Transcript from an interview with E.B. Lewis

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with E.B. Lewis. The transcript is divided into the following clips:


Hello, I'm E.B. Lewis and I'm an illustrator of children's books. I'm also a teacher, I teach at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. I teach sophomores and seniors and I'm a fine artist, so I really love what I've done, connected to the arts in many ways. And I'm a dad: I have three knucklehead boys of my own.

I created a term that really kind of baffles a lot of people, it's a term called artistrator. It's a term I had to create because my background is fine arts and although I went to school for illustration, I was a dual major, I majored in art education, graphic design, and illustration and minored in painting.

And so, in the beginning I started out basically as a fine artist and then along the way, the illustration started to enter into my life, and realizing that they're two worlds exist. People don't like to really talk about the two worlds of illustration and fine art. They like to think of it as all one, there's not a difference. But there is a very thin line.

Knowing the thin line that it does exist, I created these two separate entities and made them as one and so the term artistrator refers to both sides, both hemispheres I guess, the fine art world and the illustration world.

Living the life of an artist, as an artistrator, actually it's sometimes becomes very difficult because you can't turn it off. I'm in constant observation of the world. And it's a wonderful thing, but if you can't shut it off, it can become annoying sometimes. But my day starts at 10 o'clock in the morning. I don't get out of bed before 10.

Now you might think that's a great thing, but realizing I don't get into bed until about three, four, five o'clock the next day. And so, I'm working anywhere between 15 to 18 hours a day, which is a long time. But it's this concentrated, kind of directed force and energy, just focused on the creation of a piece, of taking a blank piece of paper and putting something on it that you can touch somebody with.

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A favorite uncle

Growing up, well having four or five, my mother and father kept having children and you know it ended up being five of us. The life at the house was this little kind of crazy and I figured the best place to get the attention I was needing and seeking, would be school. That started the whole ball of wax and it, my experience at school was somewhat difficult, to say the least.

I failed the third grade, which I'm not proud of, but it was that type of trying to understand what I was feeling inside and my parents were frustrated, because here's this child that just wouldn't act right, just wouldn't go down the Golden Rule, you know stay in line. I was always popping outside of that line, trying to figure it all out, I guess.

I was a child that was just inquisitive and I loved the attention. So I would kind of do whatever it took to get that attention. And as a result, I could, it came at a cost, again, failing third grade. By the time I reached sixth grade, I was a mess. My grades finally got to the point where I could actually reach the sixth grade. But by that time my parents were taking from one psychologist to the next, trying to figure out what was going on. Fortunately enough I had, there was an experience and I tell when I go to schools. So you'll have to come to schools for me to finish that story. But it was that experience led to my uncle realizing that I was drowning and that I needed help.

So the man that he was, I just lost my uncle last year. He decided that he was going to do something that was going to help me out and help his sister's son, his nephew. And so what he did, he left New Jersey, I was living at the time with my mother and father in Philadelphia. He left New Jersey, crossed the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into New Jersey and knocked on my front door and said, come with me.

He picked me up and he took me to art class and what was amazing about this, that he did this for six years straight. He had three other children; he had three of his own, three daughters. But he would leave his three daughters home, on a Saturday morning, and he would sacrifice his Saturday to be with me, amazing.

When I had stayed with grand-mom and grand-dad, my uncle would come down to visit his parents, right? I knew this. He would come down and he would spend countless hours with me, looking at the drawings that I produced. He would go through each drawing and sit down and say, and ask the question like, "This drawing that you have here, I love it you know, but explain to me, what was your patience?" And I was like, "Excuse me?" "You know, your patience." I said, "I don't understand the question." He says, "Well, for example, the clouds that you painted here, are those clouds you saw or are those the clouds you just made up?" I said, "Oh, no, no, I saw those clouds." He said, "That's what I mean, your patience." I said, "Ah!"

So I was having those kind of deep, rich conversations with my uncle and so that was part of, I'm sure, he had a plan there and you know didn't let me in on it but, I'm sure what he did, it changed my life.

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Inspired to motivate

Every time I tell this story, I feel that as if it happened yesterday, it's a very tough experience that I will never forget as long as I live. This career day was a big day at the school, it was a day where parents and the auditorium was filled with teachers sitting around the sides of the auditorium. It was all sixth graders and it was a large school, over Nine-hundred students.

Nine-hundred in the school, so our sixth grade class was quite large, so teachers sitting around the sides of the auditorium, parents in the back and on the stage were people from different professions. And they were all there to tell us what they did and we were excited. And so there became a point in the presentation, where it was question and answer.

