Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Today we bring you one of Baltimore’s best, Illustrator and Author Kevin Sherry. His newest children’s book Turtle Island, published under the Penguin umbrella, was just released yesterday. Recently he’s been tapping into his inner child and making waves in the children’s book industry. If you’re a Charm City local or elementary student, you can also catch one of his performances that includes a giant blue bear head, puppet friends, and some pop song covers. His perseverance and whimsically refined style make him an unstoppable force – even when he has to start over from square one. Read on to see wtf is Brain Bear, if you don’t already know.
SHANON WELTMAN: First, just to introduce to our readers, who or what is Brain Bear?
KEVIN SHERRY: Brain Bear is the musical act that I do. I really like pop music, I like singing and stuff. I have a guitar and I play guitar a lot, it’s something I do to unwind and what I sing are pop songs. What I’ve learned on my guitar is like that LMFAO song, I know Katy Perry songs, Lady GaGa songs… y’know, Bieber, all that stuff. For me, I can’t justify playing those things in public in any way, but if I put a puppet head on… it changes it into something I feel is more of an act. It’s not just Kevin Sherry poorly singing acoustic pop songs of other people. If they were my own pop songs, then me singing badly, those songs would be fine, but they’re other peoples songs so I’m hardly doing anything. But if I’m wearing a Bear head it changes it, I sort of become this other persona. It’s another performance outlet for me. [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s just a silly thing, I have gotten a lot of gigs at preschools and stuff. I work at this preschool in Cockysville and I do concerts for them and sometimes the kids like it. Now that I’m doing school talks and or if I do any talks or library presentations, I can incorporate it. The kids in elementary school are like, [sigh] ‘Oh an author is coming in…’ and they have this idea of an author. Another author talk. Now if an author shows up and he’s wearing a big blue bear head and he busts out party rocking with a kazoo, it breaks all the walls down initially and they’re already on my side for the portion of the thing where I talk about myself. This bear doing acoustic rock in my school, I want to know what that’s about, rather than me just talking about myself. It’s a great ice breaker for presentations. I wrote a song about the yeti book I have coming out and I played that up at Scholastic for the sales team.
SW: Oh good!
KS: Yeah, so that’s Brain Bear. He’s always been a character. He originally was from art school, was a comic. He was a paper cut, one of my first paper cut things. He was a silent, zen, grayscale panel comic. Thats where he started, but then he changed into that thing. It’s fun, I like singing a lot, so [Laughs] It’s my way to do that.
SW: Did you say you have other performance characters in there, or is he like your only persona?
KS: I do all my puppet shows and everything. I have a lot of different performances I could do… and he has his own side puppet, there’s a cat and a snake and a troll that he brings out when I do kids performances. I do performances at like Black Cherry Puppet Theater a couple times a year, so that’s all different puppets. That’s not just the bear head.
SW: When and why did you start making kids books?
KS: In 2006 I was doing MoCCA, the small press expo in Manhattan, and I just had photocopied zines with me on one of those card tables, like everybody else. I had t-shirts there too. I was mostly selling t-shirts because t-shirts are a really sellable thing. People buy way more t-shirts than zines, because a zine is, like, you pick it, look through it, everybody has a particular reading sensibility when it comes to zines. So you hardly sell any zines but you sell a lot of t-shirts at these things. I had all my zines there and the editor at Penguin was there and bought all of my zines and emailed me on Monday. He was like, ‘Do you want to make children’s books?’
SW: Wow! [Laughs]
KS: That’s the story of my break! After that, I made this book, I crafted this book with everything I’d ever want in a book, really packed it in. I went up there and presented it to them and they were like ‘Whoa whoa whoa’ and they separated all of the pages out. They were like ‘This is a book, this is a book… but we really like it and want to bring you on board. We’ll email you or call you.’ I was like, ‘oh great!’ They sent me out of there feeling real good. This was like up in NY, my first time pitching and they were like, ‘we are going to sign you on.’ And I… didn’t hear from them. They wouldn’t answer my phone calls or answer my emails, just nothing. I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ Until I wrote an email saying I have new pitches. They answered me right back and made another appointment, gave me another pitch meeting. So I gave them a bunch of other books, ideas, etc etc, things that I felt really good about and they were like, ‘This one. We like this one.’ Called Little Devils, I think.’We’re going to call you, we’re going to get started on this.’ Same thing. No call, wouldn’t answer my calls, never called me, never answered my emails, just nothing. I was like, ‘I don’t get it.’ Penguin is a bunch of different little companies; it’s Puffin, Putnam, Classic – Penguin’s broken down. The particular editor that I was pitching to was under the subcategory of Dial Books for Kids, under the Penguin blanket. So I went to Barnes and Noble, read all the books from that imprint, Dial, and on my bike ride home I came up with my first book. It instantly popped into my head on the way home. I wrote it down, I pitched. I said I had new ideas, I went up there, I pitched that idea and they called me the next day. The first book did amazingly well. So they signed me on for two more, then two more after that.
SW: How many have you written so far? Have they all been published? Do you have any that are sort of waiting?
KS: Turtle Island comes out soon, Yeti Files… the Yeti Files book do you know about that?
SW: I’ve seen you post about it.
KS: That comes out in October, I’m writing the second Yeti Files book now. I’m on like the third draft now. The fourth draft of the Yeti Files 2 is due beginning of June. The amount of pitches I’ve pitched to them, compared to the amount of books I have out, is 10/15 to 1. I’ve pitched a 100 children’s books to them easily. In the works, I have two more Yeti books. The Turtle Island book is getting a lot of good thumbs up and is being considered for the NY Times book review. I’m pitching to Penguin on the 15th next month. If this gets any more good reviews or gets into the NY Times, than I’m just going to pitch Turtle World! They’re going to want a sequel, Turtle World, hopefully I’ll get more picture book deals.
