Friday, July 7, 2017

Sean Qualls: Let Your Art Be Your Constant

Sean Qualls is an award-winning, Brooklyn-based, children’s book illustrator, artist and author. His books include: Giant Steps to Change The World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis-Lee, Little Cloud and Lady Wind by Toni Morrison and her son Slade, and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor. Sean also created the art for Dizzy by Jonah Winter and most recently Freedom Song (The Story of Henry “Box” Brown) by Sally Walker. His work has received two Blue Ribbon citations from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Sean draws inspiration from an array of influences such as movies, television, childhood memories, aging and decaying surfaces, architecture, nature, folk art, fairy tales, Americana, black memorabilia, outsider art, cave paintings, collectibles, African art, golden books, vintage advertisement graphics, mythology, science fiction, and music. He lives in lives in Brooklyn with his wife, illustrator/author Selina Alko. Visit

As storytellers and artists, we are driven by an inner urge to share a piece of ourselves and to captivate an audience. However, we exist in a world where we might limit ourselves by trying to fit into a specific market, to define the boundaries of a career (am I an artist or an illustrator?), to be intimidated by our peers, and to be fearful of failure. How often do we let these things define our path, instead of "getting comfortable with being misunderstood"?

Sean's keynote speech was P-R-O-F-O-U-N-D.  Echoing one part of Vanessa Brantley Newton's morning keynote, he said: staying tapped into that inner urge to create can act as a guiding light through difficult times.

More of Sean's insightful advice for creatives:
  • Find something you love to do and become obsessed with it. Buoy yourself with supportive friends.
  • Keep showing up and doing the work. At #LA17SCBWI, every success story seems to share this common denominator.
  • Dedicate yourself to continuing to learn and grow: Sean used museum catalogs, public libraries, friends, and the world around him as his art education. He found his voice in art not through school, but by curiosity, personal research, and experiments -- and by keeping his mind open as he flexed different materials and techniques.
  • Make art for yourself. Dedicate time to discovering your personal themes by giving yourself space to create work in your sketchbook, journal, or any private space where you can be free.
  • "Art is Magic. Magic is a process. Art is an arrangement of our feelings made to look completely effortless. That is the definition of magic."
  • Accept yourself: what you think of as a flaw could be your definitive, unique asset.
  • Stay determined and stay too busy to care about other people's approval.
Thank you, Sean, for this powerful keynote about becoming a professional by delving deeper into imagination, memory, curiosity, and that inner urge -- not by limiting ourselves by our failures or successes, but by continuing to make work we care about. 

"Let your art be your constant."

Catch more of the conference highlights this year through blog posts tagged #LA17SCBWI or as-it-happens on Twitter.

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