Conversation started 13 July 2015, 1:56 p.m.
CORDELL: Welcome aboard the Number 5 Bus, David! I’ll be your driver today, now hold on. It’s gonna be a wild, fast, bumpy ride. Kidding, this thing goes as slow as can be. So walk around, crack a window, enjoy the ride. Just don’t pull the cord until we’ve arrived at your stop.
I’ve been a big fan of yours since the first time I laid eyes upon Leaves.
That book remains one of my favorite picture books of all time. The text and art wrap together so seamlessly. Not a word out of place. (Even the dedication is full of heart.) One of my favorite parts is the opening sequence, where we get to know this very sweet, curious, childlike bear.
But what grabs me most, being someone who loves to draw with ink, is the very free way you use pen and ink and watercolor in the book. And that sort of approach goes for all of your books. There’s a very loose-limbed, liberated, fearless look to your books that I really respect. There’s a lot of great drawing. A lot of curiosity and experimentation. Which brings me to my first topic. Art.
I was listening to your recent podcast with Matthew Winner, and one of the things that stuck in my mind was when you talked about how you originally wanted to go into fine art, not exactly illustration, not children’s books. I’m always intrigued by folks who come into making books for children from some other place. I, myself, was doing graphic design and fine art in Chicago, before I got burned out enough on both of those paths and needed to find some other creative outlet that worked for who I’d become. (Which ended up being, of course, making children’s books.) I still love art museums, but not so much the gallery scene. I still get goosebumps when I walk up on a Cy Twombly, Francesco Clemente, a Jim Dine, a Diebenkorn.
And just study all the marks in those drawings and paintings. Look at all the history in the mark-making. And I love exploring art museums (all museums, really) with my family.
Art was not something my parents pushed me into—not something they were very interested in—but was it for you? Did your parents take you to museums and teach you about art or were your interests piqued in school (or someplace else)? Did you go to museums growing up and/or now too? And, lastly, what brought you from art aspirations to those in children’s literature and when?
STEIN: Hey there, Matt! How nice to be your passenger on the good ol’ Number 5.
I imagine you get to operate that squeaky lever that makes the doors pop open, which is so cool.
Anyhoo, yeah, I feel like we are totally cousins, b/c we share a lot of the same genealogy in terms of being descended from line-y illustrators who are acrobatic with the ink. And apparently we both paint or have painted in a fine art context as well.
This Cy Twombly is fun. It’s like one of those images where people say, My 6-year-old could do that. Maybe, but not when he’s 30. :)
So, it’s true: When I was a freshman in art school, my hero was Degas.
His pastels, in particular, were deliciously lush and yet scribbly and furious and energetic. He bridged the gap between drawing and painting, which is a fascinating place to be as an image maker. (And frankly, ya don’t have much of a choice about it, anyway.) Matisse said something about there being a constant struggle between line and color. I was relieved to hear this, coming from him.
When it was time to choose a major, my father, a graphic designer, advised me to go into graphic design. So I could be sure to make a living. I didn’t want to make a living; I wanted to make art. I split the difference and chose illustration. Basically, applied art. I am very glad I did, because applying image making to a concept—better yet, to telling a story—ensures functionality. In other words, it’s nice to be tethered to the bones of the story or idea, so you don’t go flying off into the ether.
And ironically it was my writing, and head for concept, that really got my career in books started, as it was the first thing to attract attention, even before graduation. I feel that I was able to break in by illustrating my own writing.
But I was always a writer, a doodler, a story-listener, and a museum-goer here in New York City, as a kid. In third grade, my class would take the school bus out of the suburbs and into Manhattan, to the Whitney Museum. I’ll never forget that thrill of the tall buildings suddenly sprouting out of the ground, the glittering sidewalks, and the cold brass. We had a lovely docent name Ms. Smith, (whom I had a crush on). She had a clipboard, and she’d sit us down in front of a painting for what seemed like 20 minutes, and elicit our responses to the art. Then we’d head back to class and try to recreate the techniques of the artist. That experience has never left me.
