5 Questions for Akem

Interview by the Young Adulting Editors

Akem is an artist and writer. Her short stories have appeared in Pulp Literature, Polar Borealis, and the Capilano Review

She illustrated Brown Sugar Babe, a picture book published in Feb 2020 that received great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Black Nerd Problems. Check out her Mythic Texture artwork online at www.akemiart.ca and follow her process at www.patreon.com/akemiart

What draws you to art as a means of storytelling and, more specifically, to illustrating picture books?

Picture books are a compact form of storytelling that I can do on my own. To visually describe a world in a single image and to conceptualize and create the art for 32 pages is a manageable task. It’s also an established industry so there’s adequate timelines for their creation. 

With Graphic Novels, I don’t think I’d have the stamina to create a 200 page comic on my own especially with tight publishing deadlines. And by stamina, there’s a real risk of exacerbating health problems like carpal tunnel and lower back issues. Even if I was just the illustrator, that is a job of at least six people in one (storyboard artist, character designer, background designer, penciller, inker, colourist).

I worked in the animation industry and the amount of people that are needed to produce a series or even one episode of a show is overwhelming. Every aspect is a separate job and it really hits home the amount of work one artist in the publishing industry is expected to do.

What are some of your inspirations when it comes to art and personal projects? Are they different from what inspires you when you’re illustrating other people’s stories?

So far, the projects that have come to me align with my interests in mythic and surreal art with some supernatural elements. My inspiration comes from travels and random images that get stuck in my head. There’s this mossy old tree by a bus stop that I’ve been taking pictures of for years for example, and I’ve sneaked it into two of my paintings. I’m sure it’ll pop up again down the road. 

I paint people with Black skin exclusively as a personal interest. I recently did a post on my Patreon that followed the progression of my art over a fifteen-year period. I saw that it took me years to draw a dark-skinned person. This was totally unconscious on my part and it really stuck with me how colonized my mind was. 

Your illustrations in Brown Sugar Babe (Boyds Mills Press, 2020) hit many emotional notes. They evoked warmth, familiarity,  drama, and surprise. How do you feel art and storytelling connect? 

Brown Sugar Babe drew on a similar life experience that made it easier for me to interpret. Basically, my research was myself. The poetry had similar elements to my lived experience. So the art and story connected without difficulty. 

Brown Sugar Babe  is filled with warm, rich colours, textures, and sensory elements in both the writing and the illustrations. Tell us about the collaborative process with writer Charlotte Watson Sherman and which spreads are your favourites? 

With picture books, I don’t think the author’s have much say in the artist that is selected for their stories. The initial meeting to see if I was a good fit for the project was with the editor and writer, but I don’t know how much input Charlotte had behind the scenes. I think Charlotte was more concerned that I had the background to paint this story. 

I like all the spreads in different ways. The spread with the pink crayon was a matching experience that I had in school – that’s why I chose that image. The spread with the woman that has a star for a face is the most surreal and interesting to me.

What are your upcoming projects? Will you be illustrating any more picture books in the future?

I have my own author/illustrated picture books that I want to create in the future. But I’m currently interested in illustrating other author’s stories so I’m looking for an Illustration Agent that will help me with that. 

I’m currently working on a personal project of Black gods and goddesses and more art in my Mythic Texture series. This series showcases Black people in many different settings, as gods and goddess, myths and legends. I like bringing these to life as an alternative to the image of Black pain and suffering in popular media. 

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