We got a chance to raise our hands and say what we wanted to become. Little Charlie Shoemaker, on the end of the row raised his hand and said that he wanted to be a doctor. A doctor responded and he got this attention that I was seeking and I'm like wow, this is cool, let me raise my hand, so I raised my hand.

I was sitting next to the teacher because I always had to be next to the teacher, I was that kind of kid. So they picked me and when I raised my hand I said that, only when those chose me, I said, I want to be a lawyer. Now the reason I said I wanted to be a lawyer, because I wanted to get the same attention that Charlie got, but instead the whole sixth grade class, teachers included, laughed.

They laughed so hard that the lawyer on the stage never responded to my question. Not only did the students laugh, as I said, the teacher laughed. So the whole auditorium was filled with laughter because of me. And for, at that point in my life, I realized that I had become the laughingstock of a school and I did not want to become that.

But they had every right because all the showings or at least of myself, not the best of myself, but for a child at that age to have that, you never forget that. So that was the beginning of a change. Then my uncle came in at the right time in my life and it turned me around. So, when I went to school, to Temple, I basically graduated you know, my cumulative was 3.94 average.

I was the laughingstock of the elementary school and ended up graduating in the top of my class in college. I've been on that quest ever since, striving for excellence and that's what I do as I go out and try to get children, motivate them to become the best that they can be.

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Figuring out the trick

I didn't realize I was dyslexic until college. You know I went back to school for my graduate work and studying special education. That's when I realize that when I was reading dyslexively, but that's me, you know. I went through a whole experience of my childhood, never knowing what that was.

I think that back then they were not talking about dyslexia and I had no idea what was going on. I just thought that I didn't figure out the trick. It was a thing that all the kids in my classroom figured out and there were a few that I could see were struggling as well. But I didn't know what it was, I just figured that we didn't figure out the trick yet. You know, we were going to get it.

So as a result, it affected my grades, it affected my attitude about you know, there's something that I'm struggling with, and I'm not complete.

And so, as a result of not being able to read aloud or things like that when we had read-around. What I would do is, I would go home and call the book to memory. So when I would come back in to school, I was not reading, I was actually reciting because to this day, if I get to read aloud, I'm going to stumble because the words do this, they get back and forth, and it's quite frustrating.

Not reading as fast I would like, but figuring out it, you kind of compensate. That's what I did. Now have the filters and all kinds of things to aid that. But if you look at a lot of creative people and a lot of them have, are dyslexic. I look at it as something that allows me to create or for example, able to recite my books. I can actually recite a book because I've been able to develop that ability to hold large information, pieces of information in my head, and then recite.

I don't know if I would have been able to do that or found it valuable to do it, if not for the dyslexia.

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Career evolution

I ended up in special ed as an educator. I was there looking for a position as a teacher and when I graduated I was ill-prepared for what I studied, I studied graphic design illustration. I had a major in art education, so when I left, as I said, I was ill-prepared for that business side of the illustration industry. So I didn't do illustration at all, I didn't paint for eight years after school.

And so, I went into teaching. And at that time, the only job that you get as a teacher was substituting. I did a lot of substituting, would substitute second grade and high school and then, there was an opportunity to work at a hospital, working with patients who were suffering from various psychological psychosis.

But they loved me, they loved me coming in and giving them this outlet. And I loved being there! It got to a point though as an educator, as someone who loves to see progress, it was little to hard to be there at the hospital. It became a revolving door.

So after too long, I needed something to make that transition. And children's books came in and it came in a way, that unexpected. I was approached by an agent, my agent Jeff Dwyer, he calls me up and says "Mr. Lewis, I saw the Artist Magazine you know the cover. I represent authors and illustrators of kids' books and I want to know if you're interested in doing kids' books."

I said no, I'm a fine artist not an illustrator. So what's the difference? And I went on to explain. And he says, you know what, you need to see what's going on in kids' books.

I said I have kids and you know they love Eric Carle and Steven Kellogg. He said, well do you know who Barry Moser is? No. Do you know Chris Van Allsburg? No. What about Jerry Pinkney? No. He said, you need to see what's going on in kids' books. So on my lunch break I went to a bookstore.

And I was sitting there everyday, I went there for two weeks straight, everyday on my lunch break to look at these books and I get this incredible edification. And after two weeks I was hooked, I'm like, I've got to do this work.

