Birds of a Feather
An Interview with Illustrator Jada Fitch by L.M. Browning
Jada Fitch was born in 1984, and grew up in a family-built log cabin in Sebago, Maine, just up the road from her grandparents’ general store. Much of her childhood was spent at Fitch’s Store, building box forts in the garage, and pranking customers with her brother and cousin. Her mother is a lifelong stained glass artist, who spent her spare time driving Jada to various arts and crafts classes. To earn a little money during summer breaks, she helped her father build log cabins; laying hardwood, stuffing insulation, and wielding a nail gun on roofs.
After graduating from Lake Region High School in 2002, she majored in illustration at the Maine College of Art. While attending MECA, she worked at Portland’s Whole Grocer, where she met her husband, Philip Willey. After MECA, Philip got offered a scholarship to attend school in Los Angeles for animation. So the couple packed a tiny pickup truck with everything they could fit, and drove cross country. After two years in North Hollywood, and the acquisition of a 130 pound street dog named Daisy, they decided Maine was where they belonged.
After moving back to Portland, Jada worked part-time at a shop on Commercial Street, while doing freelance illustration the rest of the time. In 2013 she decided she might enjoy birdwatching on top of her other hobby, knitting. She started by attempting to draw every bird species in North America, she didn’t get very far before getting bird art related job offers. That winter a customer came into the shop where she worked, and told her there was a snowy owl in the abandoned building on India Street. She put up the “be back in 10 minutes” sign and went to check it out. She took some photos through her binoculars of the bird sitting in the window, and sent them to Maine Audubon’s Facebook page. Shortly after, they approached her to collaborate on a series of kids’ books, the first being A Snowy Owl Story, which depicted that day’s owl visit.
She now has three books published in partnership with Melissa Kim, Maine Audubon and Islandport Press, and a fourth in the works, under the series title “Wildlife on the Move.” She now freelances from home full time, mainly doing wildlife related art, and a little birdwatching and volunteer birdbanding on the side .
Leslie: You grew up in a family built log cabin in Sebago, Maine and spent much of your childhood drawing, crafting, and building forts at your grandparent’s general store. How much do those early days shape your artistic direction?
Jada: Sebago, Maine was a nice place to grow up. My parents, built a small log cabin when they were 18 and 19 years old, and kept adding onto it over the years. By the time I was born, the house had acquired a lot of unique characteristics. Round slices of trees made up the kitchen floor, and peeled and varnished hemlock branches were used as railings and balusters. A lot of the features my dad puts into our house often find their way into the buildings I draw.
My grandparents store, Fitch’s General, was right down the street. It feels like I spent half the time there. The store from basement to attic had been collecting stuff since 1920, the year the original store across the street burned down. So every inch of the place was filled with something. Groceries, beach accessories, hardware, candy, kerosene, and always kitty the black cat asleep on the newspapers on the counter. As a result, much of my work is very detailed.
My mother is a stained glass artist, so when she was working on a project, to keep me busy she would give me a craft project to work on too, or sign me up for an art class nearby. My folks were and are very supportive, they even let me paint and collage every inch of my bedroom.
The land around Sebago is very woodsy. When I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual to see deer, or sometimes a moose or an owl. I didn’t appreciate all the different animals, and the little details in nature as much as I do now. Living in “the city” for almost 15 years now makes me really appreciate the time I do spend in the woods. I’ve really been enjoying just observing nature, trying to identify plants, insects, bird songs, etc. Things I grew up with but never noticed the beauty in before. That’s what’s really become the focus of my work.
Leslie: As a wildlife artist myself, (who focuses mainly on raptors and songbirds,) I am the first to admit, there is no telling what draws us to focus on a particular subject. You’ve worked extensively with The Maine Audubon Society. Tell me, what do you think draws you to focus primarily on wildlife?
Jada: The more I learn about plants and animals and how they are connected, the more interesting I find them, and therefore the more ideas I have for illustrations. I am a very visual learner, my favorite books have pictures. By studying photos of animals, and trying to see them in the wild, I learn so much about their behavior and personalities. Then when I draw a particular creature I’ve observed, I try to exaggerate its behavior and personality. Either with pose, expression or interaction with a plant or other animal. Also “doing research” is a great excuse to go on birdwatching adventures.
Leslie: What are your preferred mediums? Do you do digital work or all by hand?
Jada: The medium I choose to work in depends on the project. For the last couple of years, watercolors have been my preference. Nontoxic, water soluble, and generally inexpensive. Occasionally I’ll paint in oils or acrylics for gallery shows, and sometimes a project calls for pen and ink with digital color, or just a finished pencil drawing. For large format prints, logo design, and some T-shirt designs I usually work in vector format.
Leslie: Eugene Ionesco once said, “A work of art is above all an adventure of the mind.” The body of your work seems geared towards educating while entertaining. In your book, A Snowy Owl Story, you not only provide youngsters with an “adventure of the mind” but you help them grow their minds as you educate them concerning migration, adaptation, and respectful human interaction with nature. Do you consider yourself an artist or an educator or, in your mind, are they one in the same?
