Questions with John Hendrix

| Cadenza Reporter

John Hendrix juggles being a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and illustrating whatever he can get his hands on. He might not look like your stereotypical “skinny, multi-color haired” artist, despite sporting a bruised eye at this moment, but his passion and point of view are clear.

After taking out a $30,000 loan, moving to New York City and starting from the bottom up, he knows what it means to take risks and to put himself out there without fear.

With a children’s book (“Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek”) out on Sept. 9 and another book in the works, he is reveling in his hard work. Armed with experience from New York City, he has an attitude that shows that he does not let himself feel threatened by more talented artists or feel doubtful in his own abilities as an illustrator. Students here are lucky to have him as a guide and role model before diving into the real art world.

Cadenza: What courses do you teach at Wash. U.?

John Hendrix: I teach the Communications Design major, which means that I teach three classes every semester.

C:  I understand that you have a children’s book out on Sept. 9, and you have a book signing on Sept. 12. What is “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek” about?

JH: It is a true story. When Abe Lincoln was a boy, he fell into a creek when he and his friend were trying to cross the creek. He nearly drowned, but his friend saved his life by jumping into the creek to pull him out. Later on during the Civil War, Abe often talked about this boy who he referred to as his “best friend.”

C: How did this project begin?

JH: Well, I pitched a book idea. They liked my work, but they didn’t like the manuscript that I had sent because it wasn’t quite right about that era. They found another writer to write a book about Abe Lincoln instead.

C: Is this your first book?

JH: Yes, this is my first kids’ book. I have done a lot of illustrations for jackets and covers. I have also done another book called “How to Save Your Tail.” It’s a chapter book, and it has black and white illustrations.

C: After looking at your blog, I noticed that your style and drawing ideas are much darker than those normally created for children. Did you feel like you needed to tone down your style for a much younger audience?

JH: Well, I think that I draw for the love of drawing, so I think that I can go darker to express issues. Then, at the same time, I have the ability to draw in that same voice and put it toward stuff that is a little lighter. So, I don’t really think that it is so much about adjusting my style than about catering toward a different audience.

C: When you were illustrating this book, was there something you found difficult to illustrate? Or, is there something that you would like to change now that you see the final product?

JH: You know, what was really hard was the log [pulls out the book] that goes across the creek, and it appears seven, eight, nine times in the course of this book. I had to draw it the same every time, the same number of branches. That was really difficult. What I should have done was make a physical model of it, and it would have been a lot easier to draw it than from memory. So that was hard. You know, and the really detail-oriented copy editors check to make sure that there are the same number of logs in the cabin whenever it appears. It’s those details that made it difficult.

C: What are you working on now that the book is finished?

JH: Right now, my big project is a little book that I wrote about John Brown, the abolitionist. He raided Harper’s Ferry right before the Civil War. He had crazy ideas to raid slaves in the South and set them free. So, that is what I’m working on right now. Actually, I started that in 2003.

C: What advice would you give art students and seniors about to graduate into the “real world” or art?

JH: I would tell them there is always room for another artist out there. I think that a lot of people feel like it is kind of silly to do this for a living because there are so many good artists out there and so many books. “What would I have to offer?” I think there is always room for someone else who has a clear, distinctive voice with a story to tell. Then, this is something I tell people a lot. “Talent” is very overrated. Talent doesn’t mean much. It is all about desire. If you have desire, that always beats talent every time. I mean, I have met people who had more talent than I had, but they didn’t want the career as much I wanted it.

C: So you would tell them not to be afraid, to get out there and try to get the best jobs because it is about working hard and wanting to succeed rather than just having the talent to do the work?

JH: Yeah, if you are not going to make it in the industry, it is better to risk it than not try it at all. Of course there are going to be people more talented than me. I can’t control that, but there is something I can do that nobody else does. If you can find that, then that is something that you can sell. You have to find your own voice. It will take time, but it is definitely there. But if you think that way, and you come up with that “back-up” plan, you won’t have the drive to work as hard. To succeed in the art world, you have to be willing to risk what you have.

C: If you could be a work of art, what would it be?

JH: Oh, I would hands down be a Cornell box. He wasn’t trying to be avant-garde. He wasn’t trying to make art. He was truly propelled to make these boxes. They slam imageries together that you wouldn’t expect. Look him up. It’s amazing.

Hendrix will be signing his new book “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek,” this Friday, Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. at Left Bank Books on the Loop.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.