|Jael: Artist in Wonderland|
Small wonder that famed science fiction and fantasy artist Jael identifies with Lewis Carroll's Alice. In addition to portraits whimsical and worldly, her book cover commissions range from several volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies to the current reissues of Classics Illustrated. Jael's real-life adventures span everything from sidewalk portraiture to motorcycle rides through the Swiss Alps to a "grandson" sixty years her senior. And according to Jael, her best artistic adventures are yet to be.
Crescent Blues caught up with Jael at Lunacon 2001, one of her favorite conventions, where the conversation leapt from Bible names to bananas and down more than a few interesting rabbit holes.
Crescent Blues: Jael is such an unusual name. Is it your birth name?
Jael: It's my name. I hadn't realized it was a Bible name until I was in my twenties. I found out that Jael was a heroine in the Bible. She actually drove a spike through a warmonger's head. So when I found out all the details, I was totally thrilled. I thought: "This is fate. This is great." The one name has always served me well. I never felt like going back to a maiden name or pursuing a made-up name or using my old married name. Those four letters "J-A-E-L" stood strong and well for me.
Crescent Blues: How long have you known you wanted to be an artist?
Jael: Probably before I was born. I think we are predestined to be creative. The first forms for me were within music, theater, drama. My mother was one of the first people to have a live TV show. My grandmother put stage plays on that were A-plus. My mother also created -- along with two other women -- a songbook that was used for 25 years in all of the public schools, and I watched that being created. So there was a creative background that became part of me that you don't escape. It becomes part of your heritage, your destiny.
Crescent Blues: Did you study art in college?
Jael: No. I do have
[teaching] certification, but I had already had 15 years of a professional
background. I've given lectures to other tech schools and colleges. I
was actually a professional for 15 years before I got certified to teach
Crescent Blues: How did you get your start as a professional artist?
Jael: I discovered I had a very exceptional and happy ability to do likenesses of people, and I set up in public. From there I went and did a lot of other kinds of artwork for people, but I was raising my children. It was about only 15 years ago that I found out through a science fiction symposium -- not a convention -- of several illustrators and editors and authors who said you've got to go East and do publishing illustrations.
I always wanted to, and my kids were grown. So I said, "OK, opportunity's knocking. Get working on it." And I did.
Crescent Blues: Were you living in Las Vegas at the time?
Jael: I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, but I did go to Las Vegas after my divorce. Lived in Las Vegas for seven years and gravitated to Santa Cruz, which was heaven on earth. It was beautiful. People said, "How come you left the West Coast?" I said, "I guess I'm ambitious."
Crescent Blues: Has it been good for you?
Jael: It's been wonderful.
Crescent Blues: Once you made the big move, how did you break into the business?
Jael: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven were my "god-people" who sent me out East. From there I got one publishing job and moved out on that one publishing job (the cover of Alan Hruska's Borrowed Time). I'm not a very aggressive person, but I'm not one that quits. I persevered, and the timing was right.
I did start attending conventions. I hadn't known about them before. And my work was noticed and very much liked. (I was the new kid on the block.) I was quite excited by the acceptance I found within this group of people. They took me in like family.
Crescent Blues: Have you been coming to Lunacon a long time?
Jael: Lunacon was the closest in proximity. So I came to Lunacon first. The group that kind of adopted me was the New Jersey Science Fiction Club, and part of them run Lunacon. They've always been like family, so Lunacon has always been a nice place to come to.
Crescent Blues: Could you name for our readers some of your favorite covers or commissions that you've done?
and the Furnace by Robert Silverberg, of course. I've done a lot
of Robert Silverberg,
but he's prolific, so everybody's done a lot of Robert Silverberg. That
was my second book cover, and I did love that story. I've loved the Marion
Zimmer Bradley anthologies that I've done, the Sword and Sorceress series.
I've loved the Ian Watson trilogy that I've done covers for.
My very favorite author is Arthur C. Clarke. When you grow up with somebody, you have a penchant for loving that type of work. Hard SF is what I love the most, but I am painterly in a fantasy way. That's what I'm best known for.
Crescent Blues: But you've done hard SF covers.
Crescent Blues: It's interesting, because women are not generally associated with hard SF.
Jael: Well, my favorite toy growing up was a hand grenade, so figure it from there. But there are a lot of guys in the field, so the competition is a lot greater to do the hard SF. They do such astonishingly wonderful space ships, and I was not encouraged as a youngster to be more tomboy than I was.
Crescent Blues: What qualities do you look for in a book or story that you're illustrating?
Jael: Hopefully you get to put your own input in there. Sometimes you're given blurbs where they demand that you do what [they want] you to do. Sometimes it works out good, but your own instincts are better. My strongest work has come out when they've let me have more freedom, when they've given me the control of being creative.
When it comes down to a sketch that you can't deviate even a little bit from, it tightens you up. You need to go beyond those boundaries. I've gotten a little more forceful lately, not arguing but saying, "I really feel this would be strengthened by letting me do such and such."
It's a give and take. But the best art directors, the best editors know that they should give their creative people a lot of room to play.
