Second year Sarah Dvojack talks about her work, Irish things, circuses and Harry Potter fan art. Interview by Michael Lauritano (Class of 2015).
Where do you hail from?
I come from Washington State. I was born and raised on Whidbey Island, which is 45 minutes Northwest of Seattle, then I moved to Spokane in 5th Grade.
What was it like growing up on an island?
It was idyllic! I lived on five acres. Our house was partially in the woods and we had a pasture in which we allowed people to board their horses. There was a thirty-acre field in front of us, and if you walked through that field you could get to the beach at Mutiny Bay. There were colorful maritime names for everything around there. There’s the Dungeness Spit. And Deception Pass. That’s a pretty famous bridge that connects to the mainland and is featured in a lot of films, such as The Ring and Twilight.
I understand that at a very young age you decided you wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. Can you describe what made you decide that?
Yes, in second grade I decided I wanted to become an author/illustrator (the slash is very important). I came to that through a Caldecott reading contest at our school. One of the author/illustrators came to visit and he signed books for us, so that gave me this window to the concept of this as a job.
What impressed you about this person? Did he seem grand?
Not at all, he was very normal. Which is probably why I liked him. He didn’t scare me. He seemed like just a regular person.
Let’s talk about the book project that you did with Marshall and Carl. The story took place on an island with an intrepid only child. Could this have been because of your childhood setting?
That story more came from the fact that I was an Irish dancer. There’s something called a Ceili dance, which roughly translates into “party dance.” One Ceili dance is called “The Waves of Tory,” which is named after the infamous waves of Tory Island where I set the story. Ten years ago, when I started doing the original characters for this story, I needed a magical place to put them, and this place seemed right.
To put it in context, my grandmother was from Glasgow, Scotland, but her entire family is from Northern Island. We would go to Highland Games, and I was very interested in Irish things. I became aware of Riverdance, and wanted to learn Irish dance. When you are an Irish dancer, the culture of Ireland is entrenched. If you want to become a teacher, there’s an Irish language portion of the test, and a lot of the dance terms are Irish. I love to research, so before I started dancing, I compiled a probably a 2-inch thick stack of paper of Irish terms and Irish things.
The novel you’re writing and illustrating takes place in the same world as Waves of Tory. Can you talk about how that idea evolved?
Back in 2004 I had a creative writing and roleplaying game on LiveJournal with a bunch of friends (hello to those people if you’re reading this). I was desperate to create my own original universe, and was inspired by the one in the Harry Potter books. I created the character that was to become the great grandson of my character in Waves of Tory. I’ve always liked to do family trees, down to the detail, so I did one for him. It was 2007 when I first drew his great grandmother. I decided she had wings, and because of them she was in a sideshow. I spent time going into 1920s history and circuses. I decided she would become super famous on Vaudeville and then meet her husband who was a duke, etc., etc. By the end of 2007, she was primarily the character I was focused on because she married all these things I loved – the 1920s, the circus, performing arts. In 2010, I started writing the novel I’m working on.
What is it about the circus that captures your imagination? When did that start and why does it pull you in so much?
I’m not sure when it started. In the same way that I’ve always loved theater and dance, and more importantly behind the scenes, circuses fall into that category. The performers’ lives are the circus. They live with it, for it, and everything they do is for their act. It’s the stuff that happens backstage that I find most interesting. There’s a lot you can mine from the circus – many characters, different kinds of people. It pushes the limits of the human body in very unusual ways. Visually, I think it’s incredibly appealing. I like things that are kind of gritty but have a shiny side, too. There’s nothing wholly perfect about ballet. There are injuries. There’s nothing wholly perfect about vaudeville. There was a massively corrupt industry in terms of the monopolies that happened. There are abuses of performers in the circus - wrecked trains, fires, deaths during acts. I like that.
Is there part of you that is a frustrated performer, maybe, and that’s why you’re attracted to things like vaudeville and the circus?
Probably. When I was very little, I was incredibly outgoing. I would sing and dance, but then an anxiety disorder started to manifest around the time I was five. So I’ve always felt like a theater personality trapped in a shy body.
You bring up the darker elements of these worlds. Another thing I know you’re a big fan of is the horror genre. Where do you think that comes from?
Weird, strange, off things have been always particularly interesting to me. I loved to watch things that would scare me, like the Rite of Spring part of Fantasia. I ran to my room once because I didn’t like the percussion and weird brass - it was cacophonous. I also had a daycare teacher who would tell us scary stories. I loved being scared.
Speaking of being scared, why don’t we talk about what it was like for you to move to NYC. Was it a challenge?
It was never scary. I lived in Seattle for six years first. If I hadn’t done that, I probably couldn’t have done this. Seattle is like a quarter of a borough of NYC in terms of the energy. I was more excited than anything to come here. My mom helped me move in, but could only stay the night and had to leave early the next morning. When she left, I didn’t even have food yet. I had to go find everything. There was a moment when I could feel the usual little bubble of panic but nothing ever manifested. I didn’t freak out or feel like the world was going to end, which is something I’d expected to happen.