Jada: I consider myself an illustrator. I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an artist or an educator. The term artist is broad, everybody is an artist in one way or another, illustrator narrows it down a bit. I like to do a bit of research before doing much sketching. Each project is a learning experience for me. Drawing birds is what really got me into bird watching. After sketching different types of sparrows, I was able to tell the different species apart. Recently I painted a piece called “Butterflies of Maine”. I looked at many photos of each species most commonly seen in Maine, made sure their sizes were all correct relative to one another, and painted them as accurately as I could. The finished painting is rather large, so I had to scan it in at least 6 pieces, (without cutting it apart) put them together in Photoshop, and edit out all the missed pencil outlines and stuck on dog hairs. Then I numbered and labeled each butterfly species. The piece is meant to function as art compositionally, something you’d want to hang on your wall. Who doesn’t love butterflies? The name of each species though is included, so that when you’re out on your walk and you see a butterfly, you can come home and point out which one you saw. It’s the height of butterfly season in Maine right now, and my husband and I spotted a Red Admiral on a walk with Daisy this afternoon. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t learned it’s name.
Leslie: You educate/entertain focus extends beyond a preschool-age audience to adults in your informational posters. My all-time favorite examples of such wit are “Tits of the World” and “Boobies of the World” (yes, people, we’re still talkin’ birds here, people). With these pieces, you transform those dull educational posters we all saw at nature centers growing up and make them fun and contemporary. Tell us about the reaction you’ve had to such projects and the inspiration behind their creation. Were you approached to do them or did you conceive of them yourself?
Jada: I spend a lot of time collecting reference photos. It took me over a year to gather pictures for every species of bird in the world (close to 10,000 species), and categorize them by order and family. While collecting, I had the idea to create a piece showing an entire family of birds on display as an “art poster,” rather than hidden away in a field guide. It would be a lot of fun to paint, as well as something I would want to hang on my own wall. The tit family (chickadees, titmice, etc.) seemed like the obvious choice. It would have an appeal to the typical birdwatcher’s punny sense of humor, and would hopefully get it noticed on the interwebs. And it did! My husband ran downstairs one day to tell me “Tit’s of the World” was at the top of io9.com, a blog he looks at almost every day. In the comments section, there were a few requests for a “Boobies” poster, so that was my next painting.
Leslie: National Audubon Society named your book A Snowy Owl Story on its list of “12 Best Bird Books of 2015,” declaring A Snowy Owl Story isn’t just another cute kids book; it’s full of science and purpose. Based on true events, the story follows a golden-eyed Snowy Owl from the Arctic as it journeys across the continent to an abandoned building in Maine. Beautifully illustrated with easy-to-read text, the book teaches children about the bird’s habitat and diet, and also shows them how to help an avian in need.” From where did the inspiration for your little, snowy owl come? Tell us about that project.
Jada: I have that very owl, that A Snowy Owl Story is based on to thank for all the success I’ve had the past couple of years. I worked part time at a shop on Portland’s waterfront for many years, and walked by an abandoned brick building both ways there. In January 2014, a customer came into the shop and told me an owl was stuck in that building. I put the “be back in 10 minutes” sign up, and went to check it out. I got a few photos with my phone, through my binoculars, of the owl sitting in a window. I sent them to Maine Audubon’s facebook page, not knowing they were already on the scene. They then saw some of the illustrations on my facebook page, and asked me to work with them on a kid’s book about the whole thing. Eric Topper, the education director at Maine Audubon contacted Melissa Kim, the children’s book editor at Islandport Press. Who as it turns out worked at Maine Audubon in the past. After a couple meetings Melissa was chosen as the author, and one book turned into four.
Leslie: You’re following the tremendous success of, A Snowy Owl Story with A Little Brown Bat Story and The Blanding’s Turtle Story creating the “Wildlife on the Move” series, which I believe is going to be a total of four titles. So, what is the final critter we’ll be following?
Jada: Book number four will be A Monarch Butterfly Story. Very excited to start working on this one. Haven’t seen the completed story yet, but it will definitely have a message about conservation, and colorful illustrations of butterflies fluttering around Maine’s famous Portland Headlight lighthouse.
Leslie: What do you hope to achieve through your work? If you could have your young readers walk away with one thing after reading your books, what would it be?
Jada: Hopefully my work will encourage kids to notice and appreciate beauty in nature, and in the future, make choices that will benefit and preserve our environment, and everything that lives in it.
Leslie: What would you say to all those struggling artists trying to make a living with their art?
Jada: Draw what you love, draw every day, and don’t stop.
Leslie: Lastly, how can our readers follow your work?
Jada: My website gets updated, but not often enough, best way to see anything and everything new is my blog, or instagram. Website: www.jadafitch.com • Blog/ Tumblr: jadafitch.tumblr.com • Facebook: www.facebook.com/jadafitchillustration • Instagram: @jadafitchillustration • Twitter: @jadafitch
L.M. Browning is the author of nine books. In 2010, she debuted with a three-title contemplative poetry series. These three books went on to garner several accolades including a total of three pushcart-prize nominations, the Nautilus Gold Medal for Poetry and Forward Reviews’ Book of the Year Award. Balancing her passion for writing with her love of learning, Browning sits on the Board of Directors for the Independent Book Publishers’ Association and the Art’s Cafe Mystic, she is a graduate of the University of London, and a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Writers. She is partner at Hiraeth Press as well as Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Wayfarer. She is currently working to complete a degree at Harvard University’s Extension School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visit www.lmbrowning.comby