Illustrator Rudy Gutierrez has worked on children’s books as well as album art for such acts as Santana. Recently, he illustrated Spirit Seeker, a picture-book biography of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about immersing himself in music and creating album art and how the sixties and seventies continue to shape his work.
Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the audio and visual research you did to illustrate Spirit Seeker?
Rudy Gutierrez: Research began long ago when I first started to appreciate John Coltrane’s music. As a teenager, listening to the group Santana led me to check out their influences, which later took me to Miles Davis and then to John Coltrane. They had a period in the 70’s that was directly influenced by Mr. Coltrane and in fact included one of his songs called “Welcome.” So I knew that I had to follow the lineage to the source. When I started to do the art for the book, it became a process of watching videos, checking out interviews by many, including Coltrane, reading biographies and of course listening to his music continuously. I wanted to make sure that I was totally immersed in the music. I do believe that what you feed yourself mentally, physically and spiritually eventually emerges through whatever endeavor that you are pursuing. In my case, it is painting.
Kidsbiographer: You created both acrylic paintings and mixed media pieces that incorporate colored pencils, crayons, and acrylics for Spirit Seeker. How did Coltrane’s life and oeuvre inform your artistic choices for this project?
RG: My art is made up of layers. I see these layers as layers of reality and layers of spirit and these manifest by way of mixing flat, tonal, abstract, realistic, refined, and raw, visual language into a gumbo that I like to call Great Universal Meaning Beyond Order! That is to say that I am simply a vessel! I was and of course am influenced by the life and work of Mr. John Coltrane and have learned from many others, like my wife DK Dyson, an incredible Vocalist and Composer and Spirit Seeker as well, who has this incredible ability to get out of the way of the “magic” that is creation, whether it be music or visual art.
Specifically speaking so much of what I did for this project was right in line with just being myself and trusting that the influence of John Coltrane on my work would be visible. In fact, I have to say that I have much gratitude and respect for the vision of Lynne Polvino, Spirit Seeker’s editor, and her ability to see and trust that it would be a good match for my work to hopefully do justice to this story. I also feel that the incredible spiritually sensitive and honest, respectful writing of Gary Golio really allowed me to travel to places that I knew the art had to go to, and I wouldn’t be swaying away from the written word or the music for that matter because it is clear that the music also moved through Gary. Once an artist feels that he or she has enough so called technical ability and is able to inject that with emotion, it becomes about choices. For two weeks, I fasted and meditated and prayed that I would do justice to this story and I found that I was really tuned into the music and writing and making choices in terms of direction became a matter of just trusting what I was feeling and even though sketches had been done, improvising still was a large part of it, just like the music. For example, John Coltrane may do a song like “My Favorite Things,” in which he plays the melody in the beginning and later really takes us to other places with his improvisation and abstraction and then comes back to the melody to create a sort of “door” for us to walk through. This is a part of what I do visually as well. I was conscious that this book is for children who I think are sometimes underestimated in terms of what they can absorb and kept this in mind. Along with children, I hope that all ages will walk through my visual doors presented in this book!
Kidsbiographer: In addition to picture-book illustration, you’ve created album art for Santana and other musicians. What are some differences between the creative processes for these types of projects?
RG: There really aren’t as many differences as one might think in making art for some of my other projects, and in fact there are many parallels. When I did the Santana Shaman album, it was the same situation in that I was blessed to be asked to create art by and for Carlos Santana, one of my “artistic angels,” which is what how I refer to some of my influences. So, it was again a matter of Mr. Carlos Santana having the vision to see his music moving through me and he did. The creative process for me is always about being touched by whatever content that I am visually discussing or that I am comissioned to create illustrations for. The end result is always the wish that I will translate these emotions to touch others in some positive way, which I feel is a responsibility for anyone who is blessed with a talent. As a young person, I was very much influenced by the social and cultural movements in the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s. This was a time that emphasized how we all have value regardless of artificial labels or categories that separate us as people. I am still trying to live up to these standards that I very much believe in, visually and as a person. So whether it is a children’s book, CD cover or mural, it is all the same intent with differences that allow for changing content and audience.
