Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Theresa Smythe Interview

One of the reasons I love doing interviews is how much you learn about all the artists.  I think everyone has such interesting jobs, interesting experiences and Theresa Smythe is no exception.  Enjoy!

S- It looks like you have worked on three books!  That's awesome.  What is the best part of working on new book projects?  How have you gotten into this line of work?

TS- Thank you--I just got contracted to do a fourth! It's been seven years since I got my last book deal so this is very exciting to me. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to make it back to my children's book career after having a child and experiencing a number of personal tragedies over these last seven years. I kinda lost my mojo for it.

The best part of working on book projects for me has to be "the beginning" and "the end". The beginning; because it's very exciting to take your germ of an idea and develop it ---and the end; because after working on your idea for a year or usually more, it's very satisfying to finally be finished and release it into the world! The middle is not my favorite because it's a long journey from beginning to end and like a marathon runner; you have to save your stamina to keep your interest on a book for such a long period of time.

I got into this line of work after working in the animation industry for over sixteen years. When I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design, I had animation for my first choice and children's illustration for my second. After leaving the animation industry later in life somewhat disillusioned, I wanted to know if it would be more satisfying pursuing what was my second choice for an art career. And ultimately it was, because I had more creative control over the final product.
S- It looks like you also had worked in film and tv for years.  What was that experience like?  How about a favorite story?

TS- At first it was very exciting and satisfying to the ego--who doesn't want to go to the movies and see their name pop up in the credits? It started out with much difficulty however, as back in 1984, when I graduated with my degree from RISD, animation was a dead horse. I was also living in Massachusetts which did not help, so I would commute to Boston for an occasional freelance job, painting animation cels for TV commercials whenever I got a chance. After a couple of years of that, I took the leap of faith and went to New York City and got to work at some much more prominent animation studios that gave me a lot more experience and most importantly let me draw!

My favorite experience in NY was working at Michael Sporn Animation Inc. where we made half hour specials for HBO and PBS based on classic children's books. I got to animate, immerse myself in children's books and occasionally do voice-over work for the specials which I really enjoyed. I also met my future husband when he came to pick up some freelance work at that studio.

In the tail end of 1990,  I made the move to Los Angeles with future husband to be and we got here right before the big animation boom that hit shortly after. Disney's big comeback film, THE LITTLE MERMAID, put animation back on the map and several studios opened all over the city and started scrambling for artists. It was a great time to be in LA for animation and the salaries were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. FINALLY, no longer a "starving artist"!

My favorite moment in animation was when I was hired by Bill Melendez to work on a Peanuts Special which to me was huge since I had been drawing Snoopy since I was able to pick up a pencil. I had grown up watching the Peanuts Specials on TV, and was selling my drawings of Snoopy to my elementary school classmates for 5cents apiece. Now I was in my thirties and working on one of those specials, drawing Snoopy for real!

Unfortunately, animation turned into drudgery for me when I realized it was very male dominated and my chances of being creative in the field were second to none. I was just one of many churning out boring, bland characters in an assembly line and my having to draw exactly like the guy next to me, in the next cubicle, was the measure of success. Any individuality and originality was not good, as the film has to look like it was drawn by one person. Such a contrast to being an illustrator, where your ability to be original and stand out from the competition is what is the key to success.

S- What do you think are the most important things to enjoying life?

TS- The most important things to enjoying life for me is having the freedom to be able to create. If I'm not in my studio making something--no matter what it is--I notice I get very grouchy. Creating is where I find my bliss and it truly feeds my soul. I think if you love what you do work-wise, life can be a very enjoyable experience. I've had enough yucky jobs in my lifetime to know the difference, right down to cleaning toliets to pay the rent. I feel very fortunate these days that I have a creative space, my studio, totally dedicated to my creativity.

I'm still working on creating a balanced life however, which I also feel is the key to happiness. I tend to obsess on certain aspects of my life at a time, which can make me very fickle, and sooner or later, things fall away that I haven't put my attention on.

S- I am in a creative slump.  I hope I am not alone in feeling this way as I am sure I am not.  I can't seem to get the "mojo" back.  Do you ever get in a creative slump and how do you try and pull yourself out of it?

TS- Ah yes, many, many times I have lost my "mojo" for one thing or the other. For the last seven years, I lost all my children's book making mojo. I couldn't even sit in the book store pulling volumes off the shelf to leaf through like I used to.  I wasn't inspired by anyone or anything in that field for such a long time.

The way I got out of the slump is by experimenting with new materials. These past seven years I have been experimenting...
I've been carving my own rubber stamps, making glittery skulls, teaching myself how to sew in order to make stuffed mohair jointed bears and other critters, indulging in my love of vintage holiday decor and making my own vintage inspired decorations, exploring the mechanics of pop-up books, and connecting with other like-minded individuals on the internet. I could always find inspiration there and I loved the challenge of learning something new.

I feel much more enriched these days, having indulged in these various art/craft forms over the years. And It's exciting for me to see how I will use what I have learned in my next projects. I'd love to combine them all somehow in the future. Who knows, maybe that means a return to animation for me someday? Anything is possible! It's all about evolving...and growing as an artist. Being open to change is what makes life worth living as well as making it exciting.
S- What are most excited for during this summer?

TS- Renting an RV and traveling to Yosemite and other places with my family for a major vacation--it's been on the to-do list for a long while. And I'm very excited to go to Munky King for the plush-you show of course!!!


Fantastic Toys said...

I've always loved her work! Didn't know she was a professional illustrator and animator.. how exciting.

cathy gaubert said...

i am so happy that you are sharing theresa with "the world" as she is just beyond awesome!!!