Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cruises and Critiques and the Crises that Follow....

Riding a roller coaster of emotions leads to that flip floppy feeling in the stomach - and the head.

The build up to the NY SCBWI Winter Conference was weeks- wait months of work - thinking, drawing, painting, printing, planning, hoping - visualizing..... psyching up - self examination - editing ... you get the picture.

At some point I took all of the art out of the portfolio. I laid it all out and said - take only the best, you don't need the rest.
I had pushed myself to do better - taken all of the critiques to heart - listen to suggestions. Incorporated Art Directors and editors comments into what I thought was a portfolio that completely represented me - as I am as an artist. I may always be a work in progress, but this portfolio was the culmination of a 38 year journey to where I am today. And I was proud of it. I was confident I had reached a level of accomplishment to stand strongly amongst the hundreds of peers in NYC that weekend.

Then the ground gave way beneath my firmly planted feet and I have slipped down into a spiral - a rabbit hole of self doubt and confusion and Wonder so profound ... I'm left thinking - what the hell do I do now?

It was the Panel Review. I think 200 illustrators submitted 3 pieces each to be projected up on a big screen and anonymously shown in front of a room of about 300 SCBWI members. Not everyone was picked - what the criteria was for being picked was never revealed. But a little tiny voice in my brain said- "you'll be picked..." Stupid little voice didn't say why....

We were told to "Not take it personally" That this is how they talk behind closed doors when looking at artists' work. Art flashed up- nice work - some stronger than others - but the 3 person panel had some comments I agreed with and some I thought were ludicrous. For the most part they pointed out weakness AND strengths for everyone- save one...

Me. Here's the experience -

"Tearing out the Artist's Heart, Stomping on it - Passing it around to be spit on - and then Shoving it back in - But don't take it personally"

(imagine it in slow motion-cause that's how it felt)

Flash- My art- quickly 1-2-3-back to one. Silence (maybe the worst thing they didn't say)"There is absolutely no market for this kind of work" "Feels dated- saw that 5 years ago" "Not too Disney-ish well maybe too Disney- I've seen them before" The 3rd is the strongest of the three- but there's no place for this in Children's Publishing" "If you want to do licensing- call me." (when hell freezes over) "This person obviously has a background in animation (give that little man a kewpie doll) -"Or likes animation - you can tell by how they draw" -silence again. -next artist.

The 3 pieces were the Cajun restaurant - the Beavers on the log - and the Hippo "Blue Lagoon". They are here on the blog- you can pause and review - now.

- I immediately realized that as anonymous as I was at this moment- come the portfolio room- review; I would cease to be. Thus started my anxiety ridden remainder of the NY SCBWI Winter conference -hurray! I swear the guy sitting to my left - stopped talking to me instantly- I had the wreak of uncoolness about me.

So- I sat thru the rest of the review- numb. Went thru the motions of the rest of the day- watched Jarrett Krosoczka's great video- wiping tears that should have been from laughter -but were from a feeling of being further away from his experience than ever before. - I wanted to go home- but had to stay to get my portfolio- meaning I had stand by it - touch it - acknowledge it was mine.

Remember- this was the portfolio I was so proud of 8 hours earlier on the LIRR.

I went into the room- walked straight over to "it"- but there were 2 people turning the pages- murmuring "Yeah- this was - the one..'..I walked the hell away from "it"- not wanting to hear them finish the sentence. I toured the room. I looked thru other books - some great- some wonderful- some so-so. And thought that book of mine- sitting in that far away corner - was like me in the 5th grade - full of qualities and potential that the idiots at the cool lunch table didn't care to know. And so I went over and scooped it up- packed it in it's soft padded protective sleeve along with my severely wounded self- and went home.

I did not want to go back the next day- but did. I walked out of my first break out- it was for YA fiction - I was not into politely sitting thru anything. The whole day was like a disconnection from Children's Publishing= listening to editors and art directors hearing in my head "yadda yadda yadda..." And watching those other faces in the chairs- so eager- enthusiastic- hopeful... the ones that rush the speakers at the end... shoving their work in the speaker's face... dropping their cards and hearts on the floor at the feet of the powers to be. - And I went to the final talk - wanting to go home.

It was Jay Asher- never heard of him. An author of a big new YA book "Thirteen Reasons Why". His talk was how to get published in 12 years or less- and then he removed the less. I bawled. bawled the whole talk about his journey- rejections- small triumphs- that mislead him that his time had come... opportunities that passed - agents that teased - publishers that said maybe - but maybe not. Until he reached the point of giving it all up. Driven to the ground by publishing - he had decided to throw in the towel. His wife convinced him to give it one more try - and it happened. He got published. Pushed to the point of self doubt - confusion and wonder at what the hell does he do now?- he did it.