Kidsbiographer: Although Spirit Seeker is more about Coltrane’s individual journey than any larger political issues, the racism he and his family encountered is a strong undercurrent throughout the biography. You emphasize this in the spread that depicts Coltrane, his mother, and his aunt working at the local country club, which was, of course, segregated. The words “Whites Only” bulge and repeat atop the pages, and the shoes young Coltrane is shining belong to a set of legs and feet composed of Jim Crowe era signs designating certain areas as specific to whites and blacks. Here, you convey what Gary Golio’s prose only suggests about the family’s daily life: that it was one painful humiliation after another, a reminder that they lived in a country that damned them to second-class citizenship. Can you tell me how this spread evolved into the powerful depiction of segregation that it is?
RG: Thank you, I am glad that you see the value and power that I hoped would come across. This spread is really important to me because it is about telling the truth whether it is to children or other ages. There is a great Bob Marley song where he demands that we “tell the children the truth” That is the intention.
Again, I am influenced by the time period in which I grew up, and I see my art as an extension of who I am. So I had the option of being subtle and whispering with the art on this page or really raising my voice louder visually. I don’t see racism and the history of it in this country as having a subtle quiet effect on anyone, so I couldn’t depict it that way and because it was referred to in Gary’s words, it gave me the liberty to go there in my own way while still being true to this story.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of Spirit Seeker is the way that Coltrane’s saxophone seems an extension of the musician himself; the lines between the man and his instrument often blur. Music itself is a swash of color that connects individuals and, frequently, swirls around Coltrane’s head. Sometimes, faces appear in these swathes of color, including churchgoers, other jazz artists, even some visages that resemble African masks. Can you list some of the individuals who appear in these musical swirls?
RG: I am glad that you enjoy this aspect of my depictions. The swirls have many different things going on which are a reflection of how I see the music. There was this great photo exhibition years ago by the incredible photographer Roy DeCavara that featured many of his Jazz photos with a title that I just loved, The Sound I Saw. This is indeed what I am getting at with the swirls. Within some of these I was showing elements of John Coltrane’s influences and inspirations, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges, to name a few. Along side of these legendary musicians of America’s classical music that we know as Jazz are his learnings, leanings and involvement with spiritual aspects of different cultures with origins in Asia, America, and Africa, which deeply influenced him and his music and indeed the lines get blurred as far as telling his story and my own because these are also very much prevalent in my work as well.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received in response to Spirit Seeker, particularly from young readers?
RG: The most gratifying feedback that I have received is that I have really captured the feel and spiritual content of the music and that there is this great interplay between the writer Gary Golio and myself that carries much respect for Mr. John Coltrane and his legacy. As of now, the book has just been released, so I don’t yet have reactions from children. As far as young readers are concerned, I hope that they see the importance of walking their path like John Coltrane did while always evolving, learning and growing. In addition it would be gratifying to know that this book would inspire children to know that even when things are difficult they can rise with the knowledge that their divinity is as valid as John Coltrane’s, mine or anyone else’s, especially if they are seekers of spirit and truth!
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects
RG: Among my recent projects are another picture book, When I Get Older:The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag, just published by Tundra, that is written by the very positive, caring, and conscious rap artist K’Naan. He tells his story of living in war torn Somalia and being influenced by his Grandfather, who was a renowned poet and passed on his love of words to K’Naan. After immigrating first to New York and later to Toronto, he wrote and performed “Wavin’ Flag,” which has become an international anthem. Its powerful words of hope have crossed generations and borders and have made K’Naan an international star. It was an honor to be commissioned to do art for this story, which I feel is really important on so many levels of opening eyes to the horrors of war, but also to the beautiful teaching tool that art and music can be. I do see conscious art as a kind of medicine with healing powers, as well as a weapon against ignorance that can serve as a bridge between peoples’s spirits!
So much of what I do is influenced and inspired by music and musicians and I recently had the opportunity to do a portrait for Rolling Stone magazine of the great reggae artist Jimmy Cliff, who certainly is an inspiration of mine!
I’ve also lately been commissioned to do new covers for four books by the incredible science fiction and fantasy writer Nalo Hopkinson for Hachette Books. The covers are for Brown Girl in the Ring, The Midnight Robber, and The New Moon’s Arms. There is also a new amazing book called Sister Mine to be published in 2013. I am always grateful for the vision of editors and art directors who can see how my work can be compatible with certain writers, and in this case this is a perfect match. I love Nalo’s writing and was truly honored and excited to match my art with her words! Also, I was really pleased that I was actually commissioned by a former student of mine at Pratt Institute, Christine Foltzer!