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Guevara left behind pain, suffering in rest homes to enter ‘hell' of art school

November 15, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — A 26-year-old Susan Guevara woke up each morning with her stomach knotted by fear of another day filled with the pain and suffering of rest home patients.

After weeks of these mornings, she realized she couldn't do it anymore.

"I wasn't cut out for it," she said.

Her empathy for the patients made their pain her pain.

She walked away.

While she somberly jokes of that time in her life as a "failure," it was that moment that led her to try her hand at art.

Although she was never a prodigious doodler or one to wile away her hours in a corner dreaming of being an artist, she enrolled in art classes with the idea of becoming a commercial artist.


Now, with 16 years of published work, Guevara doesn't wake up with her stomach knotted.

Her job as an illustrator of award-winning children's books is tough, mentally draining and creatively exhausting, but it gives her an outlet to communicate to an audience who appreciates her work.

This week, Guevara will be visiting schools and libraries throughout the county on her first trip to the Imperial Valley.

She'll be talking to children and parents about her art and her books, including the award-winning "Chato's Kitchen," written by Gary Soto.

On Tuesday morning, before her first speaking engagement at Calexico High School, she sat down at Nana's Book Warehouse here and explained how she got her start illustrating children's books, how she works and her first impression of the Imperial Valley.

"My first love was more connected to words instead of pictures but I really wanted to do books. I thought, as a picture book person, I will have more control over the final look of the book as an illustrator.

"I looked at the 1983-84 job prospects and thought, ‘OK, this is what I'll do, I'll go to art school first. I think I can break in a little easier as a unknown illustrator then as a unknown author.' "

She enrolled in the Oregon College of Art before beginning the illustration program at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

In the middle of the illustration program, she moved to Europe, where she studied with Remy Van Sluys, a Flemish impressionist painter.

After she returned to San Francisco and earned her degree, her career began in a series of what she called "fits and spurts."

She is thankful for her time in school. She thinks the classes and instruction she received equipped her for the wide range of projects and books she would be called on to illustrate.

Before she enrolled in classes, she tried to create a picture of King David for her Sunday school class. She couldn't do it no matter how hard she tried.

"It amazes me to this day that I could be that old (26) and still think I could do something I had no training for. (Art school) was extremely important. Talent helps but everyone who has taken a shower has a great idea.

"It's getting out of the shower and doing something with it. A lot of it depends on precisely what you want to do with that idea — going to art school is just a tool that can help you express yourself."

Her first year at art school was "hell."

"It became very clear that, ‘No,' you don't fall out of bed knowing how to do what you want to do. It takes great persistence," she said.

Not that she thinks she can relax in her current situation.

"The field is very challenging. It's not about not getting down. It's about getting up and doing it again."

Her latest book, to be released in a few months, was one of her most-challenging assignments.

It is a book called "Tiger, Tiger" by Dee Lillegard that forced Guevara to plumb the depths of her creativity and bring out feelings of anger to illustrate the book's themes.

"The last one was hell!" she exclaimed.

Compounding the challenge, Guevara had to illustrate those themes for an audience of children.

"Picture books are my avenue to state in visual words my observations. It has to do with my interests depending on my audience. There is a lot of stuff that doesn't get in there," she said.

In "Chato's Kitchen" she drew a sticker on a banana that calls to attention the plight of Honduran banana farmers.

To not know of those farmers' plight would be to miss the significance of the sticker, but for Guevara it is a chance to weave what she considers an important message into her work.

Guevara said she channeled the "voice" of Soto as she worked to bring his characters and their setting to life.

"There is a point where the book becomes a life form. All I can really do is become engaged as much as possible with the manuscript. It's all about research. I went to East L.A. (the book's setting.) I went to tons of movies. I was influenced by muralists. I take as much as I can to describe the world and then the feeling that you get from Gary's language.

"My relationship with Gary, the author, is accepting his words. ‘This is real. This has meaning,'" she said.

As for her first impression of the Imperial Valley the world traveler said, "I just flew in, and on the flight in, there was a gentleman who started talking — he was a very vivacious large, happy person. The guy was really genuine.

"He said … ‘Don't let anyone ever steal your wonder, your wonder at life and your openness toward life.' That was a hell of a beginning!"

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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