Posted on December 06 2017
Vashti Harrison is an award-winning experimental filmmaker, artist, illustrator and now author who won the 2016 Field Notes Best Documentary for her short film Sixteen. Having illustrated several books, she has just released her own - Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History which features the stories of 40 black trailblazers from history accompanied by Vashti's beautiful signature illustrations (out in UK March 2018). Here's her story:
Newnham: Can you tell us what you were like growing up? How would your family and friends have described you?
Harrison: I was the shy and quiet kid, I really just liked to sit quietly and draw or read. My mom comes from a huge Trinidadian family, so whenever we’d visit, they’d play music, dance and sing, but I was always the odd one out, just wanting to find a corner to draw in!
Newnham: When did your creative talents first reveal themselves? What was your first creative passion?
Harrison: When I was really really little I remember “writing” stories long before I knew how to write. I would take a sheet of looseleaf paper and draw endless loops like cursive “e’s” covering sheet after sheet.
Then I would take my manuscript to my parents and “read” them the story. I don’t remember when I began drawing, but at some point I stopped writing stories. Drawing became my main hobby all the way up until college.
Newnham: You are immensely talented – can you tell us more about your career to date?
Harrison: Even though I drew so much as a kid, when I started making films I stopped drawing altogether. I discovered my passion for film in college and fell really hard for it. Things really clicked for me in a way I hadn’t felt before. I went on to get my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in experimental film at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). That school, though, is famous for its Disney-founded animation program, so while I finishing up my degree I took a few drawing classes just for fun. It totally revived my love for drawing, but to my chagrin I was not very good. After not practicing for years, my skill had atrophied. I was extremely frustrated and insecure about my ability so I made it a personal goal of mine to draw every day.
After grad school I got a job working as a Production Coordinator on an animated TV show. I had my mind set that I could work a day job and still pursue my personal filmmaking, but my hours were long and draining and in my role I did not get to be creative at all. I turned to drawing as my outlet. I started an Instagram account for my illustrations and posted regularly. But I kept my drawing mostly secret - I especially didn’t want the talented animators I worked with knowing what I was up to.
Everything changed though in Aug 2015 when the show ended and I got laid off. I was desperate for a more creative job so I looked for work for months, but found nothing. My films were showing at festivals and winning awards, but there were no real career opportunities for me. Fortunately I got a few illustration commissions through my Instagram account and, after a while, illustrating became the only thing that made me money. Even though it terrified me I decided to pursue it as a career. I wasn’t convinced I had the talent to do it, but I loved it enough to dedicate myself to it.
In April 2016 I officially moved home with my parents and began illustrating full time. I joined the SCBWI (the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and did as much research into the industry as possible. Things moved really quickly from there. I entered a drawing into one of their competitions - the prize: have your drawing placed in the monthly newsletter that goes out to all members, including industry professionals. My drawing won and on June 1 2016 my illustration went out to the whole organization. By June 2 2016, I had an offer to illustrate a picture book in my email from an art director from Simon & Schuster. I was terrified. But I didn't have another choice but to try my absolute hardest. A few months later, I met my agent and we signed another picture book deal. I moved to New York in Dec 2016 and in Feb 2017 I had the idea for Little Leaders.
I’m still showing films in festivals, but I haven’t had much time to work on anything new. I have so many ideas for movies and projects that now I am reimagining them as books. "Author" is my newest title, and it still feels foreign to me but filmmaking gave me a new passion for storytelling and scriptwriting, so I hope to translate those skills into print!
Newnham: And what’s your ultimate goal with your work?
Harrison: I really just want to tell stories - preferably with pictures - be they in a book form or on screen. I feel like I have so many ideas that I want to write about and explore, my goal is to just get them out! It’s always exciting when people connect with the stories I tell, but definitely a surprise. I don’t often start with my audience in mind - I start with a concept. If I’m trying to reach anyone it’s people like me: introverts; book lovers; women; women of color; people who are always looking for magic.
Newnham: Little Leaders looks amazing and we can’t wait for it to come out in the UK in March. Can you tell us how it came to be?
Harrison: During Black History Month 2017 I started a drawing project for myself. I wanted to illustrate one black woman from American History every day for the month of February and post a short bio about her life. I was inspired by other art challenges like #MerMay and #InkTober.
By the first one, I knew it was a project that would mean a lot to me and other people. I was very affected by reading the stories of these women. I felt their passion and boldness in a deeply emotional way that I hadn’t expected. The posts got very popular on Instagram, so I asked my agent if she thought there was potential for a book here. We pitched the idea to several publishers, and ended up with a deal from LittleBrown Books for Young Readers.
It all happened very quickly and in order to have it ready for Black History Month 2018 we had to hit the ground running. I finished writing the bios during the summer and turned in all final artwork in late September! Around then we got an offer to do a UK edition - where we would switch out seven Americans for Brits. That was finished around the end of October and will be released March 1 2018 - in time for Women’s History Month.
Newnham: That's fantastic. What would you say you are most proud of and why?
Harrison: You’ll find that insecurity in my own ability is a running theme in my story. It’s really scary to pursue a creative career especially considering the label “real job” is always looming overhead. I think I’m most proud of moving beyond the fear and being dedicated to my craft. It certainly wasn’t easy, but I had a good support system to help me through it.
Newnham: What’s next for you? What would your absolute DREAM project be?
Harrison: I have a few more picture books coming down the pipe so I haven't had a ton of time to do much writing. I look forward to focusing on my own fiction. I have a few ideas cooking for a couple different picture books and a middle grade novel.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice – if any, would you offer a younger Vashti?
Harrison: I’m really happy with where I am, and I know all of the struggles it took to get here were a part a necessary process, so I don’t know if I’d want to change anything. I’d just encourage her and tell her she’s doing the right thing - even though it’s scary - even though you’re constantly questioning whether you’re good enough - as long as you are happy doing what you love it will be worth it.