Author-Illustrator Interview & Giveaway: Demi

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

From “Artist and authoress Demi has produced a staggering number of illustrated books….

“In recent years, as well as continuing to publish her retellings of folktales from around the world, she has focused on creating beautiful picture-book biographies of iconic spiritual leaders.”

Tell us about your earliest influences.

I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts into a great American family of artists and architects.

My great-grandfather was the great American painter William Morris Hunt who was a great visionary and inspiration. His paintings are in museums all over the world. He studied in Paris and was one of the first people to appreciate Turner, Corot and Delacroix, and Millet was his best friend. He carried their paintings and the spirit of Impressionism to America.

My great-grand uncle was the great American architect, Richard Morris Hunt, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and became the first Dean of American Architects. He founded and was president of the American Institute of Architects.

His most famous buildings are The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Carnegie Hall, the Base of the Statue of liberty, Biltmore House in North Carolina, The Breakers and Marble House in Newport Rhode island, and the Vanderbilt House on 5th Avenue, N.Y.C.

I grew up in an old New England farmhouse that had a big barn.

My mother was a great watercolor painter and had her studio on the 2nd floor of the barn. As soon as I could crawl, I crawled up there and tried out all her best brushes on all her best papers.

Sliding with her father

My father was a theatrical producer, and our house was filled with actors from all over the world, and so it seemed to me with spotlights going on, and curtains going up, that life was pretty magical and that anything was possible.

My mother and father carefully guided my world of art in all mediums; first to The Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico, where I painted enormous fresco murals, painted in watercolor and oil, made silver jewelry, and wove on looms; and next to Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, California where I studied with the incomparable Sister Mary Corita and Sister Magdalen Mary primarily painting and silk screen printing.

From there, I won a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in India, and the exposure to all Eastern Art was the great turning point in my life.

When I met and married my Chinese husband, Tze-si Huang, my world, and my world of art, literature and religion opened into continuing new worlds of wonder in all directions and dimensions.

Demi’s studio

What about your own body of work?

All in all, including all the novelty books, I have written and illustrated over 300 books.

The Empty Pot was selected by former First Lady Barbara Bush in 1990 as one of the books to be read on the ABC Radio Network Program, “Mrs. Bush’s Story Time,” sponsored by the Children’s Literacy Initiative.

Also, Maestro Lorin Maazel created an opera from it, narrated by Jeremy Irons at its London premiere with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and other numerous ballets and music scores have been written for it.

The Nightingale and Gandhi have been named The New York Times Best Illustrated Books, and Gandhi also received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award.

My husband, Tze-si Huang, and I represented the United States of America at the First International Children’s Book Conference in Beijing, China, in 1992.

This year, a collaboration called, Master of Zen, Extraordinary Teachings From Hui Neng’s Altar Sutra (World Wisdom, 2012), won 2012 USA Best Book in Religion/Buddhism.

What is your secret to success?

Demi and Tze-si on a Kauai mountain

My husband’s definition of success:

A story:
When I heard my husband’s, Tze-si Huang’s, translation of Master of Zen, Extraordinary Teachings From Hui Neng’s Altar Sutra, had just won USA Best Book 2012 in Religion/Buddhism, I went dancing and screeching into his meditation room and told him the news.

An hour later, he slowly emerged saying, “All things come and all things go.”

This is how success is.

In a book I did called, Su Dongpo, Chinese Genius (Lee and Low, 2006), Su Dongpo speaks of success after having experienced the greatest heights and depths of life:

“There is not much difference in the actual happiness of living a luxurious life and a simple one. One is wanted for position when one doesn’t want it, and wants it when the position doesn’t want him.
In either case, happiness and sadness are moments that pass like a shadow, a sound, a breeze and a dream. Both are earthly illusions. How can you find happiness countering one illusion with another?” 

I grew up in a family with a tradition of hard work and great achievements that spanned many generations.

mural Demi painted in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato,
Mexico, in her Picasso/Byzantine style

From a very early age, I was encouraged to work hard and achieve success.

Competition was a very important part of my early life.

I excelled in many things, but particularly in art.

