Getting to Know: Chad Wallace
By Ella Rue
Illustrations by Chad Wallace
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 41, Issue 2, Summer 2016)
Chad Wallace is an incredibly talented, multi-award winning children’s book illustrator, author, and poet who lives in Westchester, New York.
He was born in New Rochelle, New York but grew up in Katonah, a small hamlet within the town of Bedford, in Westchester County, New York, in a home that was a young boy’s paradise. With two large pine and two large apple trees, in addition to a cherry and oak tree coupled with wild raspberry bushes that had he and his brothers set for snacking and climbing while whiling away many a spring day.
When he was about ten years old his family moved up the street to a bigger house, which also had its own outdoor charms—a steep hill with a babbling brook at the bottom, and a dark pine forest sectioned off by old rock walls. Nature inspires and is often the subject of much of Chad’s work.
In 1993 he graduated from Somers High School with his sights set on Syracuse University. There he studied illustration and was awarded the “Outstanding Senior Award” along with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 2011 he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
When asked at what age he knew he intended to become a professional artist, he responded that when he was in his 20s he ran into his first grade teacher and, much to his surprise, she somehow recognized him. “Chad!? How are you? Let me guess, you’re an artist?” “How did you know that?” he asked surprised. “Because you were always drawing amazing pictures and I just knew you would someday become an artist.”
We continued our discussion and here are some of the other surprising information I found about Chad Wallace.
Did you ever consider anything other than illustration?
In kindergarten I wanted to be a paleontologist, you know, the guy who digs up dinosaur bones. Looking back, I think it’s funny that I even knew what that profession was. But by first grade I think I was destined to be an illustrator.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to nature. I think as humans we have become disconnected. When we are young we see more clearly in a lot of ways, so I try and recall instances from my childhood where I’ve felt connected. I used to hang out in trees, play in the garden, walk in and along a stream, etc. Much of my art is based on this sort of symbiotic relationship with the natural world.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
There have been many pearls of wisdom bestowed upon me that collectively dictated the course of my life. One quote comes to mind:
“In moments of great inspiration you have the feeling that the work you are doing is the most important thing you have ever done or ever will do.”
Tell me something unusual about yourself.
Well I play on and manage a men’s league ice hockey team in Brewster, New York. Somehow I get the impression I don’t share the ice with too many children’s book illustrators... I do worry about some meathead coming down across my hands with his stick, but for me it’s worth the risk. In my case, hockey allows me to focus my energy in a physical way. That’s not to say creativity doesn’t come into play in a sport such as this. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much. And it’s great exercise.
Who are some of your favorite artists of the past (and why)? How about present?
Leonardo daVinci—His brilliance was more than just the ability to draw and paint. He dedicated his life to the understanding of “everything.”
Claude Monet—I admire how he was able to capture the intricate beauty in nature. He had a bond with nature that is clearly visible in his work. And his use of color is spectacular.
N.C. Wyeth—Paved the way for all illustrators who followed. His paintings were extremely narrative and passionate. And he was a good teacher, encouraging his students to write as well
Andrew Wyeth—Andrew’s closeness with nature and attention to detail is inspiring. He could make a dead bird in the grass beautiful. Different from his father in that the narrative in his paintings are typically more subtle.
Norman Rockwell—Amazing how he captured emotions and sentiment in his paintings. He was so knowledgeable when it came to composing his images, what to place and where to guide the viewer’s eye around the composition as well as make a psychological statement.
Dr. Seuss—I think his ability to explore a concept and hook the reader from beginning to end is one of the reasons why I wanted to get into children’s books. The rhythm of the words, and the buildup as you read is engaging. I love books that rhyme and he’s why.
James Gurney—In my opinion the best living illustrator. He knows what look he is after and does whatever it takes to get there, whether it means building a maquette, posing models, or doing studies on location. He also shares his techniques in the form of books and online video tutorials. Also met him a few times. Really nice guy.
