Interview with Brooke Smart

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

You live in Utah now. Where were you raised? Did you travel much as a child? Was there something specific about the physical location where you grew up that “spoke” to your aesthetic side?

I actually grew up here in Utah. When I was very young, both of my parents taught at BYU in the art department, so my early years were spent in Orem/Provo, but I grew up mostly in Sandy, close to the mountains, and all they had to offer: trails, ski slopes, and wildlife. I loved where I grew up because there was always something to explore, always a new secret hideout to find, always a changing landscape with the very distinct seasons. As I’ve moved around the country over the years, flying back would take my breath away every time. I love Utah and the gorgeous mountains that surround the valley I will always call home. It is a very inspiring place to live because a 10 minute drive and a 30 minute hike can take you to a completely different world. My eyes are opened whenever I take advantage of that.

We did travel a lot when I was growing up, but we didn’t travel far, usually. With five kids in our family, we were definitely a roadtrip family. We spent a week or two lounging on the beach each year in Southern California, we visited a bunch of state parks on an epic three-week trip to Canada, my mom was from Arizona, so we made that drive frequently, and we did fly to Hawaii one time when I was a teenager. My family has always been a close-knit one, and we loved those trips together, except for those times when invisible lines had to be drawn in the back seat of the mini-van when two of us needed our own space and air.

I understand that your father was an artist. What kind of art did he do? Did he involve you in his work? 

My dad was an incredible artist. He was one of those people who could draw perfect perspective without even trying. His work was very unique and there aren’t many people today that can do what he did. He owned a graphic design company, but he himself mainly focused his hours on creating precise, beautiful, hand drawn and painted renderings of houses and buildings that were to be built. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up and was constantly drawing and painting because of his example and encouragement. Because of the nature of his work, he didn’t involve me in it until I was in college and then he began to train me to do what he could do. However, he was always available to help me with any project that I wanted to overtake and taught me so much in the process. He was very busy, like any creative person that owns their own business, but I would have never known it as a child. When he came home, he was all ours.

What influence did your mother have on you? What did she enjoy doing? Is she living with you now? If so how does that impact your life?

My mom has always been my ally, my comforter, and my best friend. She didn’t work when I was growing up, so she was always there for me and my siblings, any hour of the day. What a blessing that was. She was mother to five very different children, but found a way to connect with each one of us personally. She studied interior design, so our house was lovely and she and my dad filled it with original art, which was very inspiring for a budding artist. We’re alike in many ways and because of that have stayed close through the years. When my marriage failed and my daughter and I needed to move away from my husband, she welcomed us into her home until I healed and figured out what to do next. I’ll never be able to thank her for that kindness. She is a very strong, very spiritual person and has taught me that I can get through anything. We lived with her until about a year ago, but we still see her very frequently, because we didn’t move far. She is an important person to me, and an important person to my daughter, Remy. I’m glad we had those years with her.

If you had siblings, who are/were they and what order in the family are you? Describe a happy childhood memory that involves your family – and if it also involves art, even better! Are your siblings also involved in the arts?

I am the third of five kids. My oldest sister is superwoman and works a full time job, while her husband stays home with their three kids. She is the most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. My older brother manages a department at a nearby store, and is always grudgingly reliable to come and fix a car or cut down an offending tree in the backyard. Then there’s me, the middle child who has a hard time finding baby photos of herself because her parents were so enamored with the first two kids. Next comes my little sis who is also an artist and makes beautiful things out of every material she comes in contact with, and somehow found the same kind of genius in a husband. Last, is our baby brother who took awhile to get here, so had a completely different childhood from the rest of us. He and his wife are students at Utah State and will hopefully someday buy the rest of us fancy things with all of their successes.

We took it for granted, having two creative people as parents, but we would often do things like play exquisite corpse while we were sitting in church. And our school projects, particularly our Anasazi villages and our Valentine’s boxes were far and above the best in our classes, because our dad would devote hours to making them enormous and beautiful and complex.

When you were young, what kind of media did you enjoy? Were you primarily a 2-D artist or did you explore 3-D work, too?

I’ve always been primarily a 2-D artist, but as a child I wanted to create things from any material I could find. I once made a haunted house out of foam core that took me weeks to cut out and glue together. My little sister and I are known for taking over our entire house with our projects, much to the chagrin of our mother. Who needs television when you can sew a quilt or build some paper rocket ships or paint a life-size painting of a drummer you saw in the streets of San Francisco??