Did you have a magical New York moment when you realized how great it is here?
It’s really exciting to be here. NYC history factors a lot into my novels and writing. Part of the reason I wasn’t afraid is because I wanted badly to come here and see it. I wanted to see Times Square, which now I never need to see again. I spent years reading about Ziegfeld and other New York showmen, New York vaudeville and the dear Palace. So to see it all in person was necessary for my research. No one in my family ever came to New York.
How has this program been different from your undergrad studies in art?
In undergrad (Cornish College of the Arts), there was more of a hard edge, because it was graphic design vs. illustration. I had never been around a group of illustrators before. Critiques in undergrad were definitely more intense. The energy is nicer here. It’s different from what I was used to, and more of what I needed.
Have you had a breakthrough project or piece?
Yes, the first big spread of my book project – of the woman standing on a cliff with the crashing wave. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been here and been playing with texture in Carl’s class. That class was all about bringing in extra elements. Before, I would have colored every single blade of grass, and now I don’t do that. I’ll color some of them and then bring in texture. I think that has been very good, and wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t here. Also, being around a group of illustrators has been amazing.
Is there another student in the program who you’ve learned from? Someone you maybe saw doing something different from what you’d do, and you were like “wow, my understanding of illustration is expanding?”
The students who are doing reportage. That’s something I didn’t see anyone doing in undergrad. Mike Hirshon is doing a lot of that. And Chris Bonnell has these intricate doodles. There’s a beautiful perfection in imperfection that I’ve come to appreciate a lot. You always get scared you’ll be in a room full of Paul Zelinsky Rapunzel people, like how could I even approach that? But everybody brings something incredibly unique. My peers are strong storytellers in so many different ways. It’s been a great privilege because there’s a lot to draw from consciously and unconsciously.
Speaking of learning and growing with your peers, do you have advice for other illustrators trying to make their way forward?
My advice for everyone is what I wish people would say to me - don’t panic! When you start panicking, things stiffen up and don’t look like what you’re capable of doing. Even in undergrad, we had these extremely talented people and I’d always think of them when I was working. It would put the brakes on. I don’t let that happen here because I feel like we’re all equals, regardless of technical merit.
Is there one resource in your life that helped you get closer to becoming the illustrator you wanted to be. Whether it’s a book, social network, anything?
Harry Potter. I was in Harry Potter fandom when I was younger. I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction, doing fan art… To me, those books are the ultimate example of how you world-build. It’s what absolutely inspired me to create, create, create. I already loved drawing but Harry Potter was what changed everything. Read Harry Potter everybody!
There are a couple other people in our class who do fan art. Do you find it to be a useful tool?
It’s a useful tool, and it’s also good therapy. I’ve thought about this a lot actually over the years. The unique thing about fan art is that it gives you a community of support and critique. So you’re not producing alone, which is usually what we do as writers and illustrators. It gives you exposure to lots of other people, and I saw modern contemporary illustration for the first time in my life. Suddenly I had direct influences – people I was seeing every day and wanted to draw like. It suddenly improved my personal style. I finally had one. I was doing straight representational stuff before then. That’s where I discovered coloring digitally, using the Wacom tablet.
Like a bunch of others in our class, you like to draw from your imagination. All the figurative knowledge seems built in. Do you think that came from doing fan art?
Yes, well my primary interest is drawing people. I like people doing people things. I always wanted to do full body portraits as accurately as I could. I remember seeing the fan art of an alumna of this program, Elisabeth Alba. There was one drawing in particular of Harry Potter lying on the grass and his head was tilted up, and I was like “Wow, she can draw in different angles and perspectives and I can’t do that!” So then I tried to do that. I created an original character who was a ballet dancer and drew her for a year, in different poses, one after another. Once you start looking at ballet reference you’re like “I want to draw this person doing that, and doing that, and doing that!” That honestly is what made my representation of the figure infinitely better. I could access many different poses without going to a reference. That was probably the best thing I ever did.
What would you say has been of the greatest value to you while you’ve been here at SVA? Has there been one class/assignment that really helped you?
The Broadway assignment, where we had to do illustrations for the AKA Broadway calendar. I had heard of AKA, so that was very exciting. And the assignment we did for Paul Stuart. A lot of the assignments have been right up my alley.
Was it fun to have your work in the front windows of a department store on Madison Ave?
It was! And I will give you credit for giving me the idea of doing one of my Paul Stuart characters as a woman. I couldn’t have done it without Michael Lauritano.
Speaking of the future, where do you see yourself?
Ideally, I’ll finish the draft of this manuscript of the novel and give it back to the agent who’s helping me revise it. And then she likes it and takes me under her wing. I want to write and illustrate novels. Being an author/illustrator is my only goal in life. I don’t know where I would live. I love Washington, that’s where my roots are.