But I was surrounded with painters, musicians, writers, sculptors, photographers, as a child. It was in the air I breathed. My family is still that way (leaning toward the musical side). I didn’t really think much about it. There were art supplies and weird, old objects stashed here and there for me to discover. No one ever told me to make art; I just did. If they had told me to, I probably would rebelled and become a football player.
CORDELL: Very interesting. I know very little of Degas (or Matisse) and these images and ideas are really intriguing. Growing up with and into art, I often drifted toward more contemporary influences. I think I had a kind of hipster-y take on the whole thing, like, “oh… everybody’s heard of these modern and old world masters, I wanna go find stuff that’s more obscure, man!” Of course, now I can see that very limited view was a disservice. My family and I found ourselves at a massive Picasso retrospective here in Chicago a year or so ago and I was BLOWN AWAY. There was all this stuff I’d never seen because I’d basically breezed past his work. I mean, like, genius, vastly different, and groundbreaking stuff. There was this suite of etchings he did that took my dang breath away.
In short, I really need to go back and revisit my art history.
You and I grew up very differently, I think. This picture here sort of sums up the Cordell legacy.
It’s a smashed up racecar I saw the last time I visited my family down in South Carolina. My Uncle Johnny built/raced the thing. A bunch of the men in my family were and are incredible car guys. Hot rods, racecars, classic and vintage car restoration. My brother and I got dragged to so many car shows and pulled into greasy grunt work throughout our youth. But as you said, we rebelled and got into… punk rock and skateboarding. (Sure wish I knew more about cars now, though.)
It’s great to hear you talk about this breathing in of art from your urban upbringing (which is very different from my childhood). A lot of this is visible in your books. Your books have a very deep-rooted artistic approach, yes, but there’s also great urban visual influences in several, which I enjoy. (Because Amelia Smiled, Dear, Mouserella, Ol’ Mama Squirrel…)
I like to hear you talk about being a doodler, and dreamer, and being surrounded by art supplies too. Because this is also very much your books. And something I wanted you to talk more about. You’ve worked in a variety of approaches with completely different materials over the years. Many illustrators will pick a style or look and work in that direction, honing in and perfecting, on and on, etc. You bounce around a good bit. Pen and ink with watercolor on some books, all painting on others, there’s that really wild thing you did with Because Amelia Smiled. Your newest book Tad and Dad you drew in Crayola markers. You might work very differently, but the books are clearly yours, which is terrific.
Why do you choose to change up your approach like this? Do you get tired of doing the same thing? Does each book feel like it NEEDS to have a distinct technique? Is it both? Neither? Are you still surrounded by lots of art supplies and you start playing and think “that’s what I’ll do on my next one.”? I imagine it’s not just one thing, but I’d love to know more about it. I tend to walk down the same one path myself, but am inspired by those who do it otherwise. You’ve done some cool things over the years, and even—if memory serves—illustrated one book completely, then turned around and did it all over again with different materials. Do tell. Do show. Oh, and one more thing… were there any approaches that had you banging your head on the table by the end of it?
STEIN: Oh dude, one of my favorite books when I was a kid was this picture book about a young Pablo Picasso. Can’t remember the name, nor find it on the Internet so far. I didn’t know who he was at the time I read the book. All I knew was that he was a kid who knew that all seashells are a little different (his father asks why he collects them, declaring, “They’re all the same!”). He got in trouble for scratching “cave paintings” into the wallpaper behind the couch. He remains a kindred spirit: A playful adult! He never stopped exploring.
Seems like you gravitated toward explorers, too, just in a more modern era.
Man, I would have loved to have race cars around. I mean, what kid wouldn’t! They’re fast, noisy, and messy. And colorful, too. I had more of a quiet life, left to myself a lot, trying to make my own fun. I read all the time, avoided most sports because of asthma, suffered from hypochondria. The only way I knew to ride a skateboard was by lying on it and rolling down hills.
As to the urban thing, it’s in the blood. When I was in college the city was our campus, and we did a lot of reportage (drawing out on the spot). This has definitely fed into my book work.