And I cried. All the way to JFK. Where- I got on a plane to cruise with BNL. Which will be another post.

SCBWI- I think you are a wonderful organization. Filled with wonderful people. But this time- it did harm. I tried to not take it personally - really I did. I say put yourself in my shoes- see how you do with that...

So - Where am I today?? Home- not knowing what to draw, how to draw - deciding if I want to be published so bad that I get an extreme Artistic Makeover or if I hold on tight to who I am and steady myself for years of rejection and the possibility of never finding the holy Grail. Is the Quest Enough? All of those platitudes I've used for myself and my daughter aren't working right now... Is it really the journey?Not the destination? When you hear the same comments over and over and you usually tell yourself- if they don't like- someone else will... but start to realize - more don't like it than do... Is ignoring the signs just reallly really dumb and blind and deaf and idiotic?

I've got some serious mishagosh. And a whole lot of thinking to do.


Anonymous said...

Here's is what you do, girl: You bravely stow away the past. Try a new technique like collage. That medium keeps you from over working an illustration and with the bright colors and fun shapes, you can't go wrong with kids.

In my opinion your work is TOO good. You images look like animation stills. You are obviously highly trained but kids don't react to how well you can draw the human figure. They react to what looks fun.

Look to Eric Carle. Look to Tomie dePaola. Simplify. You have nothing to lose.

Alicia Padrón said...

Hi Kelly,

After reading your honest post full of sadness and disappointment, I just had to comment girl.

You are incredibly brave , you know that? What you went through is very tough and posting about it takes courage too. I wish I had been sitting next to you at that moment at the conference.. I really do.

Going through that alone and anonymously must of been so rough on you. I'm so sorry you went through that.

Having said that.. and I am going to tell you something I am still working on myself and have a long way to go.. we have to grow a tough skin if we want to survive in this business. That is easily said than done, I know. But it is completely true.

It's hard not to take those comments personally because they are. I don't understand when people say "don't take it personally", of course it is personal.. it's about you right?

This is what I think, and I am being completely honest here.

First of all you have talent. Not everybody can say that and you can. With talent you can go a long way but there is more to that.

You need two more things in my opinion. Being able to shine and be different from all the talent out there and luck. To be published is a matter of luck sometimes, to be seen at the right time, by the right person with the right manuscript.

1. You have talent so no worries there. :o)

2. The luck part, there is nothing we can do except promote ourselves, keep positive and cross our fingers.

3. Now the shining within the talent part is the tricky one. And is the one you have to pay attention to.

You already know what ADs and Editors are saying about your work. I know you don't like it because your work is what you do. But if you REALLY dream of being published in children's books then I think you have no choice but to change some rules in your usual drawings. They are the ones who had a final saying because they are the ones who will hire you or not.

Don't get me wrong, I love your art Kelly. I really do. And I think there might me manuscripts that would go very well with your style. But I am not a publisher. I am not the one hiring you to do a book so I think you have to listen to them if you want to "play" their game.

I am not suggesting you change your style completely. What I am suggesting is maybe twicking it a bit. You can do this, I know because you can really draw very well. Try and look for a style that is still you but is maybe simpler and less Disney like. (And this coming from a person who loves Disney and wished for a long time on working in one of the spots behind the glass on the MGM studios ;o))

For example, remember the piece you did with the two kids while watching the Olympics? You had two versions there. I remember seeing the first one and thinking that was wonderful. I could easily see that in a kid's book. And you said it felt too simple... but I think that is really it. You need to keep it simple. You know what I mean? That piece is beautiful and appealing and yes simpler.. but it's still you.

If I were you I would work your style around that piece. Use it as you starting point.

I hope I am not butting in, I just don't want you to think this is the end of it. Don't give up Kelly, if you really want this, just don't...

.. it would be an awfully waste of talent if you did.


Jill Bergman said...

A big mental hug for you. Sorry you had that experience.

Don't let those 3 panel people decide your life for you. And don't try and decide a new life path for yourself based on this turmoil. Just let it be and process it for a while.

I had a much smaller scale experience like yours. Smaller scale because it was about 30 people in a room in Colorado instead of big NY. Otherwise exactly the same thing- negative comments with my art up on the wall and then going to stand behind it with everyone looking. I had to leave too.
In the end, it made me a much stronger and more determined person. And it made me decide to educate myself. And I joined a writing crit group and accidently started our art crit group. And I'm educating myself in every way I can think of about everything I can.

