artist interview

Interview with Adam Gustavson, Illustrator of Hannah’s Way

Welcome, Adam! Readers, enjoy this interview with Adam Gustavson, illustrator of the award-winning children’s book Hannah’s Way; the interview is part of the Sydney Book Awards Blog Tour.

Description of the book: After Papa loses his job during the Depression, Hannah’s family moves to rural Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. When her teacher tries to arrange carpools for a Saturday class picnic, Hannah is upset. Her Jewish family is observant, and she knows she cannot ride on the Sabbath. What will she do? A lovely story of friendship and community.

Hannah's Way

How did you decide how Hannah should appear? her family? the scenery? Did you do research on the period’s clothing and style?

That a good question. Before I even picked up a pencil, I immersed myself in images of people from the 1930s. I looked at as many ancestry web sites as I could and thumbed through books of costumes and period photography. I also dug as far into Orthodox Judaism as I could, just trying to make sure the family in the book didn’t fly in the face of some hidden clause from Leviticus that I didn’t know about.

I looked at lots of sale items on ebay, trying to keep in mind that the era a story takes place in isn’t really the era of the stuff in it, it’s the cut-off date for said stuff. The couches, the lamps, the architecture, all of that has to predate the story. And if someone in the story is dressed in hand-me-downs, well, now we’re looking at fashion from the late ’20s…

As far as the characters themselves, I rely as much as I can on instinct. Granted, I research hairdos and ethnic bone structure and think about people I know or have known that fit a temperament or demographic, but one of the really important aspects of being able to draw the same person, active and emoting for 32 pages, is to really believe that they’re the right person for the job.
Hannah's Way - Hannah's family

How did you team up with the author, Linda Glaser?

Illustrating books is a sort of funny thing; the whole affair is orchestrated by the publisher, so as it was Joni Sussman at Kar-Ben who contacted me about illustrating the Hannah’s Way.

What inspired you to become an artist?

I’ve always drawn; my mother was an artist when I was growing up, and my brothers and I drew like most other kids would play ball. It was a big part of how we played together. My father, an engineer, used to come home with art supplies he’d picked up for us on his way home from work. I grew up in the only household for miles and miles where a crisis consisted of my mother trying to find out just who took her kneaded eraser.

When I went to college, the toss up for me was between becoming an artist or becoming a musician. So again, I was pretty much the only person I knew who went into art because it was the more practical choice.

I love the illustrations you did of commuters on a train
What advice would you give someone who wants to improve his/her drawing skills?

gustavson summer sketch on train

There are two things I’d say; the first and foremost is to draw everything all the time. The way I put it to a student recently was that if what you really want to draw is Spiderman, at some point you’ll have to figure out what kind of furniture Aunt May has in her living room. A big part of making art is experiential, which is to say you don’t really know what something looks like until you try to draw it, and really explore it in your drawing.

Another important aspect is to be influenced by things that aren’t specifically what you want to do. This goes for technique, subject matter, and high falutin’ compositional stuff. A high profile example of this idea at work is in Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcuts, and the way that it translated into how he used paint, but it exists to some degree almost everywhere.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a really sizable project for Holt’s Christy Ottaviano Books imprint, called “Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story,” written about the co-founder of the Band by his son, Sebastian Robertson. It involved over thirty oil paintings and real life protagonist that had to age about 30 years in the course of the narrative, which was a bit of a challenge.
Rock and Roll Highway, illustration by Adam Gustavson
You seem like you have worked on many books and illustration projects – which were your favorites?

My two all time favorites have been Leslie Kimmelman’s “Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt!” and Bill Harley’s “Lost and Found,” the latter of which just came out this past fall. From a concept, design and storytelling perspective (the Alice Roosevelt book was very research heavy, to boot), both projects had a lot of freedom involved and called for a really dynamic range of images. Any project that calls specifically for a 1904 Studebaker or leaves room for a stuffed flying badger can’t be all that bad.
Mind your manners by Adam Gustavson
Can you tell us a little about the zombie project? How did you get involved in that one?