SW: So you work with both Penguin and Scholastic?
KS: I do picture books with Penguin and chapter books with Scholastic. I could probably get my picture books with Scholastic and they would pay me, but as long as I have relationships with two big companies I’d like to keep it that way. If Penguin stops buying my books then I can sell them to Scholastic, but I don’t want to jump ship from Penguin, I want to stay with them, they started me out.
SW: What advice would you give to a young illustrator or entrepreneur? You’ve ran a few businesses and now you’re publishing books, it seems like you’re doing well, do you have some good advice?
KS: You just have to work all the time. The thing about me is that I’ve had big successes and pretty epic failures as well, like SquidFire was a bad disaster at the end. Anything I do, I’d draw it seven times at least. Anything that you see has been done by me at least seven times over before you see that thing. And you just gotta hustle, you have to be working all the time. I sleep four hours a night, I sleep from 2am to 6am. Those morning hours are so important for work and then so is night. And then I work during the day, I cook in the kitchen. You just try to do as much as work as you can. I was doing these comics. I was doing the Brain Bear performance, I work at the puppet theater, I try to do as many of these rock posters as I can. Never stop. That’s how I did it. Eventually, you just go over that edge. If you just keep pushing in an extreme fashion… that’s the only way. I’m sure there’s other ways too, but that’s the way I did it. Just always pushing and eventually you will be in the right place, the right person will see it. I don’t know. I just tried to blow myself up, give myself as much exposure as I could. Always holding myself up to a really high standard of work. The amount of work that you’re doing… I’m not the best writer and obviously not the best artist, but I do think I work harder than a lot of people. I think that’s how I get over. That’s the only way I can do it since I’m not the best at anything, it’s to do more work than them.
SW: Mmhmm. That makes sense. So are there any areas of your life that you wish you could trade a few hours of getting work done for something else, or are you happy?
KS: I wish I didn’t have to work so much in the kitchen. I have a day job. My books are doing really well, I bought a house. But then with SquidFire I basically didn’t get paid for four years, so I’ve been working in a kitchen again. All through art school and couple years after, I worked in a kitchen full-time. During SquidFire, I had maybe four or five years where I didn’t work, I just worked at SquidFire full-time. The last couple years I’ve been working in a kitchen 40 hours a week, 7am to 3pm, which is good for an artist. I get my paid hours in the morning, then in the afternoon I can be at my desk at 4pm in the afternoon. Then I stay up late working. Hopefully, soon, in the future… I just bought these shoes for work, for kitchen, buy one get one free. I hope these are my last two pairs ever. I think things will start to turn around for me. I wish I could spend more time on my artwork. Sometimes in the morning I’ll get that intense creative energy, and I’ll have to instead be in the kitchen cooking brisket [Laughs]. Rubbing pork shoulders and shit and I’m like ‘ARGHH!’
KS: But having a day job too is another form of motivation, where I just have to work that much harder when I get off of work too. I have to make both sides of my life work, y’know?
SW: What are your favorite techniques and materials to work with?
KS: I start everything off with pencil and eraser. That’s the basis of all of my screen prints. Turtle Island is just penciled, inked and then watercolored. That basically is my favorite medium. I like paper cut stuff, it looks impressive. My first four books were paper cut, although you really can’t tell. Though when I do the paper cut stuff, people really like the paper cut stuff. Also I’ve been doing a lot of cross hatching with ultra fine sharpies lately, I’ve always done that, I like crosshatching with ultra fine sharpies. That’s what I like to do, just pens and pencils. Screen printing, I stopped screen printing for a couple years, but now I’ve been doing a lot of screen printing. The things I want to do, stuff for my friends and posters for people, stuff that brings happiness. I like screen prints because I like products. That’s why I’m a commercial artist instead of a high artist, cause you’d rather have people see an illustration in a newspaper and then crumble it up, than have one person hang this thing on a wall. Know what I mean?
SW: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
KS: Yeah yeah, I just love products, which is why printing is great. You’re creating multiples. I love multiples and tangible products. Those are my mediums.
SW: What inspires your palette? Your color choices are very limited, they seem almost vintage inspired, but they seem inspired by very specific things. Am I assuming that, or do you find inspiration in specific things?
KS: The illustrations you’re talking about, those are screen print negatives, those are four or less colors. So you’ve gotta be smart with your color choices. Thats why the palettes are limited, there are only four colors. Some are less than that. In the t-shirt company, no matter how complex the idea or design, you have to fit it in 4 colors.
SW: I get that, I understand why you’re making it limited, but I was just wondering why you were choosing those colors? Some seem kind of obvious, like the tiger, polar bear… but you’re just inspired by what you like?
KS: Ah, I make innate choices. You know what I mean? That’s all. I don’t know. I’m inspired by pop culture, by pop art and packaging. That’s inspired me more in color choice than in anything else.
SW: I can definitely see that. Okay.
SW: Last question, we typically end it randomly. What is your favorite urban legend?
KS: The Rat King. I really like the idea of, like, in the sewers of NY, that there would be such a high density of rats and, like, gross rats, rats with sores or missing a limb because it got chewed off, and then they have open wounds and are so pressed together that their bodies fused together. They’re still alive. And it just gets bigger and bigger… and it’s all hot too, and they’re, like, writhing and their fur is rubbing off and their skin is rubbing together, so they, like, melt into each other while they’re still alive. So you have this, like, rolling alive, writhing mass of fused rats in the sewers of NY, called the Rat King. I guess there are multiple Rat Kings, assuming there isn’t, and there’s one rat… which could be cool too, he could be eternal…
KS: I mean that’s just something I’m making up right now. Rat King, is he an urban myth? I don’t know, sounds pretty real to me.