There’s something humbling about being surrounded by every kind of person, every kind of architecture, music, food, clothing, religion, etc., etc. For me it feeds my desire to be aware and take it all in, as much as possible. And I suppose it feeds my restlessness in some ways.
So that leads to the dreaded question: Why do I change techniques? No simple answer.
Almost every book I do starts as simple, gestural, thumbnails in ballpoint pen.
Each time I sit down to illustrate my writing, I find it nearly impossible to repeat what I’ve already done. My hand simply rebels against the implement, and the pen or brush or whatever rolls to the floor. How do I justify this? Maybe I’m still digesting the plurality of my loves and influences; maybe the influence of heroes who did, and do, change it up (Uri Shulevitz, Paul Zelinsky, the Provensens, the Dillons, David Macaulay, et al.) And yeah! Being surrounded by art supplies. I still have bins of them that I sift through, trying to find the voice of the next book. Beyond that my art is influenced by my drawing and painting out in the world, and whatever type of medium I’m enjoying this year. Basically, my life keeps changing and I keep changing and I take my work so personally that I guess it changes right along with me.
But I think the main thing is that each project brings new design challenges. For instance I am working on a book about an ice cube right now. So I need to show that he’s made of ice, and that he’s alive, and what happens inside of the dark freezer. The style I used for Leaves or Dinosaur Kisses simply won’t fit. So I spin the wheel of art techniques.
Yes, I did illustrate Ol’ Mama Squirrel twice. I first tried a sort of Interrupting Chicken style for the book. I met my deadline, and in laying it all out in the publisher’s office, I said, “Can I do this again?” They gave me an extra month. Thank goodness! The second time around, some compositions resolved much better, and the overall art was clear, bright, and fresh. It was as if the previous set of art was a sketch. Not that I recommend doing that all the time, but in this case I needed to let the wheel spin a little further to get to the sweet spot.
The art for Amelia kind of overwhelmed me when I was working on it. It was just so BIG, so ambitious. And the technique I made up Stein-lining was a tad baroque. But the result is really unique and, I think, beautiful.
I don’t know if I would work quite that way again, but maybe some elements will find their way back in to new books. That’s the cool thing about mixing it up: you get a larger and larger quiver of techniques to choose from. Taking a risk is exhilarating and raises the stakes. Maybe that’s why it’s scary and fun.
CORDELL: Very eloquently said. I’m really impressed by folks who change it up (including our hosts here, the Steads). I’m always a little chicken about it, but I really want to play more in this way. I think deadlines and time constraints are usually my Achilles heel with all that, but it’s something I try more and more to make time for.
Going back to Amelia. Seriously… that book is an absolute triumph. Overwhelming, I can certainly see how you would’ve felt that way when making it. It’s very ambitious. I was just reading it again to my daughter a few nights ago, and I forgot how intricate, sincere, and densely layered it is. Bravo, man. The image above is one of my favorites. The Stein-lining stuff is totally bonkers. And I mean that in the highest of regard! And something else Amelia… I’d like to mention something you said in the podcast with Matthew Winner. You said when you were in school, you had made a dummy for this book and your teacher (was that Pat Cummings?) liked it enough to share with a publisher. There was genuine interest in the story at that time, but not so much in the illustrations you showed. This made me really curious. How did your art in that original dummy differ from your finished book? Personally speaking, I don’t always like to drag out old art, but I wonder, would you be willing to share?
I thought you might like that racecar pic. Isn’t there something so ugly-messy-beautiful about the whole thing? If you could see the rest of my uncle’s shop. And my Dad’s. An ugly beautiful aesthetic that’s not too different from the everyday look of my own studio, I suppose.
But it’s like I say: when the studio is completely trashed, that’s when I know something good is going on. That’s what I tell myself anyways.