I would like you to answer a question with a doodle.
I hate doodling!
How does it feel to be through one year at SVA?
See more of Sarah’s work at SarahDvojack.com!
If you are considering applying to the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Program and are in the New York area please come to our annual Information Session. It is scheduled for Saturday, November 15th beginning at 2pm at the SVA Chelsea Gallery.
You can sign up for spot here:
Our Book Show Opening on September 22nd was well-attended and a great success! Enjoy the photos below, and take a few minutes to view this gorgeous documentary video of the event by Francisco Galarraga:
We are lucky to have such a talented documentarian in the Class of 2015. Thank you, Francisco.
A huge thank you to those who attended!
Photos by Kim Ablondi and Amanda Moeckel
The curators: Marshall Arisman and Carl Titolo
Mirko Ilic, Carl Titolo, Marshall Arisman
Our favorite drawing teacher, Carol Fabricatore
Carl Titolo and Alina Gorban
(clockwise from left) Lisha Jiang, Mr. Cup, Roshan Zhao, Elaheh Taherian and Alina Gorban
Liam O’Donnell, Class of 2016
Marshall with Yunmee Kyong, MFAI alum and current thesis advisor
Michael Lauritano, Alexa Cassaro and Sarah Dvojack
We were happy to be joined by recent graduates and faces we’ve missed around the studios!
Ada Price & Doug Salati with Carol Fabricatore
Ashley Seil Smith, Ada Price, Moonsub Shin & Laura Tibaquira
Francisco Galarraga with James Kerrigan & Jai Kamat
Harshad Marathe & Moonsub Shin
Kevin Whipple & Luisa Possas with Professor David Sandlin
Te Chao with Lisha Jiang
On September 17th, we installed our Book Show. Nine months of blood, sweat, and the occasional tears culminated in this day. We were all happy to get our work up on the wall. Photos of the opening on 9/22 will be coming soon! Thank you, Kim Ablondi and Francisco Galarraga for the great pics.
Alexa Cassaro & Sarah Dvojack
Allene la Spina & power tool
The work of Francisco Galarraga and Alexa Cassaro
Greg “The Hedd” Hedderman
The intricate work of Mo Razzouqi
Carl helping Amanda Moeckel make decisions
Carl helping Elaheh Taherian make decisions (what would we do without him?!)
Andrew, Rabi and Alina being team players
Steve Cup’s glorious work (and foot arch)
Michael and Sarah envisioning
Mike, Alexa, Nick and Francisco mastering the art of the 60-inch high center alignment
Lily, Amanda & Andrew mastering the art of break-taking
Curatin’ ain’t easy.
On September 4th we held the first Digital Book class of the year. The class, taught by Matthew Richmond, focuses on producing work for the iPad. A couple of years ago we started the tradition of giving the second year iPads for this class. This year was no different. In addition the iPads we had a wonderful surprise for them.
Through our partnership with Adobe we are able to supply the students with the new, magical tool from Adobe called Ink and Slide. This is a remarkably sensitive stylist and ruler that links to a Creative Cloud account which provides the next step in making the iPad a viable creative tool. We are eagerly waiting to see what the class comes up with and will be positing Ink and Slide images in the coming weeks.
Thursday, August 28th we officially welcomed the Class of 2016 to the MFA Illustration program. They met as a group, heard presentations from the faculty and picked their studio spaces for the year. Later in the evening we gathered at the SVA Chelsea gallery for a reception.
Welcome Class of 2016!
The second year students have officially welcomed the new first years. We toasted to their commitment to their craft and deer-in-headlights expressions at DBA on 1st Ave last Friday. Can you tell who is “old blood” and who is “new blood?”
Thank you to Francisco Galarraga (pictured above eating pizza) for your amazing camera and photo-taking!
Many of our second-year students have already moved back in. While a few “big kid” studios remain empty, many of us made ourselves at home in our new spacious abodes this week. We’re putting up our inspiration walls, hurrying to finish our book projects, and taking full advantage of our glossy new computer set-up (all replaced!).
PS. This is Amanda Moeckel. This is my first post as the new blogger. Hi!
Elaheh and Alina hard at work. Beware of dirty looks.
Just kidding, they only smile. Mostly.
Alexa’s inspiration wall
Ooh, clean kitchen. Not for long.
Ooh, sparkly new monitors. Not for long.
Ooh, Michael not burning the midnight oil. Not for long.
Our new computer tech, Mike Hirshon, clearly knows where to find good quotes.
Speaking of Mike Hirshon. Oh hey, Lily is back, too.
Somebody’s super clean studio. Thanks, summer cleaning team!
Alina making use of the new monitors.
Our chair, Marshall Arisman, just completed a series of three subway posters for the School of Visual Arts. They are magnificent. You can reada blog story on the SVA site here:
To view a short film Marshall made about the posters go here: