The University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum is home to a stunning collection of original art from picture books. As a UF alumnus from their illustration program, I spent a lot of time there! Twice a year, the museum hosts a conference with several illustrators and other people in the picture book industry. While I was a student, I attended the conferences regularly, but I hadn’t made it to any of the recent ones. When I saw the roster for this year’s weekend conference, I knew I had to attend!
I got to chat briefly with each artist, and everyone was so kind! They also whipped out some incredible doodles along with their autographs. In this post, I’ve included scans of these drawings along with some of their books from the WPPL collection.
Seven illustrators gave keynote presentations: James Gurney, Joe Sutphin, Daria Peoples, LeUyen Pham, Brandon Dorman, Abi Cushman, and Alexandra Boiger.
James Gurney is known for Dinotopia, a meticulously rendered metropolis where humans and dinosaurs live side-by-side. I learned that he has a background in archaeology, but instead of waiting around to discover something fantastic, he realized he could paint anything he wanted into existence! He builds tons of maquettes (3d models) of buildings and figures so that he can figure out lighting and scale. At this conference, he was awarded the Mazza Medallion of Excellence—well-deserved!
Joe Sutphin has a real knack for drawing animals, creating the art for The Little Pilgrim’s Progress and the graphic novel adaptation of Watership Down. He explained that an illustration can convey a sense of story in its composition and details. However, the artist must be careful that the details are intriguing without being confusing. Looking at Sutphin’s work, you can see that he deftly fills out the world while maintaining a clear focus.
Daria Peoples is one of the newer creators in children’s publishing. She started from scratch with a heartfelt story, and has been growing in her craft ever since. She was mentored by Floyd Cooper, who taught her oil paint, but she always considers the type of illustrative style that makes the most sense for the story. And beneath it all, she believes in “honoring children in the work that we do.”
I first heard LeUyen Pham speak in 2015, at my very first Mazza conference! I was excited to see her again, and she gave us a whirlwind tour of her background, process, and style (she works very fast!). Pham talked about all the ways an illustration can expand a story. Though a background character may only be mentioned once in the text, they have the potential for a whole unspoken subplot in the art, which strengthens the story. Children are quick to pick up on those little details, and it adds a lot of fun!
I’ve been a fan of Brandon Dorman for years. Growing up, it seemed like every other book I read had his art on the cover, and it was always fantastic. Seeing him in person, it all made sense. He has a vibrancy about him that is so evident in the elaborate and wacky drawings he made. I think he shocked the crowd when he mentioned that he’s also a practicing dentist.
Abi Cushman likes drawing animals, but finds new and clever ways to use them in her stories! We spent a surprising amount of time talking about wombat poop (it’s cube shaped). Cushman went above and beyond in her research for Wombats are Pretty Weird. The cube poop is a fun fact, but she found out exactly how it happens, and explains it all with a nifty diagram. This is the first book to actually explain the science behind the cubes!
We wrapped up the conference with Alexandra Boiger. I was most impressed by her mastery of the medium—her lovely pencil work, her painting, and her eye for color. She spoke about books being a refuge for readers, a place to find hope and connection. It was a great concluding keynote for the conference, driving home the point that all the artists had touched upon: the power of picture books!
I loved the variety that the illustrators brought to the conference. Some have done hundreds of books, and others were just starting their picture book careers. Some work with nonfiction, and others paint the wildest fantasies. Some have cultivated an iconic personal look, while others change medium and art style book by book. What struck me was that despite all these differences, all seven creators shared a remarkably unified philosophy when it came to picture books. They spoke about how an illustration can compliment its manuscript, how a story can speak to an underlying emotion, and how these books, ultimately, exist to serve their readers. This industry isn’t about success and glory, it’s about producing work that can connect and inspire.