Those pieces you had shown on the wall are beautiful!!! Absolutely. They are obviously not what those art directors are looking for right now. That is NOT the same as bad art. Those people are just so jaded, they apparently don't even know how to be civil anymore. And don't forget the (editor?) who wants to see your hippo again.

There's no doubt you are a great artist. It's unanimous! Don't ever let yourself doubt that you have wonderful drawing skills. Let this experience settle for a while and I bet you'll emerge 10 times stronger than before!

sam said...

I've read through this a couple of times Kell, and each time I got a little madder. And you know what,
Forget em. you gotta regroup. You gotta ask yourself what you want out of this business. If you follow the "advice" that anonymous gave and even the well meaning comments of ms Padron, you might get published, you might wind up making some money at it, But would you fell the same way about your work as you did before this stupid review? I'm pleading with you, mentally spread out this "New" portfolio that is the product of this advice and ask yourself, "How do I feel about it?" Ya it's published, Ya it's on the shelf ant the ole' B & N but is it what YOU wanted your work to say? You cannot continue to look to the art directors and publishers and agents of this world to dictate to you your worth as an artist. It doesen't come from them it comes from YOU!
Check out what somebody wrote not to long ago;

"...while you're drawing -how do you FEEL?

I feel true. I feel home. I feel ME. - I trust my head , my heart- my hand... and what comes out is not always perfect, but it's real.

I thought maybe it's an altered state - like a different level of being, but no - I'm altered when I'm not drawing. I long to draw when I'm making dinner, watering flowers - grocery shopping. I want to draw the things I see - the sounds I hear - the kooky people that exist all around me and the craziness that exists in my imagination.

Being told your art is "too" anything.. feels wrong. I can't be "too" me. Pursuing children's books has handed moments of self doubt - and those moments are vanquished -when I draw.

So - persevere. Keep drawing . Use your pencil like a machete and hack thru the publishing jungle - to reach that oasis -of exactly where you're supposed to be."

Remember how you felt when you wrote that.

The thing is Kelly your not just some Illustrator, You are a story teller. Your Ideas that you've shared with our little crit group are extraordinary! Build on those! work on the Author / Illustrator inside that makes the rules of how and what Kelly light has to share with the world. Don't you DARE change the rules of how you work to fit anyone else's aesthetic. And when you have perfected those things that make you proud of what you've accomplished, when you've polished that, when you have perfected that, THat is what you share with the world. The scene of this world has changed.
There are now more ways to "Skin the proverbial cat." ya know. Read this thread;
This is just a nudge.
Just make sure that after you've "hacked through the jungle," You are Kelly light, and not someone else's version of Kelly.
Nuf said.

AWells said...


Thank you for your sweet, sincere, and honest post. You were extremely brave, and I think that this experience, though extremely painful, will help you in the long run. Heck, I know thats sure easy for me to say- but I really do believe that.

You are an amazing illustrator. You know your stuff more than most. Anatomy, emotion, composition, color theory- it's all there. THOSE are the things that those art directors chose NOT to mention, but are extremely TRUE.

Yes, you CAN see that your animation background affects your style, we already know that. The question is, do you want to change it? Would you be destroying some internal truth if you decide to do work differently?

I'm like you. I love line. In fact, I've recently started adding a thick line around all my characters. Who knows. Maybe that is career suicide. But I LOVE it. To compensate for my line, I am trying to make my coloring look more painted, a little more soft. Perhaps you could experiment with something similar- keep your drawing style, but experiment with the painting style.

Honestly, I don't know- because I feel that you are a superior artist. And obviously others must think so too- because you DO have jobs!

Just hang in there. Don't feel like you need to change everything all at once, or even at all. Take a breather, and we can address this again soon.


AWells said...

And this isn't really the same but...

When I was still in college, I was in taking a Life Drawing 2 class. I have always (and still) struggle with drawing the human figure. Some students in the class were extremely talented, they seemed to just move the pencil in magical ways, and so I was always pushing myself to keep up with them.

Finally, I had a break through. I nailed it. I totally nailed the drawing. I was finally on the right track!

Then we had a critique. My professor put all the drawings up on the wall, usually in random order, but this time he put them from the best to the worst... and mine was dead last. First he went over the best piece- gushed about it- talked constantly about how beautiful and perfect it was. Then he skipped down to mine, and said, "Compared to a fine wine, this is cool aid." Everyone laughed. I just shrunk in my chair.

Well, like I said, I'm still not very good at drawing people. And after that particularly painful class, I took a break from life drawing and focused on other art. And then, a year later, I retook the course with the same teacher, and it turned out that I must have sorted something out, because suddenly all my drawings were getting A's and B's.

