A few decades ago, in the dark ages before the internet and cell phones, I did some freelance work for a role-playing game publisher and illustrated several cards for their game.
They gave me an insane schedule, but I worked my but off, going without sleep for days so I could finish the paintings in time for them dry enough to be mailed off. (Back then, I only worked in oil, and even with drying agents added, the paintings still took days to cure.) Though it nearly killed me, I got the work done on time.
But the company stiffed me. They didn’t even pay me the kill fee listed in the contract. Lots of phone calls ensued, with lots of excuses and promises on the publisher’s side, but no check ever arrived. (Though they did have the temerity to offer me more assignments later, which I declined.) Eventually, realizing the logistical and financial issues involved with trying to collect on a debt from a company a thousand miles away in a another state, I gave up any hopes of getting paid and simply did my best to forget about the whole episode.
Then a couple of years ago, someone from Europe started contacting me through my art website about the illustrations I’d done for the game. Since the company had long ago gone bust, I ignored the emails. It was a decades old bad decision that I’d made, and I didn’t want to be reminded of it.
The guy was persistent, though. Every few months, I’d get another note from him, asking if I was The Stacey Kite who’d illustrated for Iron Crown. I deleted the emails without answering them. They kept coming, and I kept ignoring them. (Like I said, it was a bad experience.) It was over and done with, and I’d moved on.
Fast forward to mid-July this year…
I was packing for a cross-country move and binge listening to audio books, including The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Though the novel was a best-seller a few years ago, I’d avoided it. (Who wants to read a story about kids dying of cancer?) But the wry humor shaved the hard edges off the subject matter, and I loved the characters—except for one. There always has to be an antagonist in a story or there’s no story, and though cancer is the big enemy in The Fault in Our Stars, John Green added an additional human antagonist—a reclusive novelist. The man is a horrible jerk, and as a reader (really, a listener) I loved to hate him. He was rude and dismissive to the wonderful and funny kids who were fans of his book—and happened to be dying of cancer.
Two weeks after listening to John Green’s book, I received yet another email asking if I was the one who’d done the illustrations. My automatic reaction was to delete it, but then a horrible thought struck me, Am I acting like the jerk-writer?
So, of course, I responded to the email, writing that yes, I was that Stacey Kite.
And I’m thrilled that I did.
The young man’s response was fabulous and made me feel great. He described how as a child he’d come from a place where that kind of fantastical art didn’t exist. Then he discovered the cards and his world opened.
They made a difference in his life. The paintings I had done years ago–the ones I’d tried desperately to forget about—had affected him. He wanted to mail the cards to me and have me autograph them and then ship them back to him. Evidently, he’s kept the deck all these years and has been on a quest to get every contributing artist to sign their cards. I’m one of the last ones, and I’m thrilled that I finally overcame my aversion and answered his email.
Sharing an emotion, affecting someone else—making someone feel—is what art is all about, and I achieved that. Though I didn’t know it until I answered that email. That’s why we paint and write, after all—especially those of us who write and illustrate for children. We want to share the magic we felt as kids when an illustration took our breath away, when a book changed our lives.
Art is a hard road. Sometimes it feels like slaving away in isolation for nothing, or less than nothing, but it’s not in vain. You’re not screaming into the void. Somebody will be changed by the art you create. I’m proof of that.