wrote. He said artists usually get into the work because they have “good taste.” But after a time, good taste disappoints, and those who can’t get past that phase quit. So the most important thing an artist can do is just keep working. That’s my mantra, even when I feel discouraged.

How do you balance your time? Do you tell yourself you’ll paint in the morning, write in the afternoon? How does it work?

My time is somewhat dictated by deadlines—whether related to publishing or an upcoming show. But recently in the middle of preparing for a couple of shows, I got inspiration for a new book and found myself sneaking off to work with it.

Like a rendezvous with a secret lover!

A secret indulgence, anyway. Since the beginning of COVID, I’ve also been working on a graphic novel for kids a little older than 4-to-8 I’ve been writing for. And I just finished another picture book we’re submitting now.

What do you think makes you successful as a writer and illustrator of children’s books?

I sometimes say my superpower is that I see the world like a 6-year-old. My main memories of childhood are of that period. I barely remember high school or being younger than about 6. But 6 to 12 I remember really well.

. . .

jennifergoldfingerart.com

Exhibition Schedule:
Exhibiting artist (ongoing) at Rice Polak Gallery, Provincetown, MA.

The Chocolate Church Gallery, Bath, ME. Two-person show: Transformations. October 8–November 20.

Greenhut Galleries, Portland, ME. The Art of Narrative (five-person show) Nov. 4–27.

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