It’s interesting to learn more about some of your struggles, at least earlier in life. The asthma, the hypochondria. I’ve always pictured you a rather laid back kind of guy. With a sort of take-it-as-it-comes outlook on life and art. Is this a fair assessment or am I completely off here? At any rate, I appreciate folks who can be like that in both personal and professional capacities. People who pay little mind to the trends, the book sales, the names, the social media. Me, I’m a little laid back (I think this is my southern upbringing), but I can be really neurotic and self-loathing at times. And I wish I could be more take-it-as-it-comes positive, particularly with my art and book making. Am I showing my hand too much with all of this?
(Love the ice cube.)
STEIN: Hey! Your studio looks a lot like my studio! A creative miasma of artistic notions made tangible. I love the Mr. Rogers poster. He was such an amazing person. He managed to speak directly to kids via his medium.
In all my changing of techniques, I feel and hope that perhaps it will all converge into one way of working. The style. But I don’t know. It seems like I’m still seeking, and perhaps always will be.
At the time I was really into Persian miniatures; illustrator Mitsumasa Anno; and painterly, collagey mixed media. As you can see, I was channeling those. (Oy, how embarrassing.) And somehow, I think you can see the future David Ezra Stein in this tiny sample.
Ugly-messy-beautiful. That brings to mind the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi. Which I feel is in a kindred spirit with the artwork I do. Also, I like to SEE the process in the finished work. The best thing I ever saw (well, one of) was Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures at the Accademia in Florence.
There one could see, frozen in time, the raw act of chipping these figures from the rock. How much more interesting that is than a polished image with no “way in” for the viewer!
Ah the “laid-back” thing. You know, people are always saying that! Even people who know me pretty well. I guess in a way it is true; I enjoy simple things like taking walks, cooking, playing with my kids, and all sorts of interactions with Nature. On the other hand, I am constantly thinking, creating, wondering, anticipating. It’s a lifelong struggle to turn off my brain once in a while. I wrestle with lots of self doubt and the like.
It is extremely challenging to make art in a commercial environment—that is to say, as a job—and still try to be true to one’s own vision and path of discovery. The pressures I can put on myself, as well as the pressures of being a public figure of sorts, doing appearances, maintaining a social media presence (not that I delve too deeply into that), being my own boss, managing a career, managing my time, etc., etc., can be toxic to the system.
I respect and salute all artists who in spite of all these challenges, have the courage, the skill, and the passion to create things of beauty for us all to enjoy.
CORDELL: Yes, I would definitely say that your books, though different in approach, retain a central style. That loose, optimistic, curious, free vibe I mentioned before. I’m beginning to put together (which I’d already guessed at) that this is indicative of your personality too. And all of it combined, it’s very genuine, very natural. Which is certainly a part of what draws me to your work. Your books feel very from-the-heart. I think if you did a book that was sewn up super tight in some way, things might appear to veer off course from the One Style. But, hmm. That could also be interesting and unexpected too…
The wife and I once visited Florence and Rome. It was many lifetimes ago (artistic and otherwise) and though I do remember those Michelangelo sculptures, I don’t remember a whole lot about them. (In the hall that leads to David, right?) Looking back, it was a wonderful but crazy trip. Among various weird happenings, I messed up my foot by walking over one too many cobble stoned roads while wearing too-cool-for-school, thin-soled hipstery shoes. I had to use my barely-there Italian language skills to procure a cane for the rest of the trip. (And also to find a proper pair of sensible shoes.)
I do remember being really blown away by finally seeing so much Michelango, Bernini, and Caravaggio stuff in person. Particularly this one.
I was stunned, walking up on that one. So much so that I slopped together this thing when I got home.
I was only just getting my nib wet with pen/ink at that time. Seeing as we’re in the spirit of sharing old work we must look back on with one eye closed. Thanks for sharing those early, early Amelias. I can see a bit of you in there, for sure. Most evident in that first piece.
Wabi-sabi. I like that. Very much. (I googled it.)
