August 11, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #152: Jess X Snow

Today I am thrilled to share my conversation with Asian-American filmmaker, muralist, and poet Jess X Snow, illustrator of The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story by Tina Cho. It was fascinating to learn about how Jess' cinematography and muralist experiences bled over into creating the illustrations in the book, and even more interesting to hear about how Jess employed a whole team of researchers and assistants to aid in ensuring the visual accuracy the lesser known Haenyeo culture. Enjoy the conversation!
About the book: 
Dayeon wants to be a haenyeo just like Grandma. The haenyeo dive off the coast of Jeju Island to pluck treasures from the sea--generations of Korean women have done so for centuries. To Dayeon, the haenyeo are as strong and graceful as mermaids. To give her strength, Dayeon eats Grandma's abalone porridge. She practices holding her breath while they do the dishes. And when Grandma suits up for her next dive, Dayeon grabs her suit, flippers, and goggles. A scary memory of the sea keeps Dayeon clinging to the shore, but with Grandma's guidance, Dayeon comes to appreciate the ocean's many gifts.

Let's talk Jess X Snow!

LTPB: How did you come to be the illustrator of The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story? What is your personal connection with Tina Cho’s story?

JS: Jasmin Rubero, the art director of Kokila/Penguin Random House, a newly launched Penguin Young Readers imprint, reached out to me back in January of 2019. She told me “through the exploration of a tradition rooted in rich history, this story highlights the beauty (and magic) of our natural world.” She wanted the art to give nature a magical feel, with elements of magical realism. After seeing some of my murals about migration where the ocean waves turned into the hair on the portrait of a girl, and the drawings for an animated short about my family’s migration journey, they reached out to me. I felt that Tina and the all-women-of color publishing team at Kokila were giving the story of the Haenyeo a lot of respect. 

I connect with The Ocean Calls because it is a story about powerful athletic women and the ways we feed our communities. As someone who has done a lot of solidarity work with indigenous communities, water protectors, and the protectors of oceans, I felt like being invited to do artwork for The Ocean Calls is an extension of that work. As an immigrant who is a guest on the traditional lands of indigenous people, specifically the Lenni Lenape people, I feel it is my responsibility to acknowledge and respect the people whose lands I am on. Indigenous people are all over the world and have been leading the climate, environmental and feminist justice movements since the dawn of time. The Haenyeo is an ancient tradition of the indigenous people of Jeju Island. When I was invited to illustrate The Ocean Calls, it was an opportunity to uplift them, with the dignity and respect and cultural accuracy they deserve. Because I and everyone else on Turtle Island live on stolen land, it is important for us all to continue acknowledging, respecting, making space, and uplifting indigenous people all over the globe and support their path toward sovereignty. There is an app and a website called which is a map and resource for those on North America and elsewhere to learnmore about the indigenous tribes of the lands they live on. 

I was lucky to be on the Big Island of Hawaii while finishing the book. There, I was able to take in inspiration from the vast ocean, listen to its songs, smell its fragrance, and feel its power. I witnessed how the ocean and islands were being protected and taken care of by native Hawaiians. During this time I was thinking about the Haenyeo and how they nurtured and took care of the ocean and Jeju Island as well. This is why I wrote "this is dedicated to the Ocean and all of its protectors" in the opening acknowledgements of the book, honoring directly the indigenous people being protectors of the ocean and water globally. 
LTPB: What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) to get the images right? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style? 

JS: I am honored that I was invited to illustrate the story of the Haenyeo and understand that it was only made possible due to the care and relationships that Tina has built with the Haenyeo over time. For inspiration, I went out to see Endlings by Korean-American playwright Celine Song at the American Repertory Theater, which featured three Haenyeo grandmothers and used beautiful set design and projections to bring their world to life. I watched several documentaries about the Haenyeo and worked with Chinese artist and the primary assistant Yuan Zheng to create a library of photographic references detailing the Haenyeo way of life for us to choose from. 
image credit Yuan Zheng
image credit Yuan Zheng

image credit Yuan Zheng

image credit Yuan Zheng

image credit Yuan Zheng

image credit Yuan Zheng

Having done community mural work with many marginalized migrant, queer, and indigenous communities, I understand the nuance, care, and research it takes to represent a marginalized community and culture the way they want to and deserve to be seen.

Every Haenyeo is unique and has a unique life, memory and story. It is important to represent the Haenyeo, the way they live, their land, their tools, what they eat, their houses, their routines with the nuance, care, and historical accuracy these people deserve. As this may be one of the first times the Haenyeo is represented in children’s literature, I hope one day a Haenyeo can pick up this book and read it to a young Haenyeo-to-be, like Dayeon, and inspire them to learn the old ways of this dying tradition. I hope the art in this book will draw in young readers from all over the world with the colorful ways it depicts the ocean, and sky from the imaginative eyes of a child. Additionally, I also used elements of magical realism to evoke the expansiveness, beauty and danger of the ocean as seen through the eyes of Dayeon, a young 6-9 year old girl. For example the bubbles and shadows created the shapes of mermaids. Is this Dayeon’s imagination or is it the creativity of mother nature itself? 
The landscapes in the book were taken directly from photographs of Jeju Island. Small details were included like the millions of yellow Canola (Yuche) flowers blooming in the beginning- of spring and spread like gold across the vast plains of the island. 

