Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune
---- — “Yesterday I drove all the way from New York City to be here with you,” book illustrator Chris Soentpiet (Soon-peet) told Batesville Intermediate School third-graders Sept. 9 after they had plopped on the cafeteria floor.
Over the past 20 years, the award-winning artist has illustrated 17 children’s books by other authors and both written and illustrated four, including three with his wife of 18 years, Yin.
A screen containing covers of his works flashed on. One student whispered, “‘Saturdays and Teacakes’ is the best one.”
After he graduated from Pratt Institute in NYC, Soentpiet began teaching kindergarten there and created his first picture book, “Around Town,” published in 1992. “Just like my favorite illustrator, Norman Rockwell, used to do,” the watercolorist chose one of his students and her mother to pose for photos that ended up on the book’s pages and even its cover. He showed a hot summer day painting of fire hydrants opened for water play. Pointing at characters delighted by the spray, he said, “These are my old neighborhood friends .... I put a lot of small messages in the book just for fun.” One subway sign says 1370. He explained, “These numbers are my birthday.” His niece’s name, Katie, is sprinkled throughout the book. “I promised her. She really likes that.”
Preparations for his books are time consuming. The artist made a dragon out of clay to help him paint “The Last Dragon,” his second book about the Chinese New Year beast.
According to the Korean, “Once I start a book, I will go to my local elementary school” to find models. “They must be able to act, follow directions and cooperate. Of couse, I’m going to be paying you, so you have to cooperate!”
When Soentpiet collaborated on “Saturdays and Teacakes” with author Lester Laminack, who was a visiting artist here in March 2008, he drove to Laminack’s hometown in the South and took lots of photos of a boy who spends his Saturdays making cakes with his grandmother.
Before he could paint a boy drawing an alphabet with his finger on a dirt floor, the artist poured brown sugar on his floor and wrote some ABCs in the sugar next to his young neighbor. The New Yorker noted, “He was in ‘Sesame Street’ so he knew exactly how to pose.”
His wife has been a model for lots of his books. “Do you know why?,” he asked the kids. “She’s free!” He explained, “I use photographs as tools.” He lost one of a boy, who was on vacation and could not pose again. “My wife said, ‘Don’t panic.’ I put a blue hat, scarf and jacket on her. I just shrunk the drawing down to make her look like a little boy.” He added, “I’m in a lot of my own books, too.”The couple even appeared together as restaurant waiters on one page. “It was wonderful to have both of us in one painting.”
He is especially proud of two books the pair created. “Before and after we write the manuscript, we do a lot of research.” For “Coolies,” their first venture, “we wanted to see where the first Chinese people came from,” so they journeyed to the Great Wall of China. In its sequel, called “Brothers,” a Chinese boy meets an Irish boy. “They don’t just become best friends, they consider themselves like brothers.”
Soentpiet is a fine art gallery painter as well. Born in South Korea, when he was 6, both of his parents died. Two years later, he and his 12-year-old sister were adopted by a couple living in Hawaii. He illustrated “Jin Woo” by Eve Bunting, which tells the story of a child who gets a baby brother from South Korea. “This book is very special to me,” because he also was adopted.
He created pictures for “Molly Bannaky,” written by Alice McGill, which tells the tale of a 17-year-old English girl who was exiled to America after breaking a law. She became the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker, a great African-American scientist. He confides, “I’m very proud of this book,” which won three honors, including 2002 Jane Addams Picture Book of the Year.
He has depicted other historical events. “Silver Packages” tells about a rich man who tossed silver Christmas packages from a train in 1943 to poor kids who lived in Appalachian coal mining towns. In “My Brother Martin,” his watercolors show Martin Luther King Jr. as a boy as his sister, Christine King Farris, remembers their childhoods.
His latest picture book is “Amazing Faces,” written by Lee Bennett Hopkins. The presenter reflected, “Across America, there are strong faces, there are sad faces, there are brave faces. And of course, there are amazing faces.” When a painting of a giggling baby flashed on the screen, the students laughed.
“These are my life experiences – who shaped me, who I am.”
Soentpiet talked about the creative process. “I take about 5,000 digital photos per book.” After posing two BIS students while a third one held a drawing, he demonstrated how he makes a sketch. “I’m just going to go quick because I know they’re going to get tired” of standing in one position. The artist turned the girls into men with sideburns to much laughter, then autographed the sketch for them.
Each quick sketch includes lines to get the basic composition, but no shading. “I use a pencil because I do make a lot of mistakes.” He spends two months to make 20 sketches, called story boards, which must be approved by publishers. After the photos and sketches, “I’m going to get my tools ready, watercolor brushes and paints.” The drawings are transferred on to watercolor paper, then the artist makes practice paintings to adjust the colors before finishing the final illustrations. “One took over three weeks. I like to paint the background in first.” Main characters’ details are painted last. Layers of hues are added until they get dark and dense. It typically takes a year to finish one book.
His adoptive mother encouraged Soentpiet, pointing out, “I would not be standing here today if it wasn’t for all the people who helped me. Follow your dreams and believe in yourself.”
At the presentation’s end, the guest had time to answer questions. One student thought that a boy depicted in “Amazing Faces” was in another Soentpiet book. He agreed, “What I love to paint is faces. I took all my characters from all my past books” and added them to his latest one.
“How did your parents die?” asked another third-grader. “When I was 6, my mom got really sick and passed away. A month later, my dad got in a bad car accident.” He has six brothers and sisters in Korea and six more in his American family.
One wanted to know, “When did you start drawing and get good at it?” Soentpiet responded, “When I was in fourth grade, my mother asked all of her children to keep journals” of writings and drawings. “I do really encourage everybody to keep a journal.”
“What is your favorite book?” was the last question. “It’s really hard to pick,” he answered.”’Coolies’ and ‘Brothers’ took three years each,” so a lot of effort was involved. “‘Jin Woo’ ... is about adoption and, of course, I was adopted.”
More answers to questions can be found at www.soentpiet.com.
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.
An expert mentor • Soentpiet spent Sept. 9-13 at BIS, Batesville Middle School and St. Louis School leading presentations and art workshops for different grade levels as part of the Arts in Education programs provided by Rural Alliance for the Arts. • In addition to RAA, funding for visits by Soentpiet and other artists comes from the John A. Hillenbrand Foundation, John W. Hillenbrand Vision Fund for Quality Education, Rockwood Foundation, Batesville Community School Corp., PTO funds from the schools involved, Columbus Area Arts Council, Indiana Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts.