Author Interview: Kathy Whitehead on Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter

Kathy Whitehead has taught at the elementary level and holds an M. Ed. in Educational Administration from Texas A&M University. Her classroom experience has given her a front row seat to the joy and wonder that literature brings to children. She lives in College Station, Texas; with her husband Bill. They have two children–Jeff and Stephanie.

What were you like as a young reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite books?

I read all the time as a kid. Trips to the library were a weekly event. I must admit to occasionally reading just a few more pages under the bed with a flashlight after bedtime.

Memories of favorite books include the feeling of being mesmerized by the works of Dr. Seuss and the emotional tug at the heart that Louisa May Alcott wrenched from me through the pages of her books.

What first inspired you to write for children?

I taught fourth grade and reading to my students led to my desire to write for kids.

My writing journey didn’t begin though until I stayed home with my own children. Ideas began forming, and I wrote whenever I had the chance.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Middle grade mysteries were always a favorite of mine, so that’s where I started. I concentrated on the structure of the novel, which led me to read many books about novel writing.

With my concentration on middle grade novels, it may seem odd that the two books that I have published are picture books. I didn’t try writing picture books for a very long time, even though I kept filing away ideas for them. I didn’t feel like I had time to concentrate on different format.

When I finally felt like branching out to picture books, I discovered that the time I’d spent studying the structure of a novel was time well spent. I realized that the picture book was merely a condensed version of the novel, told through a concentrated selection of words and pictures.

Looking back, what was the single best decision you made in terms of advancing your craft as a writer?

Shortly before my journey into writing picture books, I became a part of a new critique group. Janet Fox, Shirley Hoskins, and I began meeting weekly, which was helpful for several reasons.

I consistently worked on a daily basis, so weekly meetings fit my time format. My critique group not only was helpful to my writing progress, but provided the added bonus of observing the writing process of others, which accelerated my learning process.

Watching someone’s manuscript take shape while helping them revise it, provides the critique partner an additional learning situation. And their support of my work through every step of the process has been immeasurable to me.

We last spoke in September 2005 on Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July, illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla (Boyds Mills, 2005). Do you have any updates on that book?

My picture book Looking for Uncle Louie on the Fourth of July has made the Fourth of July feel very special to me–almost like my own birthday. It has been great to be able to share the joy of this holiday and discuss the reason for the celebration of this day with kids. And I enjoy seeing kids’ eyes light up when they see the lowriders–kind of like a transformer come to life!

Congratulations on the release of Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Putnam, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter is a picture book biography. It shares the inspiring story of Clementine Hunter’s life and her wonderful “primitive” artwork.

Clementine was an African-American “primitive” artist who didn’t start painting until the age of fifty. She did field labor in her early years on Melrose Plantation in Louisiana.

When she started painting, she did it after putting in a full day’s work doing household chores on the plantation, which at that point was a haven for well-known writers and artists to create their craft. Clementine started displaying her work on a clothesline and later in life had her work displayed in museums.

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

I visited Melrose Plantation about fifteen years ago. It had become a museum by then, and I learned about Clementine’s life story there.

I thought children would really enjoy her art and learning about the struggles which she overcame.

A few years later, I returned to Melrose, hoping to gain some inspiration for another attempt at the manuscript. I returned home and spent a lot of time sifting through the information about her but with no luck. Several years later, I decided to try again. The approach of how to tell her story finally occurred to me after much review of the information on her life and art.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

A few months after writing my manuscript, I attended a Houston – SCBWI conference where my [future] editor, Susan Kochan, was a speaker. I submitted my manuscript to her after the conference. She suggested some revisions to the manuscript, which I followed up on, and months later, she offered me a contract.

We still needed images of Clementine’s artwork to truly tell her story and finding images for a nonfiction book is the author’s duty. I was very fortunate to have some very nice folks put me in touch with Tom Whitehead and the Ann and Jack Brittain family who shared images from their Clementine Hunter collections. This made the book complete.

What did Shane Evans’s art bring to your text?

Shane Evans’s art deepens the emotional content of Clementine’s story and brings a wonderful energy to it. His art meshes beautifully with Clementine’s paintings in color and style.

How do you balance being a writer with the demands of being an author (contracts, promotion, etc.)?

Balancing my creative writing work with the business demands of being an author is never easy. I enjoy both aspects of the writing life, but prioritizing is a necessity. I try to channel my energy into a meaningful use of my time.