Author/Illustrator Jeanette Winter is the author of countless children’s books, including the beautifully illustrated children’s book Follow the Drinking Gourd, an adaption of a slave narrative detailing the story of a peg-leg sailor who aids escaped slaves on the underground railroad. The New York-based author talks to Clutch about her work and it’s impact on the art and literary worlds.
Q: When did you discover your passion for drawing and illustrating?
I have loved to draw as long as I can remember. I always wanted to be an artist.
Q: You possess a distinct style in your illustrations that many label as “folk art.” Do you define your work as such?
I wouldn’t use the term ‘folk art’ to define my work. I have too much art training, beginning at age 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, I have been influenced by ‘folk art’, untrained art, etc. because of the story-telling qualities of this kind of art.
Q: What are some inspirations for your illustrations?
Mexican crafts and folk art have been important to me. And various artists such as Ben Shahn (my favorite artist), Jacob Lawrence, Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Klee, Beatrix Potter (my favorite children’s book author/artist.), and anonymous ‘outsider’ art.
Q: Do you have a favorite of all that you’ve created?
I don’t have a favorite, but FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD is probably the most important to me personally, as it started a new direction for my work, both stylistically and in content. The illustrations almost ‘painted themselves’ (if that makes any sense).
Q: Your book “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is a children’s story that teaches of Peg Leg Joe and his work with slaves on the Underground Railroad. How did you decide on this subject matter?
I often know exactly when I have the idea for a book. But the genesis of this book came to me in an indirect way, sort of ‘off to the side’. I was familiar with the song from my college days, when folk music was popular. And it was also a matter of educating myself about the Underground Railroad, a subject I was taught nothing about in school.
Q: This book tells a tale that often goes unheard with slave narratives. Did you complete any research before you began writing?
I did a great deal of research before I began. I found a reference to the Drinking Gourd, and Peg Leg Joe in early papers of the Texas Folklore Society. And I read many, many slave narratives.
Q: What is your fondest memory as an artist?
My best memory (memories) as an artist is when the final picture, or story, bears some resemblance to the idea that was first in my mind as I started working. When that happens, I’m happy.
Q: Who (if any) are some contemporary artists that you admire?
I admire the dancer Twyla Tharp, the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, the composer Philip Glass.
Q: You’ve written and illustrated many biographies of famous artists/authors in children’s book format. Do you find it more rewarding to compose pieces for a younger audience?
I feel comfortable with the form of the picture book. I like to pare down the facts to what I feel is the essence of a person, getting to the core of what’s important. I like the medium of a book, where my work is accessible to a wide range of people, for a low cost.
Q: Which do you find more compelling—writing or drawing? Or is it an unfair comparison?
Drawing is my ‘native tongue’, like eating or sleeping. Writing is altogether different. I find writing very difficult, but when I’ve finished a piece that I feel good about, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling!