Meet David Shannon—Artist and Award-Winning Children's Book Author
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I've had the good fortune of knowing Dave Shannon for many years now. Heck, our family sort of views his family as . . . well, family. Dave is best known as the award-winning author of over 35 children's books, including winning the Caldecott Award in 1998 for No, David! My kid grew up reading his books and laughing at his gorgeous illustrations, the images and text laced with references to our close-knit group of friends, families, and animals. We've been gifted with a couple of the original paintings that became the illustrations for his books, and we value them as dear and precious additions to our collection.
Right before Covid-19 appeared on the scene, I attended the opening of Dave's newest artistic endeavor at the South Pasadena Arts Council gallery. His abstract paintings filled the intimate space with a blast of color and form that reflect an inner life and curiosity that explores deep emotion and unconventional associations. The vibrant primary palette and strong lines of the new work are familiar, but the textures and exotic shapes are fresh and exciting. The whole room was abuzz with enthusiasm that evening as we raised our glasses to toast the successful exhibit, and I walked away with a painting that I can't wait to put on our walls.
Recently, I interviewed Dave about his art and career.
EG: Dave, we’ve known each other a very long time, friend. Our house is full of your art, and our shelves are packed with your books. It was such a great evening to attend your first art opening and see the gallery walls lined with your new paintings. What was it like to have a show like that? How different did it feel to be so well received for a very different side of your creative expression?
DS: Well, first of all, it was so great to see you and all our friends there. It was pretty cool just to see my stuff on a big white wall, but when people started looking at the paintings and having conversations—that was really a rush! This may sound stupid, but it made me feel like an artist. The whole experience was a big departure for me—the concepts and images, the process, and the exhibit—and really gratifying. The abstract stuff is a different way of communicating—stripped down and personal but also much more open to interpretation. It’s just me and my paint along with the viewer and his or her experiences. I didn’t know how people would react to the paintings, if what I was trying to express would come across, or if that was even something people would find interesting. No net, Lizzie—a little scary, but exhilarating.
EG: I don’t think there are many people who don’t know who you are. Your No, David! books are a staple item for most families, but for those readers who might not have kids and children’s books, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
DS: I started out doing editorial illustration in NYC for newspapers and magazines like Time, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone. Also, some book covers and theater posters. I got into children’s books kind of by accident; I illustrated one as a little break from the overnight deadlines of editorial, then I got offered another and another. Next thing I knew, I was writing them, too—mostly stories with humor, but a few that are more on the serious side. No, David! received a Caldecott Honor and things really took off from there.
EG: When my husband showed me your new Instagram feed with your videos, I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve seen you perform demonstrations at book signings, so it was great to see you do your thing—reading from your books and creating art for your fans. Now that everyone has been quarantined at home, I know that it has been much appreciated. Why did you decide to join the “socials” and record these videos? It has been really entertaining!
DS: Aw, thanks! There’s a bunch of people doing stuff. Going to schools, libraries, and bookstores is a big part being a picture book author, so when everything shutdown, we all started looking for ways to reach out to teachers, librarians, and booksellers. And of course, there’s a lot of crazed parents and bored kids out there, too! Hopefully, the social media things add a little bright spot to what’s turning out to be a pretty scary time.
EG: I know your sweet family personally, so I know where some of your inspiration comes from when you start a book, but how do your ideas come to you? What inspires you to start a new book?
DS: I never know where an idea will come from; sometimes it starts as a single image or a title, sometimes it arrives rough but fully formed, sometimes a doodle turns into a story. The one thing I do is write them all down in my sketchbook—even the ones I think are dumb. Sometimes they just die right then and there, but other times they generate more ideas until eventually they coalesce into a book.
EG: You started painting your latest work a couple of years ago. These new paintings are quite a departure from your usual themes. What made you start down this creative avenue? What have you learned about yourself from this latest series of paintings?
DS: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. If you look at my books, you can see I was kind of practicing with the background textures and little bits here and there. I started them just for myself as an alternative to the constraints of illustrating. They’re the complete opposite: large, physical, uncontrolled, non-narrative, and abstract. I really got into them after the election. There were a lot of things I wanted to express, but none of them really lent itself to a children’s book. I was actually a little blocked, so they were a way to keep that part of my brain firing. After a while, I had all these paintings, so I started thinking about showing them. What did I learn about myself? That I’m a very twisted individual (haha).
EG: This is a very general question, but how important are the Arts to our lives? Why is it important to fund music and art in our schools?
DS: I think the Arts are central to what makes us humans—the ability to imagine, interpret, and try to understand the world, to make connections between complex and seemingly unrelated elements. If the creative functions of the brain are developed, it enhances all our thinking. In my opinion, it’s crazy that the Arts are the first things to get cut. But you can’t test creativity. . . .
EG: Last question: what’s next for David Shannon? More books? More paintings?
DS: All of the above.
You can see more of Dave Shannon's work on his fine arts website here.
To read David Shannon's extensive selection of books, click here.