Yeah, I know it's not the same. But I guess the message is to just do what you need to do. Take time off, do something else, or keep plugging away... just don't ever give up.

Anonymous said...

Oh Kelly when I read your post I couldn't believe what I was reading. I am not just saying that. I don't really know you, but I know your art.

It's only the opinion of three people. I think it may have been magnified by the fact that it was among so many people and your anticipation was so high. Heck what am I saying. I would have been so upset. I am proud of you for hanging in there as you did. I am not sure I would have been able to do the same.

Your art skills are spectacular. You are an incredible artist. Always remember that. They didn't say you weren't' a good artist. They said it was your style. I personally love your style. I have told you that before. I can't even begin to tell you what to do. They were down right rude. I hate this kind of stuff.

Oh Kelly I don't even know you and my heart is aching for you!

Thanks for sharing your pain with us! Don't let this stop you. Gosh I would love to clobber those people. How dare they!

Cyn Narcisi said...

I'm so sorry you had such a difficult experience at the conference. It was brave of you to go in the first place. You followed through on your commitment and there's a LOT to be said for that kind of determination and drive.

The critique of your three pieces was meant to help not just you but the other artists there with you. And I'm willing to bet that while not everyone agreed with the comments, others artists were perhaps able to apply the same advice to their own work. You took one for the team. It hurt a bit, how could it not.

Your obvious talent aside, publishing is a business, bottom line. And to that end, it's best to try to distance yourself a bit more emotionally from that side of things. But that doesn't mean disconnecting yourself from your art. No one can take your gift from you, or your passion, or your determination. It's just a matter of finding your own niche, and the big guys were there to lay out the niche out for you, the way it looks right now in 2009. It's cold, it's impersonal, a bit like life.

Chin up, chin up, Kelly. Your work is beautiful. I don't think it'll take much to adjust your style, if you choose to do so. If you feel strongly about your style and decide to stick with it, then I'm willing to bet that eventually the right offer will come to you. There's something to be said about staying true to yourself.

Keep making magic.

Becky said...

Oh Kelly, I am sending you big hugs. I haven't been reading our critique board that much and so I did not see your post.

I have been going through some thoughts about my work and I have decided that I am going to do what makes ME happy. Sure, I really want to get some books published but I won't do it at the expense of changing my art in a way where it is not me and I won't kiss anyone's *ss either. So, my chances are probably not that great but I want to be true to myself. Like Sam said, "How does it make you feel when you are creating your art" I feel so happy when I do animals and so miserable doing children. I tried illustrating children and I know a lot of book publishers use them in their work but I want to be happy in what I create. If that means less work, I guess that is the case.

I so wish I was there with you. I am like you and my art is me. How in the world can these people say "Don't take it personally" Don't they realize what us artists do for our art?

I have heard from someone (can't remember who) that said "For what doesn't kill you will make you stronger"

big HUGS

Jennifer said...

Hey Kelly-- My stomach hurts for you, reading this post. I'm so sorry you had to go though this.

There's so much good advice in these comments-- I'm not sure I have anything new to add, just a few thoughts.

First of all, this was the subjective opinion of a few people. It's unfortunate that you had to hear it in such a public setting, but it was still only a few people's opinions. I highly doubt everyone in the room agreed with them!

Secondly, remember last April at the NESCBWI Conference-- you won FIRST PLACE in the poster competition in 2 of the 3 categories! Were those subjective opinions too? Well sure, it works both ways, but it was no fluke-- your work IS that good!

You still have so many choices open to you. I do think it's possible to tweak your style without selling your soul, if you choose. And realistically, you may have to do that in order to break into the market you want. It is a business. But markets and tastes change over time, too.

It may be that your style fits perfectly with the stories you write yourself. Or it may be that you decide to chuck it all-- but I don't get the sense that that's what you want.

You have the talent without a doubt and even more importantly the determination!

I never sat at the cool table in school either, and am not convinced that conferences are always the best way to get inspired/educated/make connections/and all those other wonderful things. (I say that having spent more than a few evenings in hotel rooms wondering what I was doing there...) They can be wonderful, but sometimes it is better to cut yourself a break and spend quiet time figuring out what's right for you.

And, I have to say, though at times discouraging, I think it really is about the path. Being published isn't always as wonderfully life changing as one would hope. (I'll tell you a few stories sometime.)

Anyway, forgive my rambling. But something about your post really resonated. I just wanted to let you know you're NOT alone, if that's any comfort. Take baby steps, and hang in there. You'll figure it out!