I was invited by illustrator Bryan Ballinger, a friend of Pete Mitchell, a cartoonist and the singer for the band No More Kings, to participate in an anthology of zombie comics, which was an impossible thing to say no to. The idea as I understood it was to have the book available for release at the same time as the band’s latest album.

I batted around several ideas over the course several months before writing up a conversation between two undead companions, one of whom was having an existential crisis.

What is the hardest part of illustrating a book? What part is the most rewarding?

The hardest part is not the “getting started” part, having 32-40 blank pages staring back from a computer layout, though sometimes it seems like it could be.

The hardest part for me is the part I call Page 28 Syndrome: being in the home stretch of something that has been lived with for six to nine months, and putting finishing touches on that scene that every book has that happens right after the conflict is resolved but the story hasn’t ended yet. It feels like 101st mile of a 100 mile run, where instead of running you’re just consciously lifting your knees to get to the end, and trying not to trip. That right there, that’s the hardest part.

The most rewarding part for me was always the moment before a project was shipped off the the publisher, looking at everything spread out on the floor in order.

But truthfully, grade school appearances are really the thing that does it now. The whole process of making books can be so isolating, so much about high minded professional practices done in a cave, that it’s not hard to lose sight of who these things are really for. Wandering around among actual humans ‹ preferably short ones ‹ with a book is really my favorite part.

And I think it’s a reminder of why that page 28 syndrome thing is important to get through. There are plenty of examples out in the world where adults cut corners or cheap out on things for children because they think their target audience won’t notice. And often they’re right. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Children deserve better things than that, whether they’ll recognize it or not.

The worst thing we can do as people in the creative class is willfully accustom our audiences to mediocrity.

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To learn more about Adam Gustavson, you can visit About the book Hannah’s Way, see:

Interview with Artist Debra Walk

Debra Walk city needlework
Leora’s note: I’m not sure how I first connected with Debra Walk, but we seem to have 22 friends in common on Facebook. I enjoy seeing her beautiful artwork, so I asked her a few questions to learn more. Enjoy.

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I loved art from an early age, and my high school art teacher told me that I should seriously pursue art, but by the time I reached my teens, I somehow developed the idea that art was not a valuable profession and decided that I wanted to do something medically related as a profession, and art would be my hobby.

2) Please describe the work you do.
I’ve worked in various media over the years – calligraphy, paper cutting, polymer clay, and, most recently, fabric.

When I was younger, I loved the exactly measured type of calligraphy that I did then, but after a while, I felt a need to work in a softer and less exacting medium. I was living far away from my children and grandchildren at the time and wanted to make them things for them that they could cuddle with and wrap around themselves and not just hang on their walls. This led to my beginning to work with fabric.

My “bread and butter” work involves making Challah Covers and Platta Covers, and I guess they fall more into the design category, but in between producing these, I like to work on new art ideas, often involving Hebrew quotations. I’ve had a running list in my head for probably 35 years of some of my favorite quotes and i enjoy interpreting them in the various media that I work with. There are also some basic design ideas that I’ve used over and over with variations, and I’ve come to consider them as a basic part of who I am an what I’m doing in the world.

I enjoy making family trees, often ordered by customers as gifts celebrating 50th anniversaries. It’s a pleasure to help people celebrate their family life. Over the years I’ve done family trees as paintings, paper cuts and fabric art.

I’m currently experimenting with combining my two favorite types of art/craft and doing brush calligraphy on fabric and also reinterpreting some of my paper cut ideas in fabric..

3) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?
I use Facebook and LinkedIn, but I really have to work on that. I have a tendency to use these social media once in a while, and then forget about them for long periods of time.

I love (see, the online crafts marketplace comprising hundreds of thousands of crafts shops. It has revolutionized the crafts and handmade market, offering international exposure and highly attractive terms of sale for artists and craftspeople and I truly have only good things to say about it. It also is a social medium in its own right – you can follow artists of your choice, correspond with them, “heart” their stores or work and even create your own “treasuries” of favorite items that may be shared with others.