I won many awards from my years at Milton Academy, Immaculate Heart College, as a Fulbright Scholar in India, as well as in publishing.

However, since I started practicing Buddhism about 30 years ago, I went through a fundamental transformation in my perspective.

For whatever I now accomplish, I no longer think in terms of success, fame or personal glory. There is no “now,” there is no time.

There is only the Divine. I devote my whole heart and effort to produce books which I hope can have a positive impact on society. They are my offering. My great-grandfather, the great American painter William Morris Hunt once said, “Art is divine.” “To be able to paint is divine.”

I would only add, “To be able to live your life in that sphere is divine, and the rest is gratitude.”

Where do you find inspiration?

Things I have written about making books:

Life is magic!
You are magic!
and paper is magic!

I always thought drawing was magic and making things was magic. And I still do!

Learn more about Su Dongpo by Demi

If you really think about it, every moment of the light and the dark is a miracle. Every moment of life is magic!

Painting was regarded in early China as an art of magic. An artist was one who could produce wonderful effects by the mastery of the secret forces in nature.

Everything possessed Ch’i – or the essence of life that pervaded the universe, and the magical painter, through his creative powers could show, distill and celebrate this life, or Ch’i on paper!

Instead of looking at life in a linear way, one could take a cyclic view and look at life’s rhythm of natural movement. Circulate the Ch’i, the breath, spirit and vital force of heaven! For brushwork is the direct expression of the mind in action. It’s function is to make visible the invisible, and keep everything alive!

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting by Wang Kai (1679) says some of my favorite things about painting:

“Take ten days to paint a stream and five to paint a rock.
Above all, learn to hold your thoughts on the five peaks:
the harmony of the universe, the outer and inner harmony of man.

Study all things in all seasons.
See the different shape of the wind blowing through
willow branches in summer and fall.

Study ten thousand volumes. Walk ten thousand miles.

Study the great: With one stroke of a brush,
they can release a kite on a thousand foot string.
When they paint, mountains soar, springs flow,
water runs clear and forests spread vast and lonely.

If you aim at facility, work hard.
If you aim at simplicity, master complexity.
If you aim to dispense with method, learn method.
For the end of all method is to seem to have no method.”

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of The Great Voyages of Zheng He by Demi (Shen’s, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The Great Voyages of Zheng He by Demi

Imagine looking out to sea and watching over three hundred gargantuan ships, their flaming red sails caught in the wind, approaching your shore. What wonders of the world would be found on those ships?

Over 600 hundred years ago, Emperor Zhu Di of China decided to build the greatest naval fleet the world had ever seen to befriend and trade with countries throughout Asia and Africa. The admiral of this diplomatic and treasure-gathering fleet was a brilliant and peace-loving man named Zheng He.

Between 1405 and 1431, Zheng He led seven voyages of the treasure fleets, each bringing a message of friendship and peace between China and the other countries of the world. Through his leadership, these expeditions extended China s influence and brought it great treasures in trade and tribute, making China the first world superpower.

In this account of Zheng He s amazing life, award-winning author and illustrator Demi recreates the grandeur and enthusiasm of these naval voyages with her signature detailed artwork. She introduces us to this larger-than-life figure who dreamed of a world where the best of mankind was peacefully shared and celebrated, a world of intellectual growth and religious tolerance, and a world of everlasting, worldwide peace.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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4 thoughts on “Author-Illustrator Interview & Giveaway: Demi

  1. It was always a special time for my son and me when we'd read any of Demi's stories at bedtime. The Magic Paintbrush always produced cackles of glee [whenever the resultant painted dragon-creature would bite the head off any of the young hero's enemies] and much mattress-jumping! I also have fond memories of encountering Demi herself whenever she stopped by Holt's offices to drop off artwork with Miriam Chaikin(I was the senior designer in the adult dept across the hall from kid's books). I look forward to catching up on her latest books, thanks to this wonderful interview. Cheers!

  2. We are visiting San Miguel de Allende and our hotel has a beautiful mural by Demi. I have always liked this mural and I am glad I was able to learn about her journey.

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