Now that you’re a grown-up, besides creating artwork and parenting your little beauty Remy, what else do you like to do for fun or relaxation or exhilaration?

I’ve always adored reading, but don’t really have time to sit down and actually read a book anymore. Instead, I listen to books while I paint. I sometimes can go through two books a week. I love nothing more than being transported into a story and forgetting myself for awhile. When I can take a break, though, I love to do yoga, climb and hike. And someday, hopefully, Remy will learn to hike more than ten minutes at a time. Fingers crossed.

You earned a BFA from BYU in Illustration in 2007. How was that experience for you? How did you come to choose illustration as the aspect of the art world you wanted to focus on? Were you ever tempted to major in “fine art” or sculpture or … animal husbandry or computer science? ?

I stumbled upon the illustration department by chance, really. I loved to draw and paint, and figured I’d major in art in college, but it was pure luck that I ended up in the illustration department. My professors were absolutely perfect for me, and taught me so many practical skills, some of which I didn’t think were applicable to me at the time, but which ended up shaping my career. I didn’t want to be an illustrator, but loved the academic approach to art that the illustration department offered. Their curriculum included a lot of figure drawing, head painting, and figure painting, which was what I was most interested in. My plan was to be a narrative figure painter, and sell my work in galleries, which I did for a few years after college, but it’s not where I’ve ended up. Along with all of the figure drawing, were classes in editorial, picture book, and book cover illustration. I’m grateful for that foundation that my professors gave me back then. And yes, sometimes, painting in the middle of the night, I would wonder why I hadn’t majored in accounting. Accounting majors would have found the right answer by 3 am and would have gone to bed.

How did your studies incorporate technology with artwork? What challenges did that present for you? How much of your work do you create on the computer – and at what stages? Are there specific programs that you recommend to others interested in the arts? How does technology enhance and/or complicate creativity?

Ha, I feel like I went to school a million years ago, before technology played the giant role that it plays now in illustration. I took some basic Photoshop and Illustrator classes, but most of what I’ve done in my career has come from self-instruction, or online instruction. I did some graphic design work for awhile and got pretty proficient in Illustrator, but the work I do now is done almost 100% by using traditional media, with the caveat being the sketching phase. Sketching digitally (I like to sketch on my ipad in Procreate) has begun to save me a lot of time because I’m able to resize parts of the image easily, I don’t need to scan anything in when I’ve got the sketch right, and I can keep everything organized and at my fingertips when I need it. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to give up traditional painting, though. I love creating those textures for real on my paper or canvas.

What can you tell us about your professional life as an artist from the time you got your degree? Sometimes people envision artists as starving in a garret. Was that you? Did you have a wealthy benefactor? Did you supplement your income with other jobs? I understand you taught art. Where was that and what unique challenges did teaching throw into the mix of actually just creating artwork?

I wish I’d had a wealthy benefactor! I got married right after I graduated and we would move around a lot for my husband’s internships and grad school opportunities, which made a permanent job for me sort of an impossibility. I signed on with a gallery in Park City, UT right out of school, and began selling fine art through them for the first couple years, until it became harder and harder to make that work. I then turned to freelance graphic design because I was always able to get work in that field, mostly designing posters and graphic prints for paper and fabric. During these first years, I did little odd illustration jobs, but never considered becoming a full-fledged illustrator. About a year after Remy was born, however, I came to a point in my life where I needed to be able to support myself and my daughter, and I wanted to do that by doing what I loved. I didn’t really love graphic design work because it was not at all hands on. And my fine art work was done with oil paints, which were tough to use around a one-year-old and were best used in natural daylight. I took a step back and considered what all of my artistic interests were, and oddly enough, they all converged in illustration. It’s taken 4-5 years of working really hard, staying up ridiculously late most nights, working during preschool and kindergarten hours, and whenever else I can, to get to where I finally have consistent work, and not only that, but work that I’m overjoyed to get. I love being an illustrator. I love the variety of projects I’ve been able to work on, and the people I’ve gotten to work with. I love the illustration community.

I have been teaching for the last couple of years at BYU in the Illustration department, and it has been such a great experience going back and helping my students through the design process (it has helped me in my own work to get back to the basics), but recently I’ve had too much work to justify teaching as well, so I’m taking a little break that might be temporary and might be permanent. We’ll see what happens.

