Talking with artist and children's author Stephen Johnson
A working wrench, screwdriver and pencil are not commonly found in children’s books, but the versatility of artist and Lawrence resident Stephen T. Johnson is reflected in his classic “My Little Red Toolbox,” an object which bridges the gap between book and toy.
Each day, thousands view his sculpture “Freeform,” located on the southwest corner of Sixth and Massachusetts streets, and in places like the DeKalb Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, or Love Field Airport in Dallas, his work offers color and energy to thousands more. But he may be best known as an illustrator of children’s books, from the dynamic realism of the basketball players in "Hoops," to the intriguing found images of “Alphabet City,” which received a Caldecott Honor, and its companion, “City by Numbers.”
Johnson blends beauty and text in a title published this year, “Alphabet School,” and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his life and work when he stopped by the library recently.
DC: You grew up in Lawrence and attended KU, but eventually studied in France and worked in New York. In what ways did your Kansas background prepare you for those experiences?
SJ: Lawrence is international in its own right. Our community is diverse, talented, and forward thinking — a wonderful stage for growing up then and now.
DC: Over the years you have found many images in and around Lawrence to use in your work.
SJ: Yes, all the images for my latest book "Alphabet School" derive from a selection of schools here in Lawrence, since we have such a range of architectural styles such as Langston Hughes (contemporary) to classic schools like New York and Pinckney.
DC: Your children’s book illustration has been a conduit for your mosaics, public sculptures, and 3-D installations. Do you feel more at home working in one particular medium?
SJ: I enjoy working in a range of mediums, particularly oil paint used to render both realistically and abstractly, but I am always open and interested in learning techniques where I have no idea what I’m doing. Keeps things interesting. Currently, I am working on a small series of abstract collages comprised of torn posters, magazines, etc., mixed with oil and acrylic paints. These are formal works created for gallery exhibitions and private sales such as one this weekend, where I will open my studio, located at 720 East Ninth St., No. 5, from 12-5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, for the sale of original art, posters, prints, and my out-of-print children’s books.
DC: As a veteran children’s book illustrator and designer, what kinds of changes have you seen in the children’s book publishing world over the years?
SJ: At the beginning of the 1990s, and when I first started illustrating children’s books, folktales and mythologies from various cultures were a popular subject matter. For example, I illustrated two different re-tellings of Japanese folktales — “The Samurai’s Daughter” and “The Snow Wife.” Both books included a lot of text as opposed to today, where text is extremely pared down to sometimes only a few words per page. This new trend provides a different experience for the reader as well as how I approach generating a children’s book.
DC: What advice would you give to those who aspire to work as a children’s book illustrator or visual artist?
SJ: Follow your passion and what brings you the most joy. You have to be really dedicated and diligent about the work you create. Also, do not let failure or rejection stop you. It is simply part of the journey. Regarding publishing and children’s books, I strongly recommend joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). There are local chapters in each state and conferences around the country. Typically there is a fall conference in Kansas City in October.
DC: Whatever happened to the hundreds of gumballs, Smarties, and other candies encased in Plexiglas you used for the letter C page in “A is for Art?” It’s one of my kids’ favorite images, but to me represents years of bribes I could dole out to them for good behavior.
SJ: Thank you! Yes, it is certainly a child friendly piece and kids also love the alliterative caption: “Countless colorful candies consciously collected, crammed, crushed, and confined crowd a clear circular container filled to capacity.” I currently have the artwork hanging in my studio awaiting a collector’s sweet tooth.
— Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at the Lawrence Public Library. In his other life he is a part-time stay at home dad with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and serves as secretary on the board of Dads of Douglas County.