Our May 2019 box celebrated motherly love. It was designed by JambArt artist, Meenal Patel. Patel sat down with us for a great interview that covers her journey as an artist and author, the importance of diverse books and how to make a living as an artist.
Jambo: How do you create the images of the characters you receive from the authors? Do you receive direction from them or are you able to just mine your imagination?
Patel: Character development is one of my favorite parts of the storytelling process. For my own characters, I usually ask myself a bunch of questions about who they are, from the big stuff to the small details – what are their hopes and dreams, what do they fear, what do they eat for breakfast, what’s their favorite thing to do on a Saturday. Unearthing these details helps me to bring the character to life in my mind before I even start drawing. From there, I do a bunch of rough pencil sketches. Then I narrow down what’s feeling right and start developing color and refinements.
For books written by other authors, I like to hear if the author has anything in mind and generally about the background of the story, what inspired them to write it. That helps me understand the underlying history and emotions that should come through.
Jambo: Your design for our May box, Hugs, is a beautiful illustration of motherly love. What inspired you to make this print?
Patel: I love to draw families, kids, and generally people who love and take care of each other. I like to capture little moments of this togetherness.
Jambo: In addition to your website at www.meenalpatelstudio.com, are there galleries or other places where people can go to see or purchase your art?
Patel: I have a lot of my art in my shop here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MeenalPatelStudio Also, Instagram (@meenal_land) is a great way to stay up to date on what I’m working on and to get a behind the scenes peek at my process.
Jambo: Did you study art in school?
Patel: I studied graphic design in college and then worked at a design agency for 10 years. I went out on my own as an independent artist a couple years ago to focus more on illustration. My design skills and what I learned working at the design agency help me with my business on a daily basis. It’s fun to experience how even with changing directions, everything I’ve learned still feeds into the next thing.
Jambo: My daughter wants to be an artist when she grows up and I have to admit that I’m a little concerned about how she’ll make a living. How did you build a sustainable career as an artist?
Patel: I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy and it takes a lot of work. It takes dedication, grit, self-motivation and a giant dose of curiosity and willingness to learn. But it is possible to make a living as an artist. For me, I built off of what I learned working at the design agency – from developing my aesthetic to learning how to work with a wide range of clients to understanding technical things like print production. One of the biggest things I’ve learned being on my own is the importance of a variety of income streams. I make my own products that I sell, I license my art to companies I believe in, I take on contract illustration work, I work on my own books as well as other peoples’ books. There are so many ways to practice art professionally – from being a fine artist to a licensing artist to a book illustrator to so much more. Anything that has an image on it requires the work of an artist!
I feel fortunate to live in a time where there are so many possibilities for building a small business. There are so many tools, like social media (with all the good and bad that comes with it), to help connect with people and clients directly. There are also so many resources beyond traditional education, like online courses, to educate on the things I might not know how to do yet. I’m always learning and still figuring a lot of things!
Jambo: You’ve written two children’s books, Neela Goes to San Francisco and Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masalas. What inspired you to make the leap into authorship?
Patel: I started writing and illustrating my own books before I ever worked on anyone else’s books. I initially made a one-off children’s book for my niece after she visited me in San Francisco. I loved seeing her curiosity at experiencing a place that’s very different from where she lives and wanted her to have a way to relive it through a book. I also loved the idea of her having a book with a character who looks like her and has an uncommon name (at least uncommon in the US). I loved seeing my niece’s happy reaction to seeing herself reflected in a book so I ended up self-publishing to share it with other kids. This all happened while I was still working full time at the design agency.
After that I knew I wanted to keep making books. My new book, Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala, is about taking pride in your heritage and sharing your traditions with others. It required a lot of self-reflection and digging deep into my childhood to unearth the story. Hopefully that honest work makes people connect with it.
Representation and diversity in art and stories is so important for kids and adults alike. All kids deserve to have exposure to a variety of imagery and stories. Stories where they can see themselves reflected and ones where they are exposed to people who have different experiences from their own. Kids need those opportunities to see themselves as heroes, to celebrate what makes them unique and to feel connected to other people. I’m thrilled to be a very small part in making that happen.
Jambo: Have you seen the children’s book industry change over time regarding its attitude toward books with children of color as protagonists?
Patel: I’m relatively new to the book making world, but I can say that I did not have books that I could see myself in when I was growing up. I’m happy to see that the children’s book industry is getting more diverse, but there’s a long way to go before the people working in the industry and the stories being told truly reflect the population and diversity of experiences.
Jambo: How do you feel about white artists or authors drawing or writing about protagonists of color?
Patel: There is a lot of gray area here. I think artists and authors need to ask themselves a lot of questions before they decide to make a book: Why do they want to tell the story? Do they have the credibility, authority, or lived experience to tell the story accurately and authentically? Could authoring/illustrating the story be harmful to any underrepresented groups? It’s critical to spend time thinking about questions like these (and more!) and not moving forward when it doesn’t feel right. I think generally people have good intentions, but there are some stories that I think the author needs to have lived experience in in order to authentically tell the story.
It’s also so important to NOT consider diversity in children’s literature as a trend to jump onto. Rather it’s something that should be happening because it’s a true reflection of all the beautiful diversity in our world.
Jambo: What would you like our readers to know about the power of children’s literature to affect positive change in the world?
Patel: Children’s literature has the power to make kids dream big, to gain empathy, and to build a wider worldview. Equipping all children with these things through books is an investment into the future.