You are currently represented by Bookmark Literary. What was the process of finding an agent like for you? How did you decide what to include in your portfolio? Are there styles that are radically different from the whimsical, energetic, affectionate images on the Bookmark Literary site that you like to experiment with?

Everyone has such different paths when it comes to finding an agent, or even deciding to be represented by anyone. I had come to a point a couple years ago where I decided having an agent would be the logical next step for me, but I didn’t take any steps to make that happen. I attended a national SCBWI conference in NY and won an award for my portfolio, and then consequently was contacted by three agents within a few weeks of each other. It was very fortuitous and I was able to weigh the pros and cons of each one. I decided on Bookmark Literary because she would represent me for all things books, but nothing else. I’d been able to find work on my own for everything but books and so this seemed like a good arrangement.

Do I have radically different styles that I like to play around with? Ha. I’m not sure the styles I play around with are radically different from what you’re seeing, but I definitely need to release different themes and ideas in my sketchbooks pretty often. Sketching has always been cathartic to me because there isn’t a need to tighten up or even show anyone what I’ve drawn. I like that freedom.

What are some of the projects you are most proud? Why are they so meaningful to you?

My most personal project, one that I am most proud of for personal reasons, would have to be my Bringing Up Baby project, where I painted my daughter and I doing 100 different things. I did one a day for 100 days (ish). I wanted it to be a visual journal of our life at that moment. I wanted to remember all of the special or funny (or nightmarishly funny) things that we did every day. Oddly, it was the project that really pushed my illustration career from a part time job to an all the time job. I got so much work from that little project that was only meant to be a side project for me. I also was able to connect with countless moms and artists around the world with that project because I posted the new one every day on Instagram. The comments I got kept me going and made the project even more meaningful.

A proud moment in my illustration career, one that was on my bucket list, was to do my first job for the New York Times last year. It was a one day project, where I had about 6 hours from start to finish. It was a crazy, crazy day getting that job, but a day I hope will be repeated many more times.

Jane Goodall by Brooke Smart

What other artists or illustrators do you admire? Who influences your work? What is it that draws you to their work?

That is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many answers! My roots are in fine art and artists like Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargeant, and Andrew Wyeth have always inspired me, along with illustrators like Lizbeth Zwerger, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Maurice Sendak. But I also love contemporary artist and illustrators and lately have been very inspired by picture book illustrators such as Joohee Yoon, Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Isabelle Arsenault, and the list goes on and on. I guess I’m drawn to how these artists tell their story. Some tell them so simply, while others are over the top complex. They all have a unique voice, and I love that about their work.  

One significant part of your creative life is your daughter, Remy. She is now, what, 6? Is she in school now? Does she demonstrate any particular knack for art (if you can be objective enough to answer that. ?)?

Remy is proudly 5 ½ and tells everyone she meets, but is counting down the days until her birthday this summer. She’s in kindergarten and loves it so much. She has always been very curious about letters and numbers, but especially drawing and painting and creating. I am very biased, obviously, but I often look at work she’s created and think she’s just pure genius. I love the way she can fill a sketchbook on a four hour road trip, the way she can draw a terrifying monster, write and illustrate a story about a constipated fish, and make a hand drawn award for someone without any trepidation about how these things will be received by me or anyone else. I hope she can hold onto that unencumbered bravery as long as possible.

Everyone has challenges with work/life balance. How do you find that with your life as an involved mom?

That balance is definitely something I’m working towards and something that still feels so far away, but I do the best that I can. It is very important to me to be present with Remy, to be here for her the way my mom was always there for me. So I try and use every moment she’s at school to sit down and work, but some days are better than others. I get a babysitter to come for a couple afternoons a week, because I’ve found that daylight hours tend to be more productive than middle of the night hours, but most nights are filled with painting after she goes to sleep. It’s impossible to be perfect with the balance, but the closest I get is by sacrificing sleep on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this will get easier with time, but we do our best with what we’re given right now. I am very grateful every day that I’m able to be home with her and enjoy this time of her life, and also be able to support us by doing what I love.

What projects are you working on now? I was so impressed with the drawings on betterdays2020. Was that something you initiated yourself? Describe the physical process of creating those images so we get a sense of how they get from blank page to wonderful, textured, vibrant and expressive images.

