Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: The Work of Sam Valentino

Clock TreesI came across the work of Sam Valentino as a result of our "magician's week" here at Fantasy Matters--Lev Grossman had posted a link on his blog to a picture that Sam had done of the Watcherwoman's clocktrees in Fillory, and like Lev, I was impressed by how well Sam conveyed the connection of The Magicians with The Chronicles of Narnia by imitating Pauline Baynes's style.  So I headed over to Sam's blog to see what else he has done--and what I found was artwork that is wonderfully fun and lighthearted, but grounded in personal connections that makes it very real.

Penguins and SquirrelsTake this sketch of penguins and squirrels banding together to attack a trashcan--on the surface, it's humorous and a bit silly.  In his blog post that accompanies this picture, Sam describes how this is the visualization of a dream his wife had.  Like the picture, Sam's prose is lighthearted--he writes, "Being the loving husband that I am, I naturally visualized it for her. I will no doubt receive vast praise for bringing nightmares to life."  But underneath all this fun, the sketch and Sam's words reflect artwork that is motivated by the people he cares about, making it more than just a bunch of silly penguins.

One of the most touching examples of these personal connections is what Sam calls "the Lunch Notes Project," where he writes and illustrates stories to send with his daughter's lunch every day.  This monster is based off of one of these lunchtime notes:

Monster King

This juxtaposition of creativity and fun with personal significance is not only what works so well in Sam's art, but is perhaps one of the appealing features of fantasy literature in general.  We love The Chronicles of Narnia not only because the idea of a wardrobe is exciting, but also because we remember reading these books with our parents.  Watership Down is more than just a creative book about rabbits--it's a sister's favorite book, a treasured purchase at a used book sale.  Like these novels, Sam's art is more than funny drawings of monsters and trolls.  They are pictures of love.

Sam also generously answered a few questions for us about his work:

Can you tell us about yourself? How did you get started as an illustrator?

I live in the Boston area, and am married to – dare I say it? Yes! – the most wonderful woman in the world. She’s also in the arts – the visual arts as a graphic designer, and the culinary arts as well. We have three kids, who, among other activities, delight in chasing me around with their plastic swords.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing, even as a young child. My earliest influences were comic strips – Peanuts in particular, but really any I could get my hands on. One of my prized possessions as a kid was a giant book of the history of comics, from the Yellow Kid to the present.

It seems like much of your work that is posted on your blog is done for specific people in your life--your wife, your children, your friends. Is this a quality that you see in the majority of what you do? How do these personal inspirations help shape your creations?

Cats Make HoneyDefinitely! Having a family has exponentially increased my creative output. After my first daughter was born, I claimed she was my muse, but it turns out the entire family is. It all started when I made a Christmas book for the (then) 2 kids. That was Cats Make Honey, based on something my daughter had said. Since then, I make them a book every year, sometimes more than one.

What makes them particularly inspirational is how differently they all think, and how happy it makes me to create something for them. So I’m motivated to come up with things I wouldn’t without them!

In addition to the drawing you did of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, you also have an illustration of "The Battle of Five Armies" from the Hobbit. What are some other works of literature that you have drawn pictures of, or would like to?

I would love to do a fully-illustrated version of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It has everything – knights, wizards, monsters, and non-stop action. Orlando, for example, leaps into an invincible sea serpent’s mouth to slay it from the inside out, and another paladin flies to the moon on a hippogryph. Incredible stuff.

Much of your art draws from mythology, fairy tales, and make-believe. What do you find so compelling about these subjects?

I’ve always been drawn to these types of stories for two reasons. The first is that they are myths – not myths in the sense of something erroneous, but rather myth defined as a story that reveals an eternal, spiritual truth. When faced with either joys or grief, life without a sense of myth seems a bit two-dimensional. But, by seeing how characters in radically different settings react to epic situations, people can look at their own lives in new ways. Which is why I was glad you contacted me – I completely agree, fantasy does matter! It’s not simply escapism.

The other reason, though, is that it’s a whole lot of fun. While I may have deeper reasons for appreciating the stories, I can share them with the kids. I can tell my four-year-old that Thursday is named after Thor, because he was victorious over the frost giants! I think even on that level it makes life more interesting as well as more fun.

The Mad KingWhile most of the art posted on your blog is brightly colored and lighthearted, a few of your pieces take a darker turn, such as "The Mad King." Is there some sort of mental transition that you have to make to create works like this?

I really do favor bright colors, so to make something grim I have to truly believe, as it were, that the subject calls for it. The Mad King is actually a character in a book I’m writing, so I really couldn’t picture him any other way. But it applies to any representation – if I drew a picture of Sauron, say, rendering him in bright colors would be so, so wrong.

Do you have a favorite piece? What makes it meaningful for you?

Oddly enough, I don’t – I always like whatever I’m working on at the moment, and try and make it as good as I can. Then, when it’s finished, I usually forget about it and like the next one. Now that I think about it, it’s always been that way in my family. My wife once asked my mother why she didn’t keep any of my old drawings. Her answer was, “Why bother? He’d probably just make something better later.”

Letter ZThat being said, there are pieces that I look back on later and think, “That really did come out the way I was hoping!” The picture for the letter Z for my youngest’s alphabet book is one of those.

Other than your blog, where can we find your work?

School textbooks! Most of my work is for K-12 publishing. So for quite some time now, schoolchildren have been seeing a lot of my art.

But there’s also a lot of my work elsewhere, in trade books and advertising. An upcoming commission is for a book on Tolkien’s life and literature. One of my illustrations was for an ad in the Wall Street Journal. It was an awesome feeling knowing even my in-laws who live in Hong Kong could see my artwork.

In addition, I’m working on creating e-books. With any luck, I’ll have books available for download soon.

All images copyright Sam Valentino 2011.  Used with his permission.