Anonymous said...

Make art for yourself, not others. Being critical is way easier that being creative. Stay away from critique groups. You will find your audience by being true to yourself and making art that you want to make. You will find your audience this way. Any other path is a false one. Never second guess your own artistic intuition.

Carli said...

oh Kelly,
I am so sorry you went through that. You are so talented and your art is beautiful. I am jealous of your artistic skill. That is only three opinions. If you feel like those pieces represent you as an artist than don't let a few opinions change how you feel about your work. Apply the constuctive criticism that helps you grow as an illustrator don't change everything based on this experience. just because "they" wouldn't use the kind of art you do doesn't mean it's not exactly what someone else is looking for. THere are ten pages of editors and art directors in the "names index" of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market. Those are just three of many many opinions.

Lewis and Noelle Nowosad said...


Coming from an artist standpoint of a slightly different nature, (being a musician), and looking at what the "industry" has done to music as a whole, it's no wonder musicians are self-producing. When I read what those people said about your work, and more specifically, my three favorites...okay three of four, (a tacky tourist wink to you), I took a mental step back and thought to myself that those are the opinions of the addled brains of three people out of millions who can potentially appreciate your art for what it is and for who you are. it's not easy pouring your soul onto the canvas, I know because I pour my soul out into the air every time I sing. So to have them pre-suppose a whole room into thinking negatively about your hard work, your excellent talent and most of all *your very soul* was nothing short of unfair, narrow minded, and very....(EEEEWW!! I can't come up with something clever, but you know...)

It's almost like the fashion industry - a small panel of people determine what the masses will or will not like? oh Puhh-LEeeaaSE! Art is subjective! To them and many foo-foo heads like them I say "PPPPFFFFTTTTT!!!!"

It's this very same attitude that converted me from being the unpopular nerd in school into the geek I am today and I'm proud of it. Sure, I often look like a foole, (the George Carlin spelling) but I made a new year's resolution to self produce my own album and by June or July and with the help of that invisible muse that seems to aid me in writing song after song, it will happen. The trick, I think, is to believe and to act on it. With that said, I called the local radio station about this and when they asked me about what kind of music I do, I told them, "Folk, comedy-rock a-la BNL with a splash of Matchbox 20 for good measure" - they told me to send them the demo.

I don't know too much about the publishing industry as such and I honestly don't know what all those letters mean either (SCBWI) but I do know this - you have more talent in your little finger than anyone I know and I know a lot of people, most of them artists.

Pick yourself up, give them the finger and believe.

Hugs from California,

Lewis and Noelle Nowosad

Gina Perry said...

Oh, Kelly. I was on the verge of tears myself reading that post. Then I started reading the comments from your blog readers. I don't have much else to add, because I think many people have said it. You clearly are VERY talented, and passionate, and a storyteller, and maybe most important - on a path to success.

I'm saying this in few words (b/c baby is about to wake up!) but not in coldness - I agree to some extent with what they said. I got a feeling of too much going on in all those pieces. Animation stills, yes. :( The simpler pieces (as Alicia said) feel more successful. I think you need to spend some time playing, experimenting, and finding (or refinding) the artists you love in children's books. And what AGE you want to focus on too! MG, PB? I was going down a path with one style and switched gears completely 2 years ago - it was the best thing I ever did - and unlike you, I had to learn some painting skills to do it!!! Sometimes the curse of a big event like a conference can get you off track, focused on the day instead of the work - I dunno. I don't want to over-analyze you - you've already been through the wringer. As Jen said, remember you were ON TOP last year in NE with the poster contest. You'll be back there soon enough - I have faith in you.

I'm also curious as to who was on the panel... care to email me on that one?

jjk said...

Hi Kelly -

I came across your blog and couldn't help but be taken aback by your experience. I looked through your portfolio with my wife and we were incredibly impressed by your work. And I'm not just saying that - your work is impressive! Beautiful designs, great color, wonderful character designs and you are an incredibly skilled draftsman. We especially loved the cat, pandas and the Napoleon.

Speaking as someone who has gotten his own work raked over the coals many times, I can sympathize. But I beseech you to not give up and not get discouraged.

To quote one Joe Esposito,
"Try to believe
Though the going gets rough
That you gotta hang tough to make it

History repeats itself
Try and you’ll succeed

Never doubt that you’re the one
And you can have your dreams!

You’re the best!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down"

Seriously, that song wasn't used just a campy Karate Kid spoof, but the lyrics speak truth for all of us!

If you would like to speak further, feel free to contact me via my website -

All of my best,

jjk said...

PS - I have your website bookmarked. It's excellent work!