I called this guy back, you know Jeff. I said, you know what, I misspoke, I've got to do books. How did I say no to this, this is an incredible world. And so what I realized is that I had discovered some of the best artwork in the country is being done in kids' books. So I called, so when Jeff said look, I already had, you know I already knew you were going to change your mind, so I took a liberty of sending your slides to nine different publishers, so we'll wait to see what happens.

So I said, okay. So, he said, you know. I said, well I'm excited to get started. He says, well you know, young Turk you know, this doesn't work that way cause I have artists and illustrators, authors and illustrators that I love their work, but I can't find manuscripts and authors to pick them up. So we'll just have to wait to see what happens.

Well, three or four days pass, he gives me a call back. He says, guess what happened? I said, what? He said, six of those nine publishers that I sent your work to, six of them want you to do books for them. I said, really? He said it means you quit your job. So I quit my job, and the rest is history.

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Weaving a cloth

It's hard to really talk about the work, or talk about my process without seeing it, seeing me in the dance, and it is really a dance for me. I look at a work — my friend's talking about the process versus product. The end result, looking at a piece of painting that I often you know love it and sometimes you know for a very short time, it's short-lived.

And then I love it for about a day, if that. Then I'm off to the next piece because I hate it you know and I want, I can't wait to get a blank piece of paper and start the whole process again. Well that's kind of the way it works in fine art. But in children's books it's a different, the process is a little longer because you have this manuscript, this beginning of the process.

I like to look at it, think it of as the author has invited these, in weaving these strands. But in order to make a full cloth, you have to weave through it and to bind it together and that's what the illustrator does. He comes in and weaves those spaces.

And so, in doing so, what I have to do is I have to go out and do some research. I have to kind of make sure that when a child opens my book, they're transported, you know, because I've done my homework.

In that process, I'm going to one, go through the whole process of this storyboard, you know, the thumbnail sketches. And then the dummy book process of looking with, after the thumb, thumbnails you have this, this you know this thing that is now in scale of the book. I want to know what the manuscript, the words are going to look like with my images and so that wonderful marriage and balance of image and words.

And then the next part is the research and heading to the library, which I love, and I spend hours in the stacks, in the print picture department looking at the images.

And then even more so, going out there to the area and I'm one of the illustrators that will actually go to the location. So if it's Mississippi, I will hop on a plane and go to Mississippi for the clip of the porch people, to find out what the lives of that community, what's that community like? What's that world of the Mississippi delta?

I get there and I'm trying to get to the point where I'm smelling it you know, that I've dug so deep, uncovering this stuff. So the more I realize there's nothing up here, that I have to put it there. I could fill that void. And filling the void is a part of love. I love filling the void. I love going out there and finding all that information and putting it all up there and so then that I could put out. And so once I put it out there, it's there, you know.

And so you, then after that process of trying the research, doing the research, then I find my models and my models. These are real live people and so to go and pick out that child, you know, and saying oh, that's just going she's going to be great, or he's going to be fantastic for this book, it's one, this character that I envision and what this character looks like and you know what, the size and characteristics and the posture and the expressions and all that, perfect character.

And then going through that process of taking the photographs and dressing up. And sometimes these books take, you know will take several hours or several days. And then they end up in the studio and that's my favorite place in all the world to be. To go and bring this to life, to have all the research in front of me, all the photographs that I've taken.

And just sit down with that, which is my head that I filled to overflowing and then put it all out there and hopefully it's received you know in the manner that I put it out there with all the love and concentration and focus and disciple-wise and what have you. And then when you receive awards like the Coretta Scott King or the Caldecott, what have you, then it's a gift you know, that your work has been received and a good job.

And whether or not you get the gift or not, you know that reward, that acknowledgment, it's that treasure, the part that is truly treasured is that journey that you took to get there.

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Every picture tells a story

Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, dedicated to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, was my dedication. "I've known rivers, I've known rivers ancient as the world and older then the flow of human blood in human veins."

"My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it's lulled me to sleep. I look upon the Nile and raise the pyramids above it. I've heard of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I've known rivers, ancient, dusty rivers."

"My soul has grown deep like the rivers." Langston Hughes.

Some of the images that I have produced are you know each one has a story of course. This woman is a woman who lives in South Carolina. The image here, these are her hands by the way. And this has happened, she used an old pot in her yard and it was an old rusty pot in her back, in the backyard. And I saw her hands and hands have always fascinated me, so seeing her hands and seeing this rusty pot, I said, whoa, veins that run through the blood, you know.