I must also mention Pinterest (see, not as a means of promotion, but as a fabulous way of enjoying the vast array of visual treats available on the intenet and collecting visual ideas. It’s hard to express how much I enjoy looking at the stream of exquisite photography, whether landscape or wildlife, gorgeous gardens, waterfalls, forests, etc. I actually have begun to recite the phrase “מה רבו מעשיך ה’ כולם בחכמה עשית, מלאה הארץ קניינך” “How many are your works Hashem, all made in wisdom, the earth is filled with your creations (loosely translated)” as I surf the Pinterest boards, enjoying my armchair exploration of the wonders of the world.

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?

Self-expression, work is fun, I feel as if I have little pieces of myself in homes around the world, at people’s Shabbat tables, etc.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?

The many art books I own, Pinterest, as described above, nature, various man-made goods I encounter in the world around me (textiles, housewares, children’s books). I also am an avid reader of “middle-brow” fiction, which nurtures my soul and thus, in some way, inspires me.

6) What are the hard parts of being an artist?

Discipline, disciple, discipline…I’m not naturally disciplined.

As someone who has a very strong critical voice in my head that tells me, among other things, that being an artist is a silly way to spend my life, I’d like to share a teaching that I once learned from Sarah Yehudit Schneider of A Still, Small Voice.

Sarah Yehudit takes the second half of the verse from Psalms, “פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון” and instead of the usually interpretation that seems to state that God fulfills our desires, says that it means that He provides each of us with our (deepest) desires, the ones that are connected to each person’s individual purpose in the world. thus, if one loves to play with fabric and color, that is somehow connected to that purpose.

That has become how I talk back to that negative voice.

I hope you have enjoyed this interview with fabric artist Debra Walk.

Interview with Artist Anna Abramzon

interpretation of Jerusalem with figures and pomegranate, painting by Anna Abramzon
Interpretation of Jerusalem with figures and pomegranate, painting by Anna Abramzon
Anna Abramzon

I “met” the artist Anna Abramzon when she followed me on Twitter recently. I took one look at her Twitter background (good reason to spend time on one’s Twitter background, especially if you are in a design/graphic/visual profession), and I thought, oh, this is lovely line work and color! So I clicked on her website, enjoyed her portfolio, and here she is, agreeing to an interview on my blog.

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

I don’t really remember a time before wanting to be an artist, it was always just kind of a given. My earliest childhood memories are of turning on my parents’ record player (that’s what we had in the Soviet Union in the 80’s!) and spending every morning listening to records and drawing for hours before the rest of the family woke up. Throughout my childhood my parents really encouraged and fostered my love for art. They saw that this was definitely my calling, so they sent me to classes, found me private tutors and exposed me to amazing artists from a young age. It was a natural progression from that to where I am now. When I was graduating high school I didn’t even apply to regular universities, only art schools, there was no doubt in my mind.

2) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?

I love social media! It has really changed my day to day life in an amazing way. I am totally fascinated by the new dialogues and relationships that social media opens and I am constantly discovering new sources of inspiration online. There are all these new channels open to artists now, it’s such an exciting time. I post new art on my facebook page ( and I share things on twitter (@AAartStudio) and my website ( all the time. I also occasionally have free art giveaways and special discounts for my FB fans and Twitter followers.

3) When did you start doing Jewish art? Ketubot?

