We continue our Interview series—in which we ask contemporary illustrators to share their experiences. Today’s guest is Jenn Ely.
Where were you born?
I was born in Columbus, Indiana, on November 3, 1983.
When did you realize that drawing could be a living?
I guess it could be when I decided to go to art school [at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago]. Admittedly, I didn’t really think it through that far as a real career decision, it was just the next thing... but I never really felt like I could just paint and have a life back then if I’m honest. I was sort of dreading graduation, no idea what I was supposed to do or wanted to do.
I moved closer when I was in grad school [at Savannah College of Art and Design]. I took a concept art class that clicked, but it wasn’t until I travelled to Burbank to my first CTNX—and met animation industry folks in person—that I saw that it was at least possible for some.
Then it wasn’t until I was picked for a mentorship by Kathy Altieri at Dreamworks that I thought it might actually be possible for me.
I’ve had to re-realize it many times over. I’m always shocked that it’s working.
What was your first work-life experience?
I drew and painted as far back as I can remember. I was really quiet, and I loved to read and to draw... It’s all I did. Luckily my family was supportive and I was never pushed away from it.
My uncle painted billboards and was a very talented artist—I think it made a big impression on my mom, and so they were proud of my being another artist in the family.
My grandparents actually both worked in the Disney theme parks—both in the resorts and parks in Orlando. We were dirt poor, but my dad worked for Delta and so we went to Disney often. They gave us the movies every Christmas.
It took me many years to make my way back to animation; to even consider that I could ever have a hand in making something as big and incredible as that. I started on my first film when I was 29 (The Boxtrolls with Laika).
What was your first start in children’s books?
My first children’s book work was with Amazon Rapids (an app where kids read the story through texts and pictures that pop up onscreen). The first book was something made with Scholastic for libraries—designed to tell nonfiction stories from the perspective of a child during an historic event or time period. I illustrated a book called If You Were a Kid Building a Pyramid. Both of these contracts were through my first agent.
How did you find your agent?
So brutal honesty: I signed with a friend’s agency off the bat. He’s a good guy, but it was a bad set up for me personally. He was a rep for overall illustration. I did not know that the cut taken was much higher than that of a lit agent, and that someone not working consistently in the book market might not be as savvy about typical timelines and rates for these types of projects.
My rep at the time typically worked with editorial and other shorter term illustration jobs. My background as a storyteller makes me much more a fit for books specifically. I should have researched more.
I left my first situation, did a ton of research, and reached out to a few agents with incredible reputations and work histories in publishing. Luckily for me, Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency liked my work and agreed to represent me.
We have a great relationship. Kelly has given me great feedback. I’m excited to be partnered with her.
Care to share a career highlight or two?
I’ve gotten to travel to Rome and Ireland to lecture and participate on panels with some legendary artists that I admire. I never expected this career to take me places in that way. It makes me proud and excited to meet people and have new experiences related to this job that I love to do.
In 2018, I production-designed a stop motion TV series at Shadow Machine. The most surreal moment was when I was finishing up the show, and also working visual development freelance on a feature film for one of my heroes, a legend in Production Design. During this same time I was approached by the team of one of my favorite directors of all time to test for his movie. It was Henry Sellick [of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame].
I had to tell them that I was busy for the moment (being as I was still knee-deep in the film and the show). I learned later that he personally called the production designer I was working with to ask about me.
The fact that the people who have made some of my favorite films know my name at all completely baffles me.
What insight can you provide about being an illustrator that you think all illustrators should know?
The biggest universal one would be that you feel like you have no power—but you do. You get a say in who you work with, and how you are treated. From pay to hours to being treated as a respected collaborator.
The bottom line is: You TEACH people how to treat you. The least you will put up with is what you will get, from pay to respect. Set your limits, draw your lines for yourself, and let no client be above them. Be willing to walk away.
I have walked away from bad situations at dream companies. I have walked away from jobs that pay well and provide security. No one gets into art to get rich. We do it to MAKE.
I want to make with people who are excited to make with me. I want to leave work frustrated and tired from pushing my limits as an artist—not by a work situation where I am undervalued or consistently overworked.
The other sort of… bit of advice would be to try things that might not work. If you know it works then you did it already. Your growth is your longevity.
We want to thank Jenn Ely for her insight. If you think this interview would be helpful to illustrators, please pass it along using the “Share” button below.
Be sure to visit her website here. And, thank you for reading!