Native Author-Illustrator Interview: Jonathan Nelson

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Diné (Navajo) artist Jonathan Nelson to discuss his journey as an illustrator and his recently published debut picture book.

Johnny, your Wool of Jonesy (Native Realities, 2016), a wordless graphic novel won the American Indian Library’s Association Middle Grade Honor Book Award earlier this year. 

Now your first picture book, First Laugh – Welcome Baby, written by the late Rose Ann Tahe, a fellow Diné creator, and Nancy Bo Flood (Charlesbridge, 2018), is out in the world. 

From the promotional copy:

The First Laugh Ceremony is a celebration held to welcome a new member of the community. 

As everyone—from Baby’s nima (mom) to nadi (big sister) to cheii (grandfather)—tries to elicit the joyous sound from Baby, readers are introduced to details about Navajo life and the Navajo names for family members. 

Back matter includes information about other cultural ceremonies that welcome new babies and children, including man yue celebration (China), sanskaras (Hindu) and aquiqa (Muslim). What brought you to illustrate this book featuring Diné culture? 

Yes, thank you. It’s been crazy seeing this unfold with my art. I’ve been drawing since I was five years old, so I’ve been working at this a while now.
It was Nancy Bo Flood who introduced me, and my work, to Charlesbridge. I shared my portfolio and they loved what they saw.

Although my recent work has been based around Jonesy and sheep, I was excited to change direction by illustrating Diné people.

Diné Man and His Hat, Ballpoint pen and whiteout on paper by Jonathan Nelson, used with permission.

Tell us about your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

Well, I suppose my apprenticeship began in elementary school. It began with tracing. I traced Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and X-Men.

In middle school, I started copying, because I wanted the character I was drawing to be larger on my ruled school paper. Without realizing it, I was learning about size, proportion, scale, space, and perspective.

In high school, I began drawing with a ballpoint pen, because I didn’t like how my sketchbooks were smudged with pencil drawings. I would still draw superheroes, but they became more expressive. Their features became more exaggerated; the arms and legs were longer and the hands and feet were bigger.

Frybread Warriors, Ballpoint pen on paper, 10”x 7,” 2016,
by Jonathan Nelson, used with permission.

After high school, I worked a lot of different jobs, but none were art-related. So, as an untraditional college student, I went back to school years later. I learned how to turn my drawings into shirt graphics or digital paintings.

It wasn’t until graduate school at University of Arizona when I developed the narrative around Diné culture using sheep.

Navajo Sheep by Jonathan Nelson, used with permission.

I always tell students that your time in school is the time to build the work you want to do for the rest of your life. So, I spent the last couple of years of school writing and drawing what would become Jonesy.

We’re lucky that we can search our favorite artists now and see results in seconds. We print these out and have a reference in hand! Over the years I kept collecting comics, graphic novels, and art books about logos, illustrations, artists and painters. I could see how other artists were creating their art and borrowed techniques to make my own art.

Fitting In, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, 2013 by Jonathan Nelson, used with permission.

What craft and career advice do you have for Native artists who might be interested in illustrating books for children? 

Draw, paint, or illustrate what you love. There are so many avenues for every type of art. There are many stories out there that are looking for art, so as long as you have your portfolio to share someone will come along and want to work with you.

For a long time, I tried to cater to a specific style on someone’s project. It didn’t seem to work out, so I stopped trying to copy someone else’s work. I began to draw what I wanted to draw. I like big, flat Chuck Taylors and large hands or hooves on my characters.

I love how the lines from my ballpoint pen aren’t clean, but together you can see a glass filled with water or thick wool or sagebrush.

Sheep in the Landscape No. 3, oil on canvas, by Jonathan Nelson, used with permission.

What books do you have coming up next?

I’m illustrating another children’s book called Hey, Dog (written by Tony Johnston (Charlesbridge, 2019)) at the moment. It’s a boy who tries to befriend a homeless dog. I just finished the sketches and got the okay to “paint” the final art.

I’m creating the art in the same fashion as First Laugh by drawing with a ballpoint pen. I scan the drawings and digitally paint the art in Photoshop.

I’m slowly chipping away at Jonesy II. I have the story written and have drafts and outlines to part 6. Jonesy is overdue, but my work as a creative consultant keeps me busy on graphic & web design and illustration projects.

I’m looking forward to these upcoming projects!

Wado, Jonathan, for visiting with me about First Laugh – Welcome Baby!

Cynsational Notes

Jonathan Nelson is a visual artist. He is Diné (Navajo) and born into his mother’s clan, the Towering House Clan (Kiiyaa’áanii), and born for his father’s clan, Mexican Clan (Naakai Dine’é).

Jonathan holds a master’s degree in visual communication from the University of Arizona and specializes as an illustrator, fine artist, and creative consultant.

Born and raised in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Jonathan began his art experience drawing on wide-ruled paper on the kitchen table at age five. He collected comic books and started tracing Spiderman, X-Men, Hulk, and many others. Elementary tracing evolved into freehand drawings with No. 2 school pencils. His drawing has evolved into a career as a creative professional.

Nowadays, he works in ballpoint pen and paint to showcase modern vast high desert landscapes filled with sheep. The landscapes, and his other works, bring to light the sustaining life of indigenous culture and its on-going struggle in a Eurocentric driven society.

Visit his website to view upcoming events and other works on politics, racism, tribal identity, stereotypes, and environment. Ahéhee’

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Watch a video of author Rose Ann Tahe reading First Laugh, Navajo Baby.