wedding invitation by Anna Abramzon

I was always an artist and a very proud, active Jew, but I had a hard time merging the two identities. As an artist I longed to paint about my passions, including my love for Israel and my Jewish identity, but painting scenes of Tel Aviv or Jews praying at the kotel just didn’t excite me. I struggled a lot with this in art school. While I wanted my art to speak honestly about who I am, I was also wary of becoming cliché or cheesy. After college I moved to Israel where I lived for four years. In Israel I found myself drenched in “Jewishness” every single day. In Israel being a Jew is so easy and inherent that you no longer really have to think about it. Ironically it was this immersion which finally allowed me to gain enough distance and perspective to be able to paint about being Jewish while staying away from overplayed, obvious imagery. It was also there in Israel that I met and married my husband. We had one of those uber intense, passionate love stories that would have made cynical art student Anna gag a few years prior. Naturally I wanted to channel all these new found lovey dovey romantic feelings into art as well. That’s how I got the idea to paint our ketubah, our wedding invitation and pretty much everything else that could possibly be painted for a wedding. After our wedding, other people started asking me to create ketubot for them. I found that people were coming to me specifically because I was not a typical ketubah artist. My work always was and remains quite figurative, which is not what people usually expect from Judaica and I think that was the appeal… that I came from a different background with a different vision, which allows me to create a contemporary, modern twist while maintaining the beauty, colors and and symbolism of traditional of Judaica. Be sure to visit Anna’s new site of ketubot.

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?

I am never bored.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?

I have so many artists who inspire me! Some of my favorites are: Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud, Francesco Clemente, Goya, and Noshitomo Nara and I am often inspired by my favorite authors as well, I am a huge book nerd.

6) What are the hard parts of being an artist?

It never stops… it’s a job you can’t leave at the studio. Sometimes I’ll be having coffee with a girlfriend and I’ll think “Oh man, if I could just focus on this moment and stop drawing her in my head!!!!”

7) Can you talk a little about Valley of the Ghosts – it seems to be a comic strip about life in the Ukraine for a Jew. Is this autobiographical?

father killed in attack

Valley of the Ghosts is a work in progress… it’s a very long term project that I have been coming back to for a few years now. It’s a graphic novel about a group of new immigrants in Israel. It’s a compilation of stories based on actual people I knew, and it is partly autobiographical as well. The title “Valley of the Ghosts” is a translation of “Emek Refaim” in Hebrew, which is the name of the street I lived on in Jerusalem.

8) You do a variety of artwork, from comics to caricatures to paintings – what is your favorite medium or style?

That’s a hard question… it would definitely be between figure/portrait painting in watercolor and comics. They are just so different… figure paintings and portraits allow me to express emotions really organically, while comics allow me to articulate thoughts in a much more tangent way. It’s really two different languages but there is quite a bit of overlap as well, because it’s two parallel ways of creating a narrative… I think I need to keep mixing things up and developing all my different styles in order to grow as an artist.

Thank you so much, Anna, for this wonderful interview.


If you liked this interview, perhaps you will enjoy one of these related posts:


Interview with Lisa Palombo, Painter

I “met” Lisa when she friended me on Facebook. I took a look at her art both on Facebook and on her blog, and I thought, these are wonderful paintings! What a treasure to find in New Jersey. Here are a few questions she graciously answered for this blog:

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

When I was 9 yrs old. I went to my first summer art camp program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Oh I remember it so vividly. I overheard my teacher tell my mother not to worry because when I am older I will be able to “see” more. (I was the youngest in the class). That day, I forced myself to “see” more and painted a house with every detailed shingle on the roof. That painting won an award at the end of the summer. The president of RISD approached my mother to purchase the painting, but she declined. To this day, I challenge myself to look more than I think I know. I challenge myself everyday to paint better than yesterday. Little did I know at nine I “caught the creative bug” that has since fueled me for 44 years!

Thankfully, I have the painting on my bedroom wall. Every morning, it reminds me why I am an artist.

2) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?
I post on blog, twitter and facebook regularly so I can keep my collectors and followers current on new paintings (sometimes still wet on the easel), news and upcoming exhibitions. Also, it’s a great way for followers to join in on the conversation, especially on Facebook. Posting my next exhibition, 9th annual Spring Open Studio on Facebook helps spread the word virally. I still send out postcards to my list and press releases to periodicals. It all works together!

3) What advice would you give to other artists about marketing?

