My first encounter with Vesper Stamper was through her amazing and beautiful illustrations. She is one of the many illustrators that make up our New Jersey Chapter of the SCBWI. Even in this competitive and diverse group, Vesper’s work shines and is a testament to her talent and hard work. She recently illustrated IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING written by Allison Flannery (Samizdat 2013), her fourth picture book. Vesper is also one of six finalists in the Lilla Rogers Global Talent Search, an international licensing competition, for which she won the People’s Choice. She was the recipient of the 2012 Lincoln City Fellowship for her illustrated novel THE SEA-KING’S CHILDREN, which enabled her to travel on a writing/illustrating grant to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland this past spring.
1. First, tell us about your artistic background and training.
I come from a family of “makers,” going back to the linen embroidery industry in Belfast, Northern Ireland. My grandfather was an engineer and was always, always tinkering. One of my aunts is an artist, my mom is a classical pianist, another aunt is a music teacher, another a painter and musician in Ireland. I grew up with all of them in my grandparents’ house. The arts were embraced and normal and not treated as a big deal.
I grew up in NYC and went to LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts (the “Fame” school) where I studied visual art (and snuck into a lot of vocal classes!). Now that was an artistic crucible! I still pinch myself when I think about the privilege of going there. There’s nothing like learning artistic discipline and healthy peer competition at 13—not to mention how to take healthy critique as a teenager! Can you imagine? Afterwards, I did a short stint in theater school for scene design, but I ran—ran—back to my city and finished at Parsons School of Design, where I got a BFA with Honors in Illustration. I loved every minute of school and have been trying to get back ever since!
2. How did you decide on illustration as your art form?
As a kid, I loved copying pages from picture books. That’s how I taught myself to draw. I always, always gravitated toward picture books. I had a couple of detours—theater, web design—but I came home to books every time. There are many reasons I chose illustration. Some of it has to do with the kick I get out of interpreting others’ work and the collaborative process, some has to do with the immediacy of the form and its accessibility. You don’t have to travel to a gallery; you can have the artist’s vision right on your shelf or even your nightstand—or gosh, with the explosion in licensing, you can wear the artist’s work, or your kid can cuddle it at night in the form of a stuffed animal. Your curtains can be done by your favorite illustrator. It’s crazy. I love creating with the thought that my work could be someone’s personal treasure. It’s very precious, even a sacred trust.
3. What’s your favorite medium?
I work in watercolor these days, but I worked in acrylic for most of my career. I love that, too, though it’s been a while. I am starting to work more in gouache, as I pursue licensing. But watercolor is so mysterious—working with it can be unpredictable, and because I can be a little Type A, it’s good for me to have a process that leads me instead of me dictating to it. It’s rather like following a dark, hooded guide through a labyrinth in a misty forest. Kind of?
4. You have a very unusual and artistic name. I’ve heard of “vesper” as a religious prayer service. Does your name have another meaning?
My name means “evening prayer,” as in the prayers said in a monastic community around 5 or 6 pm. It happens to be my favorite time of day, and I really do love Vesper prayers up at a monastery I visit sometimes. I hope I’m growing into my name. But my mom pulled it out of Casino Royale, one of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. Eva Green did a good job playing “me” in the movie. I approve. Though she wasn’t quite “Rubenesque” enough to portray my curvy self. Anyway, from that character, there’s also a cocktail. I get a kick out of ordering “myself” at events sometimes.
5. What projects are you currently working on?
Well! I had a busy year, actually. In the Hall of the Mountain King came out in April, the day before I left on a grant to Scotland to finish my illustrated YA novel, The Sea-King’s Children. Then I entered the Lilla Rogers contest (http://lillarogers.com/revealing-the-finalists-for-the-2013-global-talent-search/) and couldn’t believe that I made it to the finals as the People’s Choice winner!
That was a ton of work and so exciting. Now I’m concentrating on finding an agent for both The Sea-King’s Children and licensing. After that flurry of activity, it’s time to regroup, re-prioritize and organize my game plan for the fall. I’m getting back into making dolls and stuffed toys, and drawing with embroidery. I’ve also started a second illustrated novel, which I’m excited to dive into.
6. How do you spend your time when you’re not illustrating?
I do not even know how to answer that question! My work is so conjoined to the other parts of my life, it’s hard to separate it. It infuses everything I do—my parenting, my marriage, my homemaking (or lack thereof), travel, everything. Yet I think it’s balanced…I hope. My husband is a filmmaker, so art is just how we live life. He is incredibly gracious and understanding about my need for artistic space (as I try to be for him), so things are very equitable. My kids are super creative as well, and whether or not they pursue artistic careers, they are also “makers.” Oh, I guess when I’m not illustrating, I’m snuggling them. And looking for converted barns in the UK. So that we can do more art and snuggling there.
7. Who is your biggest artistic influence?
Lisbeth Zwerger and Hilary Knight. And my husband. And my grandfather, who’s been gone 11 years, but is still a huge presence in my heart.
The non-stop mental churning. I would really like to turn it off sometimes and be able to truly veg out. If I had to really quantify the mental and physical expenditure of my work in comparison to its numerical return, I could get very depressed. In the words of Napoleon Dynamite: “That’s like a dollar an hour!” Only because if I look at it that way, I am working 24/7. But seriously, the most difficult thing about being an artist (and I am not alone in this) is that even though you would never choose another career, you are never satisfied. You can never see what others see. They may be moved to tears and epiphanies, and you will always be saying, “Darn it, why didn’t I use pthalo instead of prussian blue in that character’s skirt? I want to do the whole thing over!”
9. If you could go back in time and sit for a famous artist, who would you choose and why?
You mean as a model?! That’s scary. I think the only one that would have taken me would be Rubens! (Didn’t I mention him somewhere else in this interview? Ha ha.) No, that’s a good question. OK—Kirsty Mitchell, the photographer (http://www.kirstymitchellphotography.com/). She’s current, not back in time, though. She does these gorgeously composed photographic illustrations inspired by Alice in Wonderland, all dedicated to the memory of her mother, who was a book fanatic. Every single detail is perfectly realized, and the women are like elegant paintings. I think she could make me feel like a million bucks.
Not so much about me, but about why I do this crazy job. It’s because I think kids are really smart, really deep, really complex, and deserve books (and toys for that matter) that treat them with dignity and respect, not like little money-machines. Not every kid is zany and hyper, and even the ones that are have complex inner lives, too. (Trust me, I speak from experience.) Books are meant to be formative, not placative. When I see books pushed as though they were plastic pacifiers or sugary snacks, I get really upset. Do you know what I mean by that? Sometimes I cry when I go into bookstores, and they’re not happy tears. A single book can literally change a kid’s life, and every author and illustrator should treat their work with that kind of sobriety, even if it’s a comedic book. Hilary Knight’s Cinderella and Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll were the ones that changed my life. I think Jon Klassen, Levi Pinfold and Isabelle Arsenault are some that are doing it right now, creating true classics with great worldviews. Books help kids navigate not just the world, but their own emotions. Those are the kind that should be dominating the shelves, and those are the kind I want to be part of giving to kids, whether they’re 3 or 17. Treasure-books! For very, very precious people.
Thanks so much, Darlene! This has been really fun.