More About the Author
Here are a collection of frequently asked questions of Johanna Wright, by strangers on the bus, aunties at family reunions, and guests at awkward parties.
Where did you grow up?
In Eugene, Oregon. Home of the Slug Queen, my family, and some very big and beautiful trees.
When did you start drawing?
I'm not sure really. I always liked to draw. I was in middle school when kids started asking me to draw cartoon pictures of their heads.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing the violin when I was nine, in the strings program they have in public schools. It was so packed in there with kids trying to learn, I was always getting poked in the eye with someone's bow.
Do you eat enough vegetables?
Where did you go to college?
The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.
What did you study?
Puppetry and children's books.
What kind of school lets you study that?
Well, Evergreen did. It's a great school. It was a good fit for me.
Do you ride the bus a lot?
Not that much these days. But before I moved to New York, I did take the Greyhound bus across the country nine times in four years.
Why in the world did you take the bus cross country nine times?
You could get a one way ticket to New York on Greyhound for $38. No kidding. 38 bucks! You can't beat that.
When did you move to New York?
In 1998, into a little apartment in Brooklyn that smelled like sliced onions. And cat pee. I had some nice roommates though, and that made up for it. I didn't know anyone when I moved there.
Where did you work when you moved to New York?
I temped in offices for the first two months. Then I worked briefly as an elf at Macy's but that didn't work out. I was really, really broke.
So what did you do?
I started selling my art on the street.
What made you decide to do that?
In college, I'd written a paper about street artists in New York and their struggles with the city to sell their work. I knew a lot about the laws and what was allowed and not allowed - so I got up the guts to set up a little table on the street by the MoMA and started selling my art. It was so awesome. I did it for four years.
What was awesome about it?
There were a lot of other artists out there at the time and it was a lot of fun. I drew all day and hung out and talked to interesting people. My art started appearing in mysterious places, like on the Style Channel and in Japanese Elle magazine. It was crazy. I wasn't making much money, but I was so busy all of the time. Working myself crazy....
What kind of art did you sell?
At first I made handmade postcards while I sat out there, with ink and watercolor, but they were hard to handle. When the weather was cold my hands wouldn't work and my paintbrush would literally freeze in my water dish. I moved on to making paintings on canvas in my studio and bringing them out with me to sell. That was a lot easier.
Did you ever get arrested selling your art?
No. I heard a lot of stories from other artists about that. I bypassed the days when that was a common thing. I did end up in court a few times. My charges were always thrown out - I was usually put in a room filled with people who had minor offenses. Mostly public urination.
Is that true?
Yes! There aren't a lot of public bathrooms in New York. I actually heard a guy tell the judge, "Your Honor, when you gotta go, you gotta go."
What made you stop selling on the street?
I was ready to try something new, and spend the winters inside. When I was offered a job as a painting assistant at Oliphant Studio, it was a nice transition. I suddenly had a nice steady paycheck. It allowed me to slow down and re-group with what I wanted to do creatively. I worked at Oliphant Studio for three years.
What kind of stuff did you do there?
I assisted Sarah Oliphant in painting large scale backdrops for photography, fashion, film, and television.
What was that like?
It was a lot of fun. I learned so much about painting large scale things. I learned all kinds of cool techniques, how to deal with clients, how to organize my time...and just how to take care of myself in general while I was working.
I worked with two great folks, Sarah and Wendy. The painted backdrops that we made appeared in all kinds of magazines, among other things...
What kind of magazines?
Ah geez, so many. Vogue, Vanity Faire, Elle, Marie Clare, O Magazine, Newsweek, Italian Vogue, Korean Elle, Rolling Stone...
When did you get interested in illustrating children's books?
Well, I've always been interested in that. When I was selling on the street, my artwork was geared for kids, and I was submitting illustration samples constantly to publishing houses, without any luck. I had the drive, but my illustration skills were very rough.
How did you become better at illustrating for kids?
When I started working at Oliphant Studio, I suddenly had the time, energy and money to take a few classes at SVA to help me improve my illustration skills. This was a big turning point for me. I took one amazing class in particular at SVA, taught by writer and illustrator Brian Floca, where I really learned how to write and illustrate for kids in a much better way.
Why did you quit working at Oliphant?
I was ready to try something new. My husband and I were ready to leave New York and head to Oregon so we could stretch our creative limbs a bit. New York is amazing and I will always love it, but I wanted to try making a living as an illustrator, and Portland seemed like a beautiful, affordable, and fun place to try that. We moved here in 2006.
How do you like Portland now?
I love Portland. It's been everything I'd hoped for, and more.
Have you been able to make a living as a freelance artist?
Luckily, yes. I definitely hit the ground running when we first moved here. I didn't have a lot of money saved, so I just started trying everything to see what would work.
What kind of things worked? How did you make money?
I traveled a lot (still do), to different craft fairs... Renegade Chicago, Renegade New York, fairs in California, Crafty Wonderland here in Portland...and sold paintings and prints of my paintings.
I just tried to get my artwork seen, as much as I could. I also showed work at several SCBWI conferences, which is how I eventually signed with my agent.
Who's your agent?
James Proimos, a really talented writer, illustrator, agent, animal lover, and all around great guy.
What has James helped you do?
He's helped me to get several book contracts with two great publishers, Roaring Brook Press and Dial.
Do you have any books out now?
My first book, The Secret Circus, just came out at the end of March, 2009. It's available at Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, Macmillan and all kinds of bookstores all over the world!
I have also done the illustration for Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage, which became available on August 18, 2009.
Wow, how does that feel?
Really, really great. I'm so happy.
How do you spend your days?
Well, every day is a little different, but I mostly split my time between writing and drawing at home, and painting at my studio. Sometimes it takes a lot of coffee to keep me focused. That's probably the toughest thing about being my own boss, keeping myself on task...I tend to drift around aimlessly quite a bit.
What's your favorite board game?
Do you have any pets?
Two cats: Gordon Freeman and Worfy. Before that we had a great cat named Grandpaw. RIP Grandpaw. We miss you so!
Do you have any kids?
We have one beautiful daughter, Juniper! Born in September, 2010. We are so grateful and happy to have such a special person in our lives!