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Illustrating Be Who You Are
(The Gender Centre advise that this article may not be current and as such certain content, including
but not limited to persons, contact details and dates may not apply. Where legal authority or medical related matters are
cited, responsibility lies with the reader to obtain the most current relevant legal authority and/or medical
The Be Who You Are project is, to date, the largest illustration job I have undertaken.
... I was thinking a lot about these children, who have no media written or crafted just for them.
My artistic career (maybe artistic endeavour would be more accurate) began when I was five
years old and won a 'Draw Mom' contest at a department store in a small town in Kansas, where I did the majority of my growing up. That
was the first time I understood that an artist could be paid for doing what they love. My reward was a gift certificate, which I
promptly traded in for a Batman Nintendo game. This is a very telling introduction. A good portion of the money I make from my art
still goes on video games and comic books.
The Be Who You Are project is, to date, the largest illustration job I have undertaken. I have created murals, which are
technically bigger, but the book took a lot more thought, planning and post-production. The children's literary world is a well-known
hard nut to crack, and I know personally that getting your book or portfolio into the right hands can often seem impossible.
Jen and I ended up meeting after a happenstance series of events put her in conversation with a close fried of mine, and the subject
just happened to be about her hunt for an illustrator. A few e-mails later, we met for coffee, and I did my best to seem seasoned and
Hearing Jen's real-life story, and reading the final version of the manuscript (relived through the characters of Hope, Will and Dr.
Bee) affected me deeply, as I imagine it strikes anyone of a certain political disposition, and an inclination toward empathy. It's a
harrowing proposition, calling for a great deal of bravery and faith in your family and friends, to act in support of a child
questioning what is arguably the most defining characteristic of self.
I was immediately taken with the project, and excited at the prospect of my first published work being of such an avant-garde,
helpful and important subject matter.
The first hurdle to overcome was the weight of gender on our identity. As the youngest of three boys, I had very little insight into
even the slightest variety of gender. Because we were raised in a small town in Kansas, sexuality came in one flavour, when it came at
all and gender identity was a given. I was exposed to the ever growing presence of the
L.G.B.T. community through movies and books, but in such a
hetero, traditional environment, these ideas were almost never presented to me on an even keel, but in very choppy, often hostile or
It wasn't until late high school that the concept of being an ally was a thing in my world. College, I guess, would be the first
place I ever really saw things straight (no pun intended) and understood sexuality as a spectrum instead of a two-toned thing
consisting of two boxes, check one, pink or blue.
These days I am happy to count among my nearest and dearest, a broad array of life-styles and love-styles, and I think gratefully of
the ways they have allowed me to broaden my understanding of the world and the wonderful variety of people in it.
Along came this book, then, presenting an idea that I hadn't devoted any thought to, even in my self-congratulating 'new-mind'.
Transgender and gender identity were clear concepts to me, but the idea of carrying such a burden before adulthood, before teenage,
heck, before third grade, had never crossed my mind. After meeting Jen and having read a few times through the copy she left me, I was
thinking a lot about these children, who have no media written or crafted just for them.
There weren't any helpful books on the subject, and that, as much as any desire for work or to get my name out there, got me
involved in, and devoted to, the project. When I am not working as an illustrator, I teach preschool and give art lessons to kids the
same age as Hope, the main character in the book. This gave me an advantage when it came time to get inside the characters, the parents
and the kids, and convey visually the characters' varying moments of despair,
loneliness, family, triumph.
Character design starts in a very raw place. We are refined, not defined, by our clothes, haircuts, and all of the other
oh-so-important parts of our surface identity. The process of developing Hope began with the face. I had to get it to a place that
didn't instinctively read girl or boy. And while the look of the book would be stylised, I didn't want to go too far into the
cartoon-zone. I started with a series of nine heads and shoulders, youthful and bald, in varying degrees of rotation. Next, I took some
root emotions from the working copy of the text, and marked each head with one of four labels: neutral, happy, sad or worried. Looking
at it now, after working so much feeling into the faces in the finished book, it seems like a pretty short list.
When I had finished the chart for Hope, I did a smaller set for each of the characters that surround her in the story. For her
mother, dad and little brother, I took an idyllic approach - they were beautiful, healthy parents and a loving brother, who would go
forward in this very idyllic story, to help and protect Hope, a person who doesn't quite fit into her
Layout and planning of the book went fairly smoothly. The brunt of my efforts were spent on trying to not show the same set of
people facing the audience in a limited variety of poses. This is something non-artist-types may never think of, specifically in kids'
books and comic books. We are given a limited supply of characters and settings, and have to mix up the staging to keep it interesting.
If we neglect this, you end up with ten or twenty very similar pictures with the facial features changing ever so slightly. It doesn't
do much for me.
Another thing I worked at was keeping the movement of the characters at the same pace as the writing. These characters were going
places, be it to the park, library or the office of the great Dr. Bee (the character I most enjoyed drawing, because of her hair and
fashion sense). There are three major postures for the characters in this book, particularly Hope. Shoulders forward, shoulders back,
or prone. The only time we find Hope lying down is on page three of the book, where she, ( still identified as Nick), is being lovingly
carried off to bed by her parents. When Hope is feeling oppressed or less confident, her shoulders slump forward in a defensive,
defeated pose, matching the downturned eyes and frown of the mouth. In the twenty-four illustrations featuring Hope, she is shown in
this pose only three times.
These things happen consciously and subconsciously, and I often don't realise I am doing them until they become a trend within the
body of work. After the realisation hits, I keep them going, and sometimes go back through and give them a little more resonance.
When I flip through my copy of Be Who You Are, I feel a great wash of pride, with some overtones of disbelief. The process wasn't
without its bumps and, at times, the project seemed altogether too large and daunting. But, it turned out a series of paintings that
Jen thought matched her words beautifully, and I have no doubt that it has already helped many people get a better understanding of
what they, their son or daughter, nephew, grand-daughter or sibling is feeling.
Anyone dealing with that sort of struggle needs a hand, especially the very young. Jen and other advocates hold their hands out to
them. I am happy knowing that her hands, at least, have a few smears of my paint on them.
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