I have some exciting projects I’m working on right now. I’ll be starting my first picture book with Random House in the next couple of weeks, which I’m so excited about. I’m also working on a cover design for the June Friend Magazine, as well as some smaller jobs for some companies that I can’t quite talk about yet. The Better Days 2020 job has been such an interesting project to work on, and I’ll be working on it for awhile still. It wasn’t my idea, they approached me to do the paintings, but I’m so happy they did because it’s definitely a topic that is of great interest to me, and I love doing the research behind each of the people I’m illustrating. I work with an amazing team of women to create each design. Usually how it works is that they give me a rough bio of the woman or man I’ll be painting, and then I do a lot of my own research on the person through old books and journals and online, and then I make some initial sketches, which I then send to the team. I work closely with a historian who helps me to get all of the details correct. I don’t know how I’d do this project without her. She knows so much! And then I finalize the sketch, get everything approved and move onto the painting phase. It is definitely the most involved project I have ever worked on and each portrait has so much behind it. I love Better Days 2020 and all they stand for and are trying to do. I’m honored to be a part of the project.

Tell us about your companion portraits. (If someone wanted to commission one, would they do that through your website or through Bookmark Literary?) Where did that idea spring from? They are so charming, so full of personality. (They’d make great wedding or anniversary gifts, in my humble opinion.)  Do you decide the wonderfully coordinated color scheme for these or do the people who commission the art make that decision? How similar is the process of creating these to making the betterday2020 women? Does capturing a likeness of living people pose extra challenges?

The portraits were a way to combine my love of painting portraits with my illustration style. They were also begun to jumpstart my illustration career and to start getting work. I liked the idea of creating something whimsical out of something that is traditionally very posed and proper, which is why my couples have their arms break the boundaries of their little ovals to hold each others’ hands. I don’t paint many of them anymore because of my other freelance work, and don’t really take commissions, except from people that gave me life or people that are related to those people. For a time, though, I was painting so many of those little portraits. I probably painted at least 100 of them. I would ask the people commissioning them to tell me details about the person or persons I was painting, and then I would try and include those details in the patterns and colors I used to create them. They were fun to create, and it was fun to connect with so many strangers and peek into their lives for a bit. Capturing likenesses definitely is more pressure packed than painting anonymous, made up faces. In that way, those portraits are similar to the Better Days 2020 ones – so much pressure to get them right!

Congratulations on being selected twice for honorable mentions by the national SCBWI NY conference for their top portfolio competition. Tell us about that (and other conferences). What are the advantages of attending them? What are some of the most significant lessons you’ve learned by attending them? What part does networking among other professionals play in your professional growth and your creative life. Those are not necessarily the same things, as I’m sure you know.

Thank you! It was definitely unexpected, both years. Receiving the first award was something that helped me to continue on the path of freelance illustration. So much of being an illustrator is being brave enough to jump into the unknown and hope that there is a place for your voice, or jumping in and convincing people that there is a place for your voice. It’s encouraging to occasionally have recognitions like those two awards to validate the hard work you’ve put in and keep you moving forward.

The conferences themselves are wonderful. There are classes and panels of art directors and editors and agents where they become real people and answer all of the questions you could ever have for them. It’s great to learn what is current in the industry, how art directors find artists, how books are published, what the best ways to get your work out there is, etc. But yes, the best part of the conferences are the connections I’m able to make with other illustrators, as well as art directors and other industry professionals. By attending the conferences, you not only humanize yourself to possible clients, but they humanize themselves as well. Personal relationships will never be a thing of the past, so connecting in person definitely makes a difference and I’ve been lucky enough to get work from connections made at most conferences I’ve attended.

In what ways does your faith influence your artwork?

My faith definitely plays a role in every aspect of my life. I hope that my values and standards come out in what I create. I am happy when I make uplifting, beautiful work.

What advice would you have for artists and illustrators who want to flourish in their creative work? What helps you most to keep your work fresh and fun?

I like to tell my students to not be afraid of jumping into the illustration world as early as possible. It’s easy to be intimidated by other artists, by art directors, by agents, and by all of the million things we are intimidated by. They are all just people, and contacting them is the best way to get work. And the best advice is just to draw every day, as much as you can. Nothing can happen without a lot of hard work and however you can make that happen, it needs to happen.

I try and make each job exciting to me, even if the subject matter doesn’t sound particularly interesting to draw. If you can find a way to make it your own, make it personal, or make it fun, your work will be better.


About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

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