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?
Seeing magic happen.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?
Flowers and gardens. I think I was a fairy in my past life. :0)

For more on Lisa, visit:

Her next event: Spring Open Studio, May 1 & 2 (12-5pm) 55 Mountain Ave., Caldwell, NJ
china blue and citrus after the party peonies in the garden

Interview with Elke Reva Sudin

Lee Avenue in Brooklyn, illustration by Elke Reva Sudin
Lee Avenue in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn, illustration by Elke Reva Sudin

How did you get started doing art?
I have always been an artist. It is a personality disorder that somehow becomes acceptable when channeled through pen on paper.

What was your childhood relationship to art?


What is your training?
Growing up I had very little access to art or the artistic mentality. My parents are not artists and growing up in a religious school with no art program did not help either. I did what I could on my own but it was not until the age of 16 when I attended a pre-college program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that I understood for the first time how representing subject through mark making could be such an enlightening experience.

College furthered what I had gotten a taste of in pre-college. Each of my 4 years gave me a deeper understanding of how any art is conceived, designed and constructed. I received a BFA in Illustration at Pratt Institute, an art and design college in Brooklyn.

What motivates you to do art?
Drawing from life. I enjoy the experience of translating one mode of experience into another. The illustration is an end product of my excitement to study and reflect without too much questioning during the process.

What in particular do you find difficult about doing “Jewish” art? Any conflicts?
The problem with “Jewish” art is that Judaism is built on the concept that God is infinite and we are contained within God. Therefore all our our earthly experiences are illusions because everything that we see as being separate, is really one unified entity. Whenever I attempt a “Jewish” art piece, it seems pointless to show material garments, ritual items and customs, because those only exist for us to find a way to connect with the ephemeral. It boils down and boils down until not even a blank white piece of paper to gives off true meaning. There is a reason we are commanded not to make graven images, people get absorbed in the image and not the meaning. I think this idea has helped Judaism survive for so long by the fact that no matter where we are in the world, we as Jews have no attachment to ritual as connected to physical things. The idea survives even when large portions of the population is wiped out.

My connection to Judaism is through action. So it is rather my process of creating the art, in which I connect to the infinite connections and acknowledging the spiritual path that it follows, that bring me to an end product which I feel is Jewish. Because there is no separation between my being and my artistic product, the product is inherently spiritual.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to learn art? Illustration?
The best advice I can give is to draw from life. Often times we draw from experiences, but our memories have a funny way of selecting what we remember, which is very limiting. Drawing from life opens up the artist to nuances and connections that would be otherwise hidden. Using our hands, we as artists have an easier time connecting to different parts of our brains, resulting in “happy accidents,” and allow us to take something physical and transform it into something representational and meaningful.

I studied illustration because it takes the principles of art and design and applies them in a more directed setting suitable for performing commercial work compared to what is generally taught in the contemporary fine art educational setting. Direction is important, because without focus artists tend to turn to their own desire to be admired by others, rather than contributing their abilities to the enlightenment of the public.

Can you tell us about the Hipsters and Hassids project?

I constructed an illustrated book titled “Hipsters and Hassids: The Youth of Williamsburg North and South.” It is an investigative illustrative study which discovers the surprising similarities these seemingly polar opposite communities have in common. I went inside the neighborhoods, with a strong focus on the Hassidic side, particularly concerning the women, to see first hand what life is like behind the surface is like. One of the biggest misunderstandings (and commonalities) is that both sides are so off-putting. On the Hipster side they sell their look and lifestyle as a product. Life is valued by the self absorbed fascination with the party, the outfit, and obscure references to music and culture, but lacking any meaning which had once held strong associations to those things. On the Hassidic end of things they are very protective of preserving their customs and way of life and outside influences are harmful in that respect. The truth is that people are the same everywhere, there will always be people open and close-minded, self absorbed and absorbed in other things, those of respect and those who bring shame to the human race, but the important thing is to remember the unity that all people share. We are all a part of this world for a reason and an obsession with particular fashions just aint it.

Elke is looking for publishers and those interested in self-published copies.
selections from the book are featured here:

Please check out her website:
and blog updated constantly with new illustrations:

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