One of the reasons I'm such a sucker for children's books because the illustrations can be so magical! I recently came across The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota in the local writer's section at Barnes and Noble and its spirited illustrations caused me to write down the name of the illustrator, Mike Wohnoutka. I thought I'd try and interview him so I Googled him and contacted him with the email he had listed on his website. We met up for an informational interview on November 23rd at a Caribou Coffee in Minneapolis. Mike is so awesome and so willing to lend advice. It's obvious that Mike's amazing self motivation has led to his deserved success.
Here's some information on Mike's background:
"Ever since Mike can remember he knew he wanted to be an artist. His dad, who was an engineer at the Hiway Department, would bring home reams of paper that had hiway plans on one side and were blank on the other. Mike would be so excited to have all that paper to draw on and would fill each sheet with race cars, snowmobiles, baseball players, super heroes, everything he was interested in. In high school his art teacher, Mr. Chase, encouraged Mike to pursue art as a career. This, along with a scholarship, led him to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Since graduating with a B.F.A. in Illustration, Mike has worked with various clients including Random House, Dutton Children's Books, Clarion Books, Holiday House, Cricket Magazine Group, General Mills, 3M, Medtronics, Mpls-St. Paul Magazine, Peaceable Kingdom Press, Scholastic School Productions, and City Pages."
Mike was expected to be an engineer like his father and interned at his father's company for 2 summers. I think it's pretty impressive that he was able to escape influence and go for his dreams! Mike told me that when he won his scholarship to SCAD, he intended to study graphic design being that it was the most lucrative option. However, as a student Mike attended a presentation by illustrator David Shannon which motivated him to become a children's book illustrator.
When Mike graduated from SCAD with the highest honors he was very optimistic about his future as an illustrator. He moved home to Minnesota after graduating, and when the rejection letters kept coming he realized that pursuing a career in illustration would be more difficult than he originally thought.
Mike then moved to Minneapolis and got a job at a commercial sculpture studio. This ended up being an important job for Mike because he was surrounded by artists with similar dreams to his; it was here that Mike met his best friend who also aspired to become a children's book illustrator. At this time, Mike was still sending out illustrations and was receiving rejections, however he did land the cover of a Delaware-based magazine.
Mike slowed down on submitting his illustrations for a while because he was burnt out on receiving rejections. However, after 2 years Mike went back to his rejection letters and realized that they were all very supportive and encouraging, but he hadn't really let himself see that.
Mike worked at the sculpture studio for 5 years until Random House saw that magazine cover and contacted him. This, along with the reading of the rejection letters strengthened Mike's confidence, which pushed him to get involved with local illustrators and travel to New York City to meet with editors at other major publishing houses. On his trip to NYC, a Clarion editor liked a drawing of a cowboy that he had on his business card, and had him send a full-sized painting of it. Four to six months later the editor contacted him because a writer had seen the painting and had written a story to accompany it. This became Mike's first book, Cowboy Sam and Those Confounded Secrets. After that, his career took off and he's never had any breaks in work and he's now illustrated 12 published books!
The life of an illustrator:
-A typical day for Mike is dependent on where he is in the project. He typically does his art work in the mornings and the business stuff in the afternoon.
-Mike says that the most rewarding part of the job is interacting and connecting with readers. He also loves the process of working on his art; it's a constant learning process and he is constantly striving to improve.-Mike says that the most difficult part of his career is dealing with editors, because it can be frustrating to be constantly altering his work.
-I asked Mike if he thinks his job is affected by eBooks and digital downloading. He said that for him, there are not many changing trends in the industry. If anything, there is more encouragement for young children to read books and interact with books.
-Some of Mike's goals are to keep growing, keep doing what he's doing.
Mike thinks that the qualities that make someone successful are passion and self motivation-driven by the love of your art. Mike's been able to keep up with his passion by taking risks. Mike's advice is to be persistent. It can be so easy to be discouraged. Mike felt like he lost time when he was putting away rejection letters instead of taking them as positive feedback; he wasn't being persistent. One of the most valuable things that Mike shared with me is that the paintings that he's done for himself are the ones that end up being most popular with everyone.
We talked about The Artist's Way and Mike also recommended another book to me, Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd--it's on my Christmas list!
Thank you so much Mike!