By Kate Teves
Aimee Hagerty Johnson’s illustrations make things feel cozy and right. That might have something to do with the fact that Aimee lives in the coldest of places—the little town of Northfield, Minnesota—where keeping snuggly is a way of life.
Northfield is a place I happen to know well because I went to college in it many moons ago. It’s a wisp of a place, blanketed in snow six months out of the year, and in the silence of its winter months, you can’t help but want to sit by an old hissing radiator and create.
But anyone in Northfield knows there’s more to this midwestern town than just the cold. There’s mystery, theres’s mystique, and they kind of waft in together across the plains and hover about town, waiting for an out-of-town visitor who might need a dash of something magical. Aimee’s work honors these dashes, balancing them carefully with the details of everyday life.
Her illustrations have appeared in national children’s magazines including Ladybug, Root & Star, Highlights High Five, Spider Magazine, and more. She has also worked on several collaborations, including a limited edition record cover for the Cure’s re-released “Friday I’m In Love” single for London’s Secret 7” Project.
I reached out for an interview, excited by the serendipity of our Northfield connection, and she responded with the most fascinating answers. Grab a cup of cocoa and settle in. This one is sure to surprise you.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an illustrator.
I started drawing comics in my 20s. I hadn't really done any art since childhood, but I made a few issues of a zine called Slave to the Needles. I didn't have any art training, and after a few years I started feeling like I'd just reached the edge of what I could really learn on my own, if that makes sense. I took a drawing class in Madison, WI, where my husband and I were living at the time, and then decided to apply to art school. I sent in my "portfolio" after doing my best to understand how to make a portfolio. It was mostly comics from my zine and photo documentation of these knitted sculptural food objects I used to make. I got in!
your work highlights the magic of our material world in a very special way. Little details pop out and remind us what we’re all about.
Those details are what excite me, both as an artist and a viewer of art. Little surprises are so important. Especially in art for children's books and magazines, I know the kids are looking at every inch of the picture, and I want every inch to be interesting. And there should be a few funny or strange little secrets in there somewhere. Children totally understand the strange and the enigmatic! I do try sketches out on my daughter, and she notices everything, which is always gratifying. And, I remember, as a child, examining picture books and zeroing in on details provided by the illustrator. Like, I'd turn to every page where Grover was wearing a winter coat and I'd make absolutely sure there were the same number of buttons on the coat in each instance. Or if some pigs in a Richard Scarry book were having a picnic, I'd take so much joy from looking at what each and every pig was doing -- drinking lemonade, playing croquet, unfolding a blanket. So I know that kids pay attention to these details and appreciate them. A lot of grown-ups do, too!
Do you have any insights about why an illustration succeeds or fails?
As with most subjects, if you go deep enough, the more you learn about illustration, the more complicated you realize the whole process is. At least, that's my experience of it. But if it weren't complex, it wouldn't be so exciting! Like, the way an artist renders a subject in terms of technique and style are important, of course, but maybe even more powerful is how the illustrator has conceptualized the subject. At some point I realized, you know, I can draw, but, trust me, lots of people can draw. So the thing that has to separate me from other artists will always be my ideas, my way of seeing things. A stale concept, or a subject that the illustrator doesn't seem to have unique or fresh insight into, can be what keeps an illustration from succeeding.
What is the best advice you ever received about being an artist?
Well, my art school instructors were generous in sharing all kinds of industry insights --especially my mentor, the children's illustrator Carrie Hartman, whose guidance on contracts, freelancing, and running an illustration practice have been super valuable, and still are to this day.
But if there is one piece of advice that both shocked and resonated with me, it's this... and it's going to sound silly: Dress like an artist. Dress like an artist when you meet with clients and potential clients, because they want to feel that they are getting the whole package -- an artist who looks like an artist and arts like an artist! I don't remember who gave me this unexpected counsel -- I might have read it in a book? -- and, believe me, I know it's problematic in numerous ways, because it's the art, the skill, the work that matters, and we shouldn't fetishize creators like they're some magical special breed while simultaneously underpaying them and delegitimizing their work, which are definitely things that happen.
But I guess what I really liked about the advice to "dress like an artist" is that if I buy into it, and I kind of do, it gives me permission to be a little weird, to dress how I want, to wear vintage blouses with big pussy bows, to donate all my "office casual" stuff, to wear red and green together! To be more me, kind of. So I guess I would tell other artists and designers, "dress like an artist... if you want."
Tell us about an a-ha moment in your life when you realized something big and grew as an artist.
In terms of technique, I began painting on dark papers several years ago, and it really changed how I work and what my art looks like. Instead of beginning with a white canvas, I begin with a black one, or a deep indigo one. I love the process of bringing light tones and medium tones out of a dark canvas. As I paint, it feels like the dark places in the painting are allowed to emerge more naturally. In contrast, I never enjoyed having to paint in the dark tones. It honestly made me nervous somehow. For ages, I wouldn't even put shadows into my paintings, which is funny, but is something I've also heard other artists and art students say. To those artists, I would say, try painting on dark paper!
What is one of your happiest moments in your art career? Tell us about it.
This is probably how every illustrator answers this question, but my first freelance job for a big national magazine was pretty exhilarating. It was in my last semester of art school, and I just thought, "It's really happening! I'm an illustrator!" In reality, it's not like you suddenly become legitimate, poof, because of one single job, but it was still a happy moment that came about after years of hard work. It felt good. And, years later, I still work for that client.
When you’re not making art, what kind of things are you doing?
I write for children's magazines on the side, so if I'm in my studio and I'm not making art, I'm working on poems. I've been lucky to be paid to illustrate some of my own writing, and I hope that keeps happening because it is really, really satisfying. Let's see -- knitting, taking care of my family, studying art history, following politics, and hunting for treasures in junk shops are my other favorite activities.
What kinds of topics are you drawn to and why?
In both art and writing, a mood of mystery is at least in the background of any of my pieces that are successful, I think. It's also the kind of work I love to look at and to read -- enigmatic paintings and stories that intrigue me, that create tension and questions without supplying complete answers. I like art and books to unsettle me a bit. Like, in painting, I'm attracted to abstract expressionism, especially the huge color field paintings where you can lose yourself in color and texture. It's like a meditation. I'm pretty sure I had a holy experience while standing in front of a Rothko at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But, yes, I love surrealism, the escuela metafisica, and illustrations that call forth details that are both familiar and idiosyncratic. Yelena Bryksenkova, Carson Ellis, and Dee Nickerson are three illustrators who do this so, so well. I love all of their work. With books, I'm most captivated by narratives that also have some of that dark, mysterious, even bewildering, mood. Villette by Charlotte Bronte, for example, and Daphne DuMaurier's novels and short stories.
Read Aimee’s fascinating “About” page and get excited by all the wonderful things that inspire her work.
Follow Aimee on Instagram where she curates gorgeous artwork found in vintage children’s books: @aimeehagertyjohnson