Illustrator Steven Reddy is a man of many hats – most notably being a second grade teacher and an illustrator. Steven’s work captures the beauty in the every day – turning the mundane of crowded boutiques stuffed with kitschy articles into works of art that make you stop and look – turning ghost towns and abandoned buildings into drawings that are so inviting you actually want to go find these abandoned places an explore them. Steven’s book, Now Where Was I?, is a walk through his life from 1979 through 2013. As we traipse through his sketchbooks we are transported into the life of an extraordinary illustrator and an ordinary man. Steven recently sat down with us here at Print to discuss his book as well as give us some insight in to how he goes about choosing moments to capture in his sketchbook as well as how you too can start your own sketchbook diary.
What inspired you to not only write a memoir, but to sketch it out as well?
Sketching and writing go hand-in-hand for me. From Ancient Egyptian murals, the Column of Trajan, the Bayeux Tapestry, and to animation and the graphic novels by Art Speigelman and Robert Crumb, separating words from pictures seems arbitrary. What are punctuation marks but subtle pictographs to clarify meaning and show emotion? We use emoticons, little pictures, to make sure our email recipients understand we are making a joke or that we are flirting with them. My interest in writing and drawing emerged together as a way of communicating.
I began sketch-booking in earnest at 16, when a friend in my high school in Anchorage showed me his sketchbook. This was in 1978, long before Urban Sketchers and the sketch-booking movement that has become so popular now. He was the first out and proud gay friend I had. He was very popular at our school, and though I’m straight, his candor, charisma and confidence was very inspiring.
His sketchbook combined words and pictures in a way I’d never seen before and it immediately resonated with me as the perfect way to chronicle not only daily events, but also my thoughts and feelings about those events. As I mention in Now Where Was I?, I bought my own sketchbook after seeing his and began filling it and haven’t stopped. I’ve filled over 50 8 1/2” x 11” books so far. More than one a year since I began.
I’m also an avid reader, and, as for many baby-boomers, the memoir seems the most personal of the genres. Other than books on art, memoirs are mostly what I read. If I read a book about a sketcher, I want personal details, to get to know the person behind the drawings. So when I wrote my book, I set out to write the kind of book I would like to read.
Sketch-booking as I do, in a sort of diary form, makes me tend to view my experiences as stories, with beginnings, middles and ends, so they can be recorded in a way that gives them meaning, a structure, otherwise the entries would be just lists of what happens. Ever listen to a young child recite her dream? Boring as hell, because there’s no arc, no resolution. So for me, even silly little interactions with a barista, or a notion that occurs to me while at the gym, settle into a narrative structure. I was relieved when the reviews for NWWI? came out and readers commented on the psychological aspects of the book, and that they “got” it.
Now Where Was I? has some undoubtedly personal moments and depictions of your life included, like all memoirs, but you had the added punch of illustrating some of these tough times in your life. What was the hardest part to write about for you?
There are people in my life, family and friends, that play prominent roles in making me who I am, but writing about them would invade their privacy and expose them in ways that would make them uncomfortable. I’m happy to open myself up, but I couldn’t do that to them. Some even asked me specifically not to include things they weren’t ready to share. Fortunately, I had way more material than I could include in this one book.
One might think it would be difficult to write about my brother’s death, or having my son taken away from me at such a young age, but both of those issues are mitigated by how much time I got to spend with my brother and by how well my son is doing and how close we are. I had a long, detailed dream about my brother just last night, and talked on the phone with my son this afternoon. I have only good memories and a full heart for both these guys.
A more difficult part of writing Now Where Was I? was editing out stories for practical reasons, such as page count and the cost of printing such a huge book. I went to China thinking I would write about my experiences as a foreigner. I drew and took notes for a year, every day I was there. But when I returned from Asia, I holed up at my father’s place in Iowa and wrote a 300-page memoir about an entirely different, earlier part of my life. I decided that I would set that text-based memoir on the back-burner and base the current book on my best drawings, making sketching the central idea, and only include anecdotes that I’d illustrated, so the text would support the artwork.
I’ve gone back to the written memoir now and am busy illustrating it as a graphic novel. That book, with the working title, Here, I’ll Show You, should be ready by winter 2014/15.
I think it is safe to say that drawing is definitely a creative outlet for your emotions and an effective therapy to help you process what’s going through your mind and sorting out your emotions. What made you decide to start sketching your life? Did you see it as an outlet at the time?
Sketchbook journaling is a great way to gain objectivity. I allow myself to take more risks and to make bolder decisions if I view the experience as fodder for a scene or section of an upcoming book. Moving to China or quitting my job to make art would have been unthinkable if I hadn’t had the goal of acquiring experiences to depict. I think most people instinctively, consciously or not, cast themselves as the protagonist in their life’s bio-pic. We remember episodes and package memories in frames that justify or explain our behavior. When I first started journaling, I was experimenting with defining myself. Am I sensitive or just sentimental? Independent or just selfish? Thoughtful or just a slacker? Learning to separate what others needed to see in me, from what I wanted to be was a main theme. Now I focus more on relating anecdotes in an amusing, or at least engaging way.
Your book is packed full of your own trials and tribulations, what do you hope your readers take away from this glimpse into your life?
I’m grateful to artists such as Nicholson Baker, Louis CK and Robert Crumb, for their bravery in depicting themselves truthfully. I drew a page in my journal depicting some of my heroes and they are all trailblazers in the art of candor. At heart, we all have the same fears and desires, so it’s wonderful to discover a kinship with someone who has managed to ignore their inner censor and share their truth. Like that high school student who let me read his private journal, I’d like to do the same for others. I regret being a little conservative in NWWI?. I was hesitant to offend some people. In the book I’m currently working on, Here, Let Me Show You, I’m determined to be braver, despite knowing I’ll lose some of the more provincial fans of my Urban Sketching.
I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of sketchbook memoir, what are some tips you have for myself and other artists about embarking on a journey like this? Were there any pitfalls you found in recording these moments in your life?
Treat your sketchbooks like you would a really good friend: be honest, and be forgiving. Easier said than done, I know, especially in the beginning, but it can be comforting. Check out the Urban Sketchers and Everyday Matters online communities and go on a sketch crawl in your local chapter. These are interesting, easy-going people who are encouraging and helpful. Carry your book with you all the time. Doodle at the DMV, or in the lobby of your dentist. Illustrate the highlights of your day. Draw a comic about that embarrassing thing you did as a form of exorcism. Let it become a habit. Use whatever tools you like. Have fun with it and say “yes” to every impulse that leads to making marks on the pages. The only pages I regret are the ones I didn’t draw. Whatever works, just say “yes.”
To check out more amazing artwork and find out more about Steven Reddy check out his blog and pick up a copy of his book, Now Where Was I?, available at his Etsy store!
Want more Steven Reddy and Urban Sketching? Check out his and other great artists’ essays in An Illustrated Journey available now at MyDesignShop.com!