Nothing could make me happier than to have Summer J. Hart for my first artist and illustrator interview. Trained in printmaking and book arts at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, Summer combines traditional elements of etching, drawing and figurative painting with a taste for the gothic, abstract and decorative. Her recent series explore the psychological space of figure and portrait paintings, Victorian photography, and the weird zone in which zoological illustrations turn into images of childhood.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a HUGE fan of Summer’s work. In my office, I have three of her drawings. They keep me company when I write and inspire me when I get stuck. But more important, they give me such joy. I look at them and see bits of Gorey and Sendak, and a cast of wonderful characters just waiting to have their stories told.
I recently caught up with Summer for this seminal interview.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start drawing? Was there a time when you realized that being an artist was your calling?
I started drawing as a child, and until I was much older (and broke), never really considered doing anything else with my life. My mother is a working artist and an art educator. One of my earliest memories is of watching her paint a giant figure in oils on her easel, which was wheeled into our kitchen so she could work.
In the seventh grade I decided I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books.
There was never any resistance when I decided to go to art school—it was expected. I had other interests, but I was always the girl who could draw.
Are there any illustrators/artists/writers that have left a lasting impression on you and your work?
You mentioned the big ones. Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey. I love the surreal writing of Margaret Wise Brown. Also Lewis Carroll. Years ago, I saw giant etchings of Alice swimming in her sea of tears. I am also inspired by Audubon lithographs, and 19th century botanical engravings as well as Victorian hair-work and photo-collage.
How did art school influence or change your style?
I went to art school with the intention of studying illustration, but became fascinated by printmaking . . . or maybe the printmaking boys! This is where I came to work specifically in black and white against color—a theme that carries through to my present work. I love intaglio. I enjoy working with multiple plates, layering on color and then the rich black line-work that makes the image pop. But, I no longer have access to a shop. So, I model my drawings and paintings after prints. In my Songbirds series, I built the image in layers, adding one flat color of acrylic paint at a time. The paintings only came together when I used a tiny brush to cross hatch and stipple the figures in drawing ink, giving them an antique look, and very much like etchings. I like that they look out of their time.
How did you get involved with printmaking and book restoration?
I am very process-oriented, and like multiples, so I ended up studying book arts and printmaking. After graduating with an MFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I found myself broke, so I started temping at a realty management company. When I could no longer deal with the insanity of a boss who would alternately terrify and fascinate me with her obsession with “exotic cats” and tales of visits from her ghost mother, I took a job as a barista. I made many connections at this coffee shop, and sold a lot of art there. It also happened to be around the corner from a rare book dealer. While pouring a latte one morning, I was asked to come in to “touch up” books. I started at $10 an hour, 10 hours a week, but ended up running their in-house restoration department. When I left Philly in 2004, they started shipping me books.
They are still my biggest client.
Do you have a favorite medium?
Right now, it is Micron pens and watercolor.
Your subject matter and style is so wonderfully original. Reminiscent of the Victorian era, your work touches on the fantastical, as well as the innocence and mischievousness of children. We would love to know how you get your ideas. What is your source of inspiration?
Sometimes dreams. Sometimes conversation. I like that space between waking and dreaming, life and death, joy and grief.
Can you also give us some insights into your creative process? How do you develop a piece from beginning to end? Do you use Photoshop?
Until very recently, I had a system of elaborately collaging reference sourced from various books of 19th century animal and botanical illustrations, and Victorian cartouche clip art in Photoshop. I would labor over composition, and paint directly from the printed reference. The paintings themselves would take months. When we moved to New York, the first show I participated in was a postcard show. I procrastinated, and with the deadline for submission looming, had to come up with something in one night. I used pen and watercolor. I drew off the cuff. That opened up a new world for me. Now I just draw what I want. It has been quite liberating. I still tend to work in series, often with a child wearing an animal costume, sometimes with that animal. I play with scale and repetitions upon a theme.
I love how you frame your work. You make gigantic pieces seem like they’re miniature portraits from the nineteenth century. The viewer cannot help but feel a connection to the subject matter in a very personal way. How did you get the idea for framing your pieces?
For the larger pieces I paint or draw the frame as part of the piece. It becomes another layer of space for the subject to be in or coming out of. For some of the smaller pieces I have started sourcing vintage Italian brass frames on Ebay, and painting them.
Can you give us the scoop on some of your current projects? Are you writing as well as illustrating?
Right now I seem to be following one girl as she meets a series of whales. My work always has strong narrative content, but I think a book is coming out of this one. Sometimes she is in the sky with whales, sometimes the water, and sometimes it is unclear exactly where (or when) she is. Her hair seems to be growing longer and longer with each whale she meets.
How can your fans get a hold of you? Where can they buy your work?
Summer, thanks for answering my questions. All the best and much success.
Thank you, Robin!