I incorporated my background in film and cinematography to make sure The Ocean Calls feels almost like a movie that happens over the course of a day. The story starts with Dayeon and her grandmother rising at sunrise and ends with them returning home by twilight. My background in cinematography helped inform the lighting choices in each composition and frame it almost like camera angles: a series of close ups, wide shots, and birds-eye-view shots to capture the intimacy of Dayeon's relationship with her grandma and how small they are in the expansiveness of the ocean. I made sure the illustrations follow Dayeon’s emotions and her overcoming of fear and discovery of home in the ocean—the home that she had all along. The ocean becomes its own character in the book. It is rich with sea creatures: cuttlefish, trout, clams, abalone, coral and dolphins. The ink-like texture of the linework conveyed the different temperaments of the Ocean: a place of danger, but also a place of calm, healing and treasure that the Haenyeo have relied on for centuries for nourishment. The Ocean is also a reflection of Dayeon’s emotional state as she transforms from fear of drowning to a sense of wonder about the treasures the sea beholds, and ultimately a oneness and trust in her own body and her beautiful lineage. Dayeon eventually at the end realizes that the ocean will always be her home.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? Do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

JS: When I receive a new project I ask myself who are the people behind the story. Are there women on the team? Are there people of color? Am I the right fit for this project? Does it align with my values, and does it champion women of color, people of color and our collective liberation? Will it help me reach a new audience. Do I have enough time to give it the attention it deserves? If all of those answers feel right then I start the project. 
I worked collaboratively with Yuan Zheng, the primary assistant, who also did the character designs. I also worked with Zoraida Ingles and Sean Devare as assistants to finish the coloring. The book was very detail-oriented and took a lot of time to complete from concept to research to realization so I really enjoyed working with a team of Asian diasporic people. A lot of the stylistic work comes with putting together a mood board and look book, similar to how I put together a mood board for films and cinematography. I create a rhythm of shots, and compositions, close-ups, wide shots, medium shots, high angle shots and see which angle is the best to tell the story. I try to ask myself whose story it is and stay close to the point of view of the main character. In The Ocean Calls, I felt that the point of view of the ocean and sky (the natural world) was just as important as Dayeon’s point of view, so a lot of the compositions are designed from a low angle or high angle, to show us the expansiveness of the natural world. I would say, the style doesn’t change so much: the amount of detail, the colors, and the Point of View does. 
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How did your process change from your first book to this one?

JS: The Ocean Calls was created through drawings made with pro-create with the apple pencil on the iPad, which is the preferred medium that I use for illustration work these days. After the inking was done, these drawings were then colored in digitally with water color and gouache brushes, and then sent into photoshop, where I then layered it with hand-made textures of paper, and textures of real rocks, underwater, bubbles, and sand. A lot of support and advice was given from Jasmin Rubero, the art director to make sure we captured the emotional journey of Dayeon, the Haenyeo and the ocean. I worked collaboratively with Yuan Zheng, the primary assistant, who also did the character designs. The book was very detail-oriented and took a lot of time to complete from concept to research to realization so I really enjoyed working with a team of Asian diasporic people.
My process changes from book to book but what stays the same is that I love to work collaboratively. In the first kids book I illustrated, Black Girl Magic by Mahogany L. Browne, I also worked collaboratively with art director and graphic designer Jon Key. However for that process I worked with Jon on designing the compositions, and then I did a lot of quick ink drawings on paper and colored them in photoshop. My process for The Ocean Calls has gotten more digital, and uses the iPad pen, though I do use natural textures more.
LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

JS: I have another kids book about migration: a Chinese girl is taken by her mother on to a plane for the first time. At first she is scared but then she looks out the window and discovers the flight of cranes and learns to fly among them. She discovers her ancestral history of migration, as she finally returns to her hometown of Nanchang, Jiangxi. However I haven’t gotten started on the illustrations yet. 

I am also working on finishing my short narrative film, Little Sky, which is about a non-binary Asian-American who returns to the city they grew up in to confront their estranged father about domestic violence. You can find out more about the film here. We plan to tour the festival circuit in 2021. 

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

JS: I think my picture book autobiography would be made of love poems for the Earth and for my homeland, both places that feel so far away, almost like memories, but only art can bring them closer. I would get my friend Jon Key to art direct and design it and my friend Ashley Lukashevsky, a mixed Korean artist and activist, to illustrate it because my friends know me the best, and I truly believe that the strength of our projects lies in the strength of our relationships. I also think it's important to collaborate with other queer artists of color and work to uplift each other and build long term relationships with them. I would also like for them to incorporate textures of nature, the ocean and the Earth into the pages. 

A million thanks to Jess for taking time to answer some questions, and a special thank-you as well to Zoraida Ingles for helping to coordinate this interview. The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story published last week from Kokila!

Special thanks to Jess, Yuan, and Kokila for use of these images!

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  1. Blown away by the depth of thought and creativity that went into these images. I can't wait to get my hands on this book!