Mentor Retreat, Part 2. The Narrative.

What Have You Learned, Dorothy?"

Writers have it easy. When they pack for a workshop their manuscript fits in a nice manila envelope. They look so cool sashaying through the airport, satchel draped across their chest and a sleek carry-on trailing behind. Sure, there may be a rogue pen or a laptop bogging them down, but as an illustrator I'm not impressed! Luggage for an illustrator's workshop that has to make it through security, two connections and one layover is a much different animal.  An artist needs tangible examples in order to be critiqued! To be sure I was getting every advantage of this experience, I needed to pack it all, thumbnails, sketch books, color copies; the good, the bad and the ugly. The weekend would be filled with fellow mentees, a jury of my peers. We were coming together to learn, not to impress as it goes at a conference. I needed substance. I decided it was best to take everything not nailed down. I sorted my things, careful to pack Exacto knives and other questionable supplies in my checked bag. Clothing would go in my carry-on, doubling as a cradle for my 35mm camera and 17" Mac. I threw all my weight on my over sized touristor and pulled the zipper. I heard it exhale as if it had breathed it's last breath. It had become apparent that sashaying would not be an option. Manila envelopes be damned. I thought about reinforcing my luggage wheel axles. Arriving at the airport, I leveraged my checked bag onto the scale. It fell sideways and rested. 49.3 lbs. I had dodged the first bullet. I was on my way.

Upon arrival I was given a map and pointed toward a cute little cabin.... way over by the water, three hundred feet from the road to be exact. I took a deep breath, and started my trek. Pulling luggage through three inches of bark made the tarmac seem tame.

Tia and Me!

I met my roommate, albeit an amazing illustrator, she was here as a writer. I noticed only a carry-on. We unpacked and made it just in time for the first break out session. The conversations were brilliant, witty and outright hilarious. Colorful scarves, faces of anticipation and enthusiasm. I thought of the tense conference mixers spent spotting agents and art directors hoping for a chance to hand them one of my slick new post cards. I exhaled. The pressure was off. These were my people!

View from our deck.
Dinner was served and we made our way to our first breakout session. I felt a sense of urgency in getting my questions answered. I hoped I would have enough time to ask everything without capitalizing on the session. I was ready, loaded for bear, prepared to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity. Questions and discussions made made their way around the room, closer and closer to me. I started feeling overwhelmed and insignificant. Then it was my turn. In a poor attempt to expedite things, I hurled everything onto the table. I could hear myself blurting out half sentences about style, technique and process while rifling through tissues, overlays and sketchbooks describing my dilemmas, hopes, fears, dreams, happy accidents all in one big, blobby blurb. I realized somewhere between fears and dreams I had lost my point. Eyes began to glaze over. Then, silence. They may have been a little frightened. I took a breath. The color in their faces started to return. I closed my mouth and folded my hands in front of me, eased back into my chair and casually looked to the woman on my left. I cracked a smile and cocked my head as if to say, "next?" I decided it would be best to chill for a bit. And then something wonderful happened. She smiled back and asked me a question. A really good one. Click! The sense of urgency dissipated and was replaced with a warm calmness. All eyes were on me, waiting for my response. And, I had one, a good one. I felt a connection with everyone in the room, common ground. The seal had been broken and the learning had begun. My papers, carelessly spread over the table, seemed ridiculous and obsolete. Rather than talking, I started listening. And in turn, started to hear. The information was not in the form of answers to my questions, things I had intended to check off my list. It was stuff I hadn't even thought to ask; fresh, insightful and organic.
David Diaz during one of our critique sessions. You can see me practicing my new found skill,
biting my lip and listening. (photo: Sylvia Liu Land)
Over the next three days I listened. Those of you who know me can appreciate that keeping my mouth shut is not easy. I realize I have a tendency to lead conversations. I now realize it may be why I sometimes miss stuff.  I'm waiting for people to stop talking so I can comment, rather than listening to the information being given. Could this be, perhaps, a reason for my stuckness. Another breakthrough! "Keep your mouth shut, Kary. And your ears open." Bingo!

My mentor, E.B. Lewis, giving a demo
using my brushes of which he had a strong opinion.

I quickly developed a thick skin. My mentor has what would be best described as a direct approach. 
"Your brushes are shit!"
That sense of urgency? Taken care of. 
No time wasted with niceties here. But honestly, it's refreshing. And, don't forget, I asked for this. 

FINALLY, I'm being told what I need to hear. No holding back. Sugar coated advice hasn't gotten me anywhere. Also, I realize that my mentor can only teach me what he knows. So, I pay attention, taking it all in. I will have plenty of time to sort things out later. But for now, I am a sponge. I don't want to be him, but through his guidance, I hope to find me.

I could go on, but I think you get the jest. More useful and insightful I think are some of the quotes I jotted down by our two illustrator mentors throughout the weekend, David Diaz and E.B. Lewis.
They are both brilliant but in spending time with them it's apparent that there is more than one way to skin a cat. So here in no particular order are some insights quoted and/or paraphrased by them.

“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality with the same intensity.” -Re-quoted by EB 
“Ask yourself, ‘What does my world look like?’ ” -DD 
 “It’s about intention. You’re never gonna achieve it, but you have to do it.” -EB
“Action, Reaction, Interaction. Every image and spread has to identify those three things. EVERY ONE! “ -DD 
“Style and Voice are two different things. Style is how people recognize you. Voice is what distinguishes you." -EB 
“Illustration and Fine Art should meet.” -EB 
"What we do is a craft. It takes a lifetime to master." -DD 
“Photoshop can save five to ten years of your life.” -DD 
“Make sure your pieces are narrative.” -EB 
"Painting is 90% drawing." -EB 
“Kary, Your portfolio presentation is shit.”-EB 
"You need an online presence. Traditional portfolios are not as important as they once were. Editors and agents ask for online portfolios. You need both. -DD  
“Your work is only as good as your reference.” -EB 
“There’s no shame in using reference, but if you use it, own it.” -DD 
“Squinting is important.” It will save you grad school tuition -EB 
And, although this one was for the writers, I had to include it:
“If it sounds like writing, rewrite it!” Sarah Davies, agent/owner at Greenhouse Literary Agency.
Oops! Someone cracked a joke!
Our cool cover is blown!
Me and E.B. in a formal and regal
J.C. Penny Catalog shot.

I'm home now and a good two weeks into this experience. I am a student again. There is a sense of freedom, a huge sense of relief, focus and new found creativity. It's like rediscovering what first excited you about your partner after several meaningful years that have somehow gone flat. It's new, exciting and motivating. I can't wait to get into my studio every morning. There is a sense of focus I haven't felt in years.

And remember, this is only my narrative, a single example of the impact this experience has and will continue to give us. Thank you Nevada SCBWI for providing this venue. And thank you mentors, all of you, for your time.

See you all in April! -Kary


  1. Nice post, Kary. I felt like I was right back at the retreat again. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens!

    1. Thanks so much, Kristen. I hope all is well with you and that you are enjoying your projects. - Kary

    2. Thanks Kary. I'm excitedly building my world with every chance I get. :)

  2. Great post, Kary. Very much like my experience. Can't wait until we meet back up and see what we have all learned.

    1. Can't wait either. I also can't wait to hear how the Lost Weekend went. I'm sure you see your image I used (with a by line of course). I took the liberty, hope that's okay.
      Take care, see you soon! -Kary


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