Monday, August 17, 2020

'Me & Mama' Author-Illustrator Cozbi Cabrera Does It All

There seems to be nothing Chicago multimedia artist Cozbi Cabrera cannot do. Her talents range from gorgeous illustration to lyrical written word to delicate textile art. Just glimpsing her website, visitors get an immediate sense that she is a special creative force to behold. In 2020, Cozbi has two children's books hitting shelves—Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Illinois' own Suzanne Slade (Abrams, April 7th); and Me & Mama, for which she is both author and illustrator (Simon & Schuster, coming August 25th)—joining a stack of others titles that she has either written or illustrated. And lucky participants in November's SCBWI Illinois Interactive 2020 virtual conference will get to experience Cozbi's incredible talents upclose, as she works with artists in breakout sessions.

Cozbi has drawn national attention with her handmade collectible cloth dolls, called Muñecas. And her growing collection of children's books (including Thanks A Million, written by Nikki Grimes and published by Greenwillow Books; My Hair Is A Garden, Albert Whitman) have earned starred reviews. We thought it would be interesting to hear from Cozbi about her creative process.  

QUESTION: Both Exquisite and Me & Mama feature such loving depictions of the everyday, as well as evocative images of sheer joy. Can you describe your creative process and how you approach a story and illustrating picture books?

COZBI CABRERA: When illustrating a manuscript I've received from a publisher, I'm careful not to "over-read." That first reading is simply to grasp the scope and nature of the content and to see if I love the language or can pinpoint its strengths. I'm reading only to say yes or no. 

In the case of Suzanne Slade's EXQUISITE, I fell in love with her rhythmic, inspired, and well-researched prose. I was delighted to dig in and tease out the visual details of Gwendolyn Brooks' life. I reserve that closer reading for when I'm ready to break the manuscript into page turning chunks. I'm relying on a fresh reading, or the power of the first impression. This is where I can imagine scenes in my head and sketch out thumbnails in a variety of ways. 

I want those drawings to be relevant while throwing the stone of intention a little further, a bit like a visual reading in between the lines or the visual body language for the message. Sometimes I'm able to capture something right away, or am alerted that I need to do further research. Other times, I'm doing what I call "putting the junk down"—getting those obvious solutions on paper. This immersion affords me the ability to scratch a little deeper to find a better answer, to find the heart, while I'm washing the dishes, or just waking up the next morning.

I think our everyday surroundings are steeped with insight and tell a story.  Anthropologists would agree, I love to insert those clues. As far as emotion is concerned—it's the artist's job to help rearrange the viewer's emotional furniture, as painter Jim Parker used to say, to reaffirm what connects us and reveal the heart of the matter.

Q: You're an artist in a variety of media. Do you prefer working with fabric, creating dolls and quilts? Or do you find painting more satisfying? Or does writing feel equally satisfying?

CC: I've always enjoyed working in a variety of mediums. Each discipline is like a plant in my garden, requiring its own care, attention, and tending. It keeps me humble as a wide-eyed infant tumbling into limitless rabbit holes. There is no end to the many levels of mastery and powerful distinctions in each discipline. Naturally, there are points of confluence, where my work in one medium feeds into the next. I think of it as facets of the same stone, or expression.

Q: Do you have multiple projects going at once? Or do you like to focus on one thing at a time? And what is the next project we'll see from you?

CC: I always have many things in the fire. I'm able to get it all done by prioritizing and eliminating unnecessary chatter, wasteful actions, and emotions. I keep returning to play and to laughter. It's my most productive frame of mind. When I was younger I'd answer my phone in sympathy and allow someone to do an emotional dump, zapping my energy allowance and polluting my creative headspace. That headspace is really like a garden, you can't let just any weed grow or anything waltz in and trample underfoot! It's the octane and every creative has a responsibility to stand guard to protect it so it can expand. 

So, though there are many projects, I throw everything into the one that I'm prioritizing—it's the only way I'm able to get those flashes of insight when I'm drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Those insights are like gifts, but they don't present themselves until I've done the heavy lifting, and sometimes that work is giving the task before me my full concentration, even if it feels like I'm knocking on the door and it's not letting me in, or stumbling in the dark. Will I show up the next day, and the day after that? At times, week after week, after week? That's when the gift shows up—once it's been earned and I've shown myself approved!

I can speak about one of the next picture books, a biography about Elizabeth Jennings Graham, written by Amy Hill Hearth, to be published by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins. And of course, there's a doll commission and several textile projects quietly taking shape at my sewing table.

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