Crescent Blues: Do you read a book you're planning to illustrate completely when you can?
Jael: When I can, I do. I always read the books when I'm doing a cover for them, and the short stories, if [I'm illustrating] a short story. But sometimes when they give you a blurb, you have no choice but to do that blurb. You hope that the cover will do it's job, but it's always a guess.
Crescent Blues: Lately you've been doing covers for Classics Illustrated. How did that come about? Are you enjoying it?
Jael: They're fun. They're quick paintings, but they're a subject matter that I love. Alice is my girl. I was never as crazy about the Oz books as I was about Alice, but there's [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow and War of the Worlds. And I'm going to be doing Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I'm going to be doing The Time Machine. So how could you say "no" to that?
It's a children's classic publisher, but it's been great fun.
Crescent Blues: Does the illustration for the story of the Black Dahlia on your Web site represent a new direction for you?
Jael: It's not a totally new direction, but it's a little bit more of me doing what I want to do. It's going to be a lithograph this coming summer.
Crescent Blues: Do you have aspirations in that vein? How would you describe what you're trying to do there?
Jael: Put pieces together, and of course, there is the story of the Black Dahlia. Some of the ominous effects of the myth were brought to my attention about two years ago. I wanted to put something together that would be my interpretation.
Crescent Blues: Not for a commission.
Jael: No. Just for me. And [The Dream Lives] was another one of those -- just for me -- and it's been one of my signature pieces, one of my strongest pieces. I think my own instincts have been very strong when I've been given that chance.
Crescent Blues: Is this where your "E"scapes and Mirabi'lia come from?
Jael: When I was in public, doing work for people, I would have an audience the whole time I was working. So these were two of my escapes. If I had slow periods I would begin to do these. I've always done this type of work. Since my children were babies, in the very beginning ["E"scapes and Mirabi'lia] were my getaway. They were my other places to go to.
It's funny, because what goes around comes around. ["E"scapes and Mirabi'lia] have always been part of my life. Now they're coming back into prominence, which is thrilling to me, because that's probably the truest me of anything.
Crescent Blues: I've only seen the "E"scapes on-line. Are they oils?
Jael: They're pastels, oils, watercolors -- whatever medium, because I've worked in all the media.
Crescent Blues: Do you have a particular preference? Would you rather work in oils or watercolors, for example?
Jael: Oils are my favorite, because you can play with them more. But actually, I've found that I enjoy acrylics -- which was quite an adventure, figuring out how I could make them work for me. That's the true test of a medium -- figuring out how to make it work for you rather than the other way around.
Crescent Blues: Getting back to the Mirabi'lia, you mentioned that you try to get your viewers to contribute to the viewing the experience by putting your titles in Latin.
Jael: I like to leave it a bit ambiguous. A viewer of a Georgia O'Keefe piece that was apparently a flower once told her: "Oh you did this flower because…" And Georgia O'Keefe looked back at her in her haughty, wonderful way and said, "No, I did not do that flower for that reason. I did it for myself. Whatever you see into it is your interpretation."
I don't want to pin the viewer [of the Mirabi'lia paintings] down to anything other than what they want to see in what I do.
Crescent Blues: Do you find that some pictures are more given to viewer interpretation than others?
Jael: Certainly the covers are. I had such a wonderful quote that was given to me by my boyfriend in Santa Cruz. He was watching me do my "E"scapes one day, and people kept saying, "What is it? What is it?" They were disturbed. They didn't quite understand it. And he said, "It's too bad that people always need a banana in the middle of the picture."
I loved that quote. Now he was only 21 at the time. I was a lot older. But for such wisdom to come out of such a young person -- very wise, very wise. I've tried not to put a banana into the middle of any of my "E"scapes or Mirabi'lia. I've tried to leave it open for interpretation so that the magic comes through.
Crescent Blues: You've also been doing cards and games…
Jael: Basically, these things have found me. I did a bunch about three years ago. Then some of the companies were having a hard time staying afloat, because it was a very competitive business. I never really did seek other game card companies, because I didn't want to do tiny little pieces of art, because they don't pay a lot. I'd rather do wonderful pieces of art, but I did a lot, and there's a lot more to go up on my site. I just put a few up that were close and quick.
But they were fun and [the game companies] left it totally to my interpretation. One of my favorites was The Time and Space Mechanic. I've got to put him up on my site. I just doodled my way into that painting. So those were great.
Crescent Blues: When you set out to do a painting, do you follow a standard procedure, or does it depend on the assignment or the day of the week? Say that you've been assigned to do a cover, and you've read the book and the blurbs, do you rough it out with a sketch? Do you sketch it directly on your matte board or canvas?
Jael: I always do a preliminary sketch, and I trim it to size. Now due to the convenience of computers, I "jpg" it to the proper size, and I change whatever needs to be changed around. Sometimes I do two or three, and do a mix and match. From there, for my own sake, I'll do a color version, because I want to make sure I don't screw up with the painting.
Crescent Blues: Are you comfortable working with computers?