Chris VanAllsburg—An art instructor in college once told me that I draw like Chris VanAllsburg. So I looked him up and have been a fan ever since. I love the three dimensional aspect of his work, and the softness. I later learned he studied sculpture, which makes a lot of sense.
Maurice Sendak—I like him because he told the “truth.” He wasn’t afraid to take risks and did not condescend to children. And kids knew it.
Shel Silverstein—Also knew what it meant to be in a child’s imagination. I especially like his poetic writing. It always had random twists and turns and a surprise ending. I think kids get bored easily, and he knew that.
Shaun Tan—I recently began studying his work, The Arrival in particular. It is so in depth and surreal, and extremely well drawn. I often come up with a concept and try to cram it into a 32-page format. Too often my idea grows too sophisticated for young kids and I lose my target audience. Tan’s graphic novel approach shows me that there is an audience for work with this sort of scope.
If we are sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for you, what did you achieve?
I think a best-selling book would be fun, and a Caldecott medal on my bookshelf would look nice. It would probably also mean that I found an agent I could trust and can get my ideas in front of those who might be interested.
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
My family spent a lot of summers in Harriman State Park, New York. Hiking, camping, boating, swimming, etc. I draw on my childhood experiences all the time when I am conceptualizing. Many of my themes are set in an outdoor environment, and taken from the point of view of characters that would be found there, like a frog or a turtle. I especially like writing and drawing animals, and not just because I am a nature lover. I believe they have great metaphorical properties that I can use to reach a general audience. You don’t have to worry about relating to a specific gender necessarily, or alienating an ethnic group. Everyone can relate to these characters if done well.
What turns you off?
People who are too quick to slap a label on you. When I hear, “That’s not a real job” it aggravates me. For me there’s nothing more real than what I do.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“What took you so long?” Actually, I would like to hear how I was generous and caring but did not allow myself to be victimized too often; that I bravely faced my fears and conquered them. There’s a movie called Defending Your Life that is all about this idea.
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What do you think people say at your funeral?
“This is the first time Chad left the party before everybody else!”
What do you want most out of life?
To be able to raise a family doing what I love, stress free, and without limitations.
What do you keep around in your studio to give you inspiration?
I have quite a collection of children’s books on my bookshelf that I consult with frequently. Now that I teach it has become a routine to grab a few books and bring them to show my students when applicable. It is my hope that my enthusiasm rubs off on them and provides insight as to what it means to be a creative person. Likewise, when I see a student apply what I teach and find value in it, I too am inspired.
What is the craziest (or most adventurous) thing you’ve ever done?
Well some friends and I drove across the country... twice. And I went bungee jumping in Mexico. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
How do you want to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as an optimist, somebody who was always willing to give somebody the benefit of the doubt. If this means I am too naïve and trusting so be it. But I would much rather be this way then walk around cold and bitter. I fell in love with children’s books because they are pure. They appeal to the good nature in all of us. I hope my books and paintings share that innocence.
ABOUT CHAD WALLACE
In 2008 Chad was awarded the Stevan Dohanos Award at the Society of Illustrators, New York for his Animal Olympics—Wrestling piece. He has illustrated eleven books for children including: Earth Feeling the Heat (2010), Seahorses (2012), and The Mouse and The Meadow (2014), which he both wrote and illustrated. The first time author has enjoyed a lot of success with his new book, winner of an International Book Award, NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award, and a Mom’s Choice Award (2014). Four illustrations were also featured in the Society of Illustrators—Illustrators 56 Annual Show.
Chad has worked with publishers Henry Holt, Scholastic, Sterling, and Dawn Publications. He has also served as an adjunct professor of illustration at Syracuse University and presently holds a position at the New York City College of Technology. He is currently interested in re-formatting children’s storytelling for the modern age through use of interactive E-Book media. His book The Mouse And The Meadow is available as a 3D pop-up app for iPhone/iPad, complete with animations and automated voice over reading.
Today Chad continues to develop his writing and illustration work. His recent book—Mighty Mole and Super Soil was released Fall 2015. He continues to write and illustrate and is looking to meet with publishing houses.