Illustrator Interview: Don Tate on the “Duke Ellington” Raffle and TLA Disaster Relief Fund

Don Tate is a renowned children’s book illustrator, based in Austin, Texas. Read a previous Cynsations interview with Don and an interview about his efforts as a co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf.

How did you come to donate a painting to the raffle for the Texas Library Association Disaster Relief Fund?

Actually it began for me earlier this year at your Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) launch party.

[Librarian] Jeanette Larson approached me with very kind words about a snowflake I’d donated to Robert’s Snow: for Cancer’s Cure and asked about my interest in donating art to the raffle.

Why is it important to you?

I think it’s always important to help people in need. None of us are exempt from the possibility of a natural disaster, and so I think it’s our duty to help when we can.

I’m not always able to help financially, but my time and talent are valuable resources, too. It gratifies me to know my art will help children and families.

Could you tell us about the portrait in terms of its subject?

The piece I donated is actually a character study of jazz great Duke Ellington, for a book to be published by Charlesbridge, tentatively titled “Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite,” written by Anna Harwell Celenza.

In terms of its artistic approach?

Normally I use a tight, stylized realism. But for this book, I wanted to do something very different, something bold, loose.

So I approached this study with the plan to throw away the final piece. That way, I’d loosen up, not care so much.

I sketched my subject with a Sharpie marker. That way there would be no erasing. Then I used a photocopying process to make several copies for experimenting with (that was my only short cut). When it came to painting, the trick for me was not to think, not to plan, to just let it happen.

But I liked the final piece and couldn’t throw it away. So I made myself another and donated the original to the Disaster Relief fund.

What about Duke Ellington speaks to you?

Initially, I didn’t know anything about Duke Ellington or his music. As far as I was concerned, Duke Ellington was for my 97-year-old grandpa. I grew up on a diet of funk and hip-hop.

For this book, I had to do some research. And I liked what I found. I downloaded Ellington’s Three Suites album; I purchased several videos and CDs of his performances.

I also watched a lot of YouTube. I was blown away.

Now, not only am I a Duke Ellington fan, but Tchaikovsky, too. On several occasions, I found myself jogging to Ellington’s “Sugar Rum Cherry” and Tchaikovsky’s “Miniature Overture,” and liking it! Both these guys were geniuses.

When will we see the book itself?

Well, that depends. The project is in an editorial holding pattern, and now I’m up against the deadline for another book. But it’s supposed to drop in 2010.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I hope people will like the art and will support the cause.

Following Hurricane Ike, I had to do a lot of graphics and video editing of the disaster. The stories were heartbreaking. Many people lost everything. [Note: Don also works as an illustrator for The Austin-American Statesman].

The Texas Library Association’s Disaster Relief fund will go a long way in helping families.

Cynsational Notes

Reminder: “Buy a couple of raffle tickets and ‘take a chance on art’ or simply make a donation to the fund (information is online at”

Read a companion interview with Austin-based librarian Jeanette Larson.

Please pass on news of the TLA Disaster Fund and raffle!