So now that you’ve seen my headquarters, this leads me to something I’ve been eager to learn more about. Some time ago on Facebook, you showed some photos of your studio space that had me instantly jealous. Apparently you (and others) have built a little cottage/hut/fort in the backyard that now serves as your studio. I’m down here sequestered in the cold and sunless basement of our house and I’ve often daydreamed of doing the same thing in our backyard. Can you talk about what lead to this move? Can you share photos of where your studio was before and give us a tour of the new digs? Details, man!
STEIN: Who knows what adventures the road will bring?
Yeah, I do think the unfinished sculptures are in that hall near the David. He was forced to leave town for some reason and had to leave them behind. Now, if he had been working in Sculpey….
That Caravaggio is awesome. It took me a bit to realize her head’s been severed! Too busy staring at the snakes and serious brow action. She seems pretty animated for someone who is dead. The Cordell version may have been long ago and far away, but it looks like your style for sure.
And now, the studio shed. Or cottage. Or Hobbit house. It’s still being made! After about 10 months of work. Keep in mind I’ve never done this before. I had built, maybe, a shelf?
I was running out of room in my apartment, what with two growing kids, and so I thought, It’s either commute 30 minutes to some expensive warehouse space in an industrial area of Queens, or build something in my mother’s backyard. (Formerly it was my grandparents’ property, and I spent many happy afternoons there playing “Thundercats”, etc.) She lives only a few minutes away.
So, after copious research, I built a foundation. That took a couple of months. Then I bought a kit. A friend of mine helped put it together. Since then I have been insulating, drywalling, tricking out in all other ways. It’s been an extremely long process and full of research, soul searching, drudgery, doubt, and new hope. Youtube videos have been largely very helpful. Just have to take a lot of that stuff with a grain of salt.
Actually, it has been a lot of fun, too. And something tangible I can do while hashing out the creative struggles of being an author/illustrator. I have always wanted to build a little house, a place of my own. And now it’s so close, I can taste it!
Everything is looking really great. EXCEPT…we had a big storm last week, and I got some water seeping into the building. So now it’s back to soul searching, researching, hemming, hawing, hair tearing, etc. If you wanna give yourself a wooly ride, read up on exterior siding best practices sometime.
Really I am just looking forward to it being done so I can use it as my art sanctuary. I already do pull up a stepladder for a chair and a workbench for a table and I paint and write in there. But you know. When it’s full of drywall, it’s not so peaceful.
So yeah. Just the sort of everlasting project for someone who loves to work with his or her hands.
CORDELL: Ahhhhhh. Lobel. A magnificent Lobel grasshopper must be accompanied by some magnificent Lobel crickets.
I was just reading Mouse Soup to my daughter the other night. We are always both so taken by and disgusted by the look of that weasel when he gets stung up by all those bees. Ewww.
The cottage. Wow. That is terrific! Such a story wrapped around that little building. I love that it’s on your family’s property. And that they’re a committed part of this thing. Really fascinating. I can see that it’s a lot of work, but also, somehow, that it wasn’t/isn’t that overwhelming. Maybe? Maybe it’s just the way you describe it. Maybe, again, it’s that sort of approach and vibe you bring to all of your projects. Things like this always seem so insurmountable to me. Working from home, raising two small children in the same home, it seems impossible, to me, to take on anything right now beyond kids and work. Kudos to you for this.
So, it seems like you’re still not up and running in the cottage. Are you currently operating out of your own home? What’s that look like? Give us some visuals, please, and don’t gussy up at all. We want warts and all. (I’m not sure who “us” or “we” are, I’m the only one sitting here typing this.) What’s it look like? What’s it smell like? What’s on the floor? (For instance, recently I’ve been finding, mysteriously, randomly, small dead bees on the floor of my basement studio. Not beautifully drawn Lobel-ian bees. Regular-old-bee bees. At any rate, the sort of bees, apparently, that are not fans of my work. sigh…) I recall seeing photos somewhere of your home studio (pre-cottage era). Facebook, blogs, something. As far as I can tell, you and I both keep (unkeep?) the same sort of space. Kindred spirits in that.