And I said, there's a line goes, "Older then the flow of human blood in human veins", my God, to see her, the blood, you could actually almost feel the blood running through her fingers and so, her old, her age, her hands, had stories, you could just tell, countless stories just by looking at her hands. And so to see this pot, it had also that character, that age and that weathering, what the combination. I said, "Can you hold this pot for me?" and we worked through different configurations.

This is my nephew here, and an old guy who was out on a street walking on a building. And the guy that was supposed to be the grandfather in this situation, didn't show up. So I'm sitting there with my nephew, this great light, getting ready to lose the light and I'm like, oh I need to find an old guy, you know. So I run around the neighbor like, an old guy! And I run over to him, he's got a hammer and whatever in his hand.

He's like trying to knock down this, you know this window out of this building, you know excuse me, I got a kind of proposition for you. You want to make a couple dollars? Huh, he said, oh yes. I'm doing this photo shoot and I need you to play a granddad. A granddad. Well yeah my nephew here, I need you to be his granddad and you need to fish on this pond across the street over here.

Okay, and I convinced him and he came over, sat down, he was great. And he sat there and he played granddad and then actually he didn't want to leave because he was having so much fun.

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Inspiration from a gum wrapper

One night, sitting in my studio, the ceiling opens up and a pearl drops in my lap. And like the movie, A Beautiful Mind, when Russell Crowe was in that quest for finding the original thought, original idea of, that's what happened. I came up with an original idea.

And I needed to find a stick of gum and a lottery ticket, not for the purposes of that you would imagine. Wawa sells lottery tickets, I found that out, at 10:30 at night, so I was upset about that. And then the stick of gum, the stick of gum for the purpose of…

When I was a kid I remember having this gum and taking it, a stick out, it was a pack and then it was wrapped with silver wrapping. Well we would take as kids, we would take that silver wrapping and separate the silver from the wax. And if you were able to separate it just right and pull up the whole piece without tearing the silver, you were like king.

You know, it was like oh. And so I knew that and I was like oh, I got to get this stuff. So I run off to a Wawa to get this and I get back to my studio and I've got my gum. I pull out the gum and it doesn't work that way anymore.

So now I'm upset you know, I need to get this out, so I'm running around my house trying to find something I was going to allow me to do that. And in my refrigerator some chocolate and inside there was a piece that was about as big as my thumb, that I was able to extract the silver from the wax. I was like ah and I went into my studio to produce this one little piece.

So this is the little piece, that is, what you see here is the silver and then the little figures, little girl up under that little piece of silver where I actually had scratched away.

That's why I needed a lottery ticket, I wanted to see how a lottery ticket worked and what you scratch because we spend so much time in this society scratching to get to something of that, of value. And so what I'm saying, so the next day I went and I got some gold leaf.

And so what I'm saying is, we need to scratch away to understand that our most precious commodity is our children.

And so having that, that understanding and that principle, I said you know to really make this, carry this to the next level, what I need to do is put it on a lottery ticket.

And so each image on the lottery ticket basically will have, each lottery ticket has their own number, three digit number. Each painting is going to be titled like zero-seven-zero as their little Social Security Number. I have a ledger that basically will have that number with the real child's name and so 20 years, 25 years from now, you will find out what lottery was pulled.

'Cause life is a lottery, you know, so you never know whether or not a child, what they're going to become. And so this is that whole process, that whole understanding of and how we need to view our children and their value. I took it one step further, when someone saw these, they said, wow, they're like icons.

Oh my God, 12th century icons. In the 12th century, icons were only of people of prominence, you had to be a bishop, you know, a king, Christ, you know a queen, something of what they considered importance. Wow, what a contradiction in term in the sense. Here's a contraction of that, well these little children would have never been painted as icons in the 12th century.

So these pieces will be framed as little icons and framed just liked 11th century, the 12th century icons. So when you purchase, you're purchasing this child, this icon, a card that is never, a card, this card that is never scratched, this lottery ticket that has never been scratched. And so you have these, this image, you know this piece of art that has these layers of basically how far can you go?

The imagination, and knowing, and only reveal on some cards, what's, in some of these images, what I want to reveal. So what I scratch, I choose to scratch away. So you will only scratch, sometimes I will only scratch maybe this much and so that, that the anxiety that will be caused when you look at a piece and going, what's underneath, what's beneath that gold, what's beneath that silver you know?

That question you won't know until you scratch deeper and that's the mental thing that I want to create in this process, in this art.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller