Monday, October 21, 2019

Interview with Tenaya Lena Gunter Brown, 2019 SCBWI LA Mentorship Award Winner

This interview series introduces the talented recipients of the SCBWI Mentorship Award at the 2019 Summer Conference. Please welcome Tenaya Lena Gunter Brown to the KidLitArtists Blog!

Tenaya grew up in East Oakland with a cat, Sam the rat, four rabbits, one big sister, a dwarf hamster, a dog, a cockatiel, and two dancers for parents. She spent most of her time making art, dancing, playing in the mud and befriending caterpillars.

She never stopped loving picture books -- It only took her about 30 years to figure out she could make them! She’s drawn to picture books because of the way they make children feel seen, the way they take children places they never knew they wanted to go. 

Tenaya’s currently living in Ohio with her forever fella, whom she met while attending Sarah Lawrence College. She loves watching light and shadow spread across the page, letting colors bloom, and showing the tiny unnoticed things. When the blank page gets the best of her, you’ll find her making pottery, or in the woods catching up with her favorite clump of moss, and making friends with critters that often seem in a hurry to get somewhere else.

Did the feedback you received during the mentorship critiques either changes or confirm the direction of your illustration? Are there any specific examples you can share? 
Both :)  All of the mentors were so thoughtful with their insights. They helped me see the WHY in everything: why things were or weren’t working, why people were responding to one piece and not another.

They confirmed I was heading (mostly) in the right direction with my recent work -- the girl walking through the orange hills for example, or baby bear discovering the joy of wearing a silken dress. But also that I had apparently been heading in the other right direction with some of my older work, which I had stepped away from because of overthinking what the industry wants. (Robert the mouse is still feeling a bit chuffed over the complements he received.) I started most of those illustrations with a very clear sense of narrative in my mind. This experience taught me that I create my strongest work when I can already see the story unfolding in my mind. And when I’m being true to myself. So, I’m doing a bit of a 180: heading back while still moving forward with my new explorations.

The most encouraging bit was that I was told I had a clear voice. Hearing that felt like I was given the permission I needed to just keep being me, making sure to listen to my own instincts and not over think what is “wanted” by the industry, but instead what is wanted by the five year old inside me. 

What kind of projects are you working on now? 
I’m developing two stories that are the inspiration for a few of my portfolio pieces. And then planning to fill out my portfolio with that story-driven work (I currently have a lot of one-offs). My other focus since the conference is doing more life drawing and character developement. I was told I need to be more specific with my faces and main characters, so I’m really trying to find my comfort zone and find specificity within stylization. I’m also making tons of pottery! It’s been wonderful having something to work on that’s just for me!

Is there any type of illustration (or other work) that you’re hoping for in the near future?
My big hope is to make picture books. Books that speak to the deep quiet feelings and emotions we all have and can sometimes feel alone in. Books that tell stories about wonder. Stories that show the kids usually on the outskirts of stories, the introverts, the sidekicks, the ones that sit at the edge of the group, listening, or who would rather chat with a caterpillar. Stories that say you don’t have to be a social butterfly, you’re still a butterfly.  Inclusive stories that show all kids experiencing these things. Stories with magic. Giant flowers and snails. Stories that are about the feeling you get when you first step into a cold creek, and from under the ripples of the water you notice the shimmer of a tiny fish, peeking out from under a rock. And stories about the fish and how it feels when from above the ripples of its watery home a giant foot plunges down before its eyes. 

I’m excited to tell my own stories, but would also love to illustrate for an author who is telling everyday stories about what it is to be a child in this crazy world, the wonders, the hurts and the thrills. 

Is there one really helpful piece of advice that you’ve gotten since pursuing illustration?
I have no memory of who said this… Seek out inspiration everywhere. While “butt in chair” is very important and I need to keep it up, when I give myself permission to not work, to go for a walk without a sketchbook, read poetry, take a pottery class, look at art that isn’t illustration, watch TV even, that’s when I come back to my studio with the most energy and make the best work.

Any one piece of bad advice? 
Hmmmm, not that I can think of. Does “Hey, my father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate wants to write a picture book! You should illustrate it!” count? 

What was one of your favorite quotes or lessons from the SCBWI Summer conference? 
Both Corinna Luyken and Juana Martinez-Neal spoke to the importance of patience. By being vulnerable and sharing just how many dummies they made, how many years were spent on one book or years spent just living what life sent them between books, they both made me feel that my story is valid.
A few choice words I have jotted down… “choose courage over comfort”, “be vulnerable, love, repeat” (I think both Corinna), “be as willing to give as you are to get help” (Juana I believe). 

What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?
East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren, Frederick by Leo Leoni, The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, Sylvestor and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, The Maggie B by Irene Haas, The Moon Lady by Amy Tan and illustrated by Gretchen Schields, Outside Over There and In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, Tar Beach by Faith Ringold, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander -- oh gosh, this could go on forever…

Where can we see more of your artwork Come find me on instagram :)  @tenayalena  

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