Simultaneously, can we (“we” again) get a glimpse of what you are currently drawing? I take it that it involves an ice cube. Are there any art studies, character sketches, experiments, along-the-way drawings to share as well? It’s always a treat to see how the, um, David Ezra Stein sausage gets made.
[Pardon us for a slight detour in conversation here…]
STEIN: Hey man,
Been meaning to send you this. I finally figured out how to get it off my iphone and make it into an MP3. It’s sort of an audio answer to the general theme we were talking about before (changing styles, etc.). It just came to me while I was working on my studio shed. It could be a segment of a longer song. Heck, it could be a whole musical, like The Producers, but with children’s books! Anyhow, I bet it’s the first sung answer to an interview on #5 Bus!
CORDELL: Ha! That’s great. I’m fairly certain that’s the first answer through song here on the The Bus. The bar’s been raised! Thanks for providing such a snappy tune. (This is gonna be in my head all day now. You know this, right?)
STEIN: Yes! It was stuck in my head all night.
[Aaaand, we’re back.]
The cottage is not done yet. My wife calls it our “third child.”
But the end is in sight. And really, it has given me a lot back. Makes me feel like I have roots, and on a piece of land where I often used my imagination as a kid. Allowed me to bond with some friends who helped work on it. Gives me something tangible to do in a profession that’s all in my head.
For now I am still in the apartment studio, my creative home for 3 years. This is a panorama of most of my studio, showing my propensity for drying towels on chairs.
Also, I am a “pile-r” when it comes to organizing stuff. So you can make out some piles on the radiator, etc. I am drowning in old sketchbooks, as you can see from the other photo of my “writing” desk—literally, a desk to hold lots and lots of writing, while making it impossible to sit down there and write.
Right now, I am working on a book called Ice Boy for Candlewick, which is about an ice cube that leaves the freezer. So I am wrestling with the properties of ice, as well as how to show various weather phenomena in a lighthearted and whimsical way. Ha ha! A cinch.
Here are some not-too-embarrassing sketches. You know how sausage making can be….
CORDELL: Terrific! As a studio should be. Disheveled mess, piles, drawings, various ephemera. Though, I think I have you beat on the clutter/mess/disaster vibe. Actually… I don’t know if that’s a win or a loss. Godspeed on the cottage baby. I look forward to seeing it fully broken in, in the days, weeks, months to come.
The ice cube and friends (foes?) look like so much fun, thank you for the peek. Can’t wait to find out what goes on with Water Boy and Vapor Boy. Clever stuff!
And with that… I have really enjoyed our time together on The Bus. Chatting, sharing, reminiscing, getting-to-knowing. But, the time has come and I think I see your stop coming just a block or two down. Is there anything you’d like to say or leave us with before you step off? Parting words or images?
STEIN: Yes, a creative clutter is nice. Did you ever read Mooch the Messy? One of my faves when I was a kid.
I seriously can’t wait to tell everyone the cottage is done. It’s been nearly a year and I want to finish before winter comes. It’s the old nesting instinct, I guess. As the season begins to turn to fall, I have that rush of energy experienced by a squirrel gathering nuts or a settler chopping firewood. I’ll send you a pic!
Matthew, this has been such a wonderful trip. I’m glad I happened along your route. Thanks for your thoughtful interview and thanks to our hosts, the Steads, for creating this platform in which to chat and explore.
I look forward to seeing your terrific work as we mosey along. As far as I can tell, there’s no road map for what we do. That makes it all the more exciting!
CORDELL: Farewell, good sir!
Now… because I’m the last one on the bus, and because I like to have the last word, I shall leave you with these David Ezra Stein out-in-the-neighborhood drawings I nabbed off of his Facebook page. (Which, I can only assume, led to his choice of materials for Tad and Dad.) I distinctly remember when he posted these because I was so jealous of them. I’m not much of an everyday sketchbook keeper and I kinda wish I was. I’m not much of a drawing-in-the-field type either, and I kinda wish I was.
There’s no road map to doing what we doooooo…. DANG IT!!
Conversation ended 8 September 2015, 7:04 p.m.