- Nneka Bennett
- JaeMe Bereal
- Adjoa J. Burrowes
- Carole Byard
- Cozbi Cabrera
- Chandra Cox
- Nina Crews
- Pat Cummings
- Nancy Devard
- Laura Freeman
- Jan Spivey Gilchrist
- Ekua Holmes
- Felicia Marshall
- Vanessa Brantely Newton
- Calida Garcia Rawles
- Anna Rich
- Charlotte Riley-Webb
- Faith Ringgold
- Synthia Saint James
- Terea D. Shaffer
- Shadra Strickland (that’s me)
- Nicole Tadgell
- Michele Wood
- Elizabeth Zunon
Last Monday I checked off another item from my bucket list. I was a juror for the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show. I sat in a room with Brian Floca, Jennifer M. Brown, Robert Andrew Parker, Raul Colon, The Brothers Hilts, Ann Bobco, Barbara McClintock, Jason Chin, Jeanette Winter and looked at over 500 picturebooks. What an intense experience. The most impressive part of the afternoon was voting on this year’s silver and gold medals. Though we were all on the same page in our choices, we did have to defend our books when they went up against other strong contenders for the coveted medals.
We judged the books only on art. That was probably the hardest aspect. I am hardwired to look at books wholly. For me, the best picturebooks are those that marry text and image harmoniously, or when the book structure is also used as a vehicle for storytelling (i.e. Suzy Lee’s Shadow). In this case, I had to fight my natural instinct and only consider the art.
There were a ton of fantastic entries this year…so many smart, informative, and beautiful books for children. We are lucky to be in a field of truly talented and hard working people.
After the judging, seven of us went to dinner where we let our hair down and really had some fun getting to know each other. During dinner various streams of conversations flowed from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, thoughts on age appropriateness, the role of marketing in picturebooks, being raised by educators, books we loved, and books we could do without. Eventually the topic of conversation steered around to diversity, at which time I was asked about the lack of black women illustrators in picturebooks. I do think about this often. Why are there so few of us?
In my high school, which was predominantly black, I was in the fine arts talent center, but I do not remember any other girls drawing alongside me. Teachers responded to my talent, but I don’t think they took me as seriously as some of the male students who were taking art. Technically, I wasn’t as strong as some of my classmates, but I had passion and drive. At over six feet tall, my basketball coach pushed me to embrace the sport and get a basketball scholarship (I was terrible at basketball, btw). My mother pushed for me to to study and work hard and win an academic or art scholarship. Fortunately, my mother always believed in my talent and nurtured it. Without her unyielding faith in me, I certainly wouldn’t have made it.
At Syracuse, I was the only black female in my illustration class. Before that, I was in communication design, where I was one of two, and eventually…one, after my dear friend left the program to study animation at SCAD.
At SVA I was also one of two black female illustrators, and again, eventually…one, when my other black female classmate had to take a leave from our program.
When I attended SVA in 2005, I chose Pat Cummings as my adviser because I so admired and respected her career and work. It was important to me to learn alongside her too because she was a black female illustrator in whom I could see myself. Fortunately, Pat is as generous as she is funny and talented, and she opened her home and life up to me in many loving, unexpected and surprising ways, and continues to do so. I am forever indebted to her friendship and mentoring.
And now, here I am, making books, visiting schools, teaching and reaching out to people. Being more and more visible to the world so that others can see themselves through me and my work. That being said, I met a young African American female student at a MICA portfolio day who informed me that she wanted to come to MICA because of me. What a humbling experience.
So, there will be more of us…in time. My personal goal is to stay visible…make good and interesting work and share it with as many people as I can. Hopefully young hopefuls will see themselves reflected in me and dare to pursue their dreams of becoming artists.
Here is a list of African American female illustrators for your reference.