Wow wow wow friends! I cant believe I tackled a dream project! I finally illustrated a children's book for an e-book company that I found on Upwork. I learned about Upwork last year through some nomadic friends and I have been submitting to freelance jobs through that site ever since. I was over the moon excited about FINALLY landing my first job through the platform after 4 months of constantly applying to different freelance assignments.
This specific e-book company was looking to hire artist to illustrate revamped versions of classic children's stories. I was assigned The Ballad of John Henry. If that name doesn't ring a bell let me give you a quick summary. This short fable is about an African American man who lived in Virginia and worked on the railroads. The story says that he was so fast and strong that he challenged a steam drill and won but shortly died afterwards. He is considered an American Hero and his story is taught to small children. I felt honored to have John Henry to recreate, as it was Black History Month at the time and I was excited to have a strong black figure to learn more about.
The e-book company supplied me with the story lines after we negotiated a "per illustration" rate. They really wanted the illustrations to be put into small vignettes , either 2 or 3 a page. I had never done that effect on my artwork before but decided to take the challenge knowing it was just a simple Photoshop edit. Their version of the story was pretty straight forward, covering a lot of the basics. From my research online there are multiple variations of the story but there are also a lot of over lapping facts. Things like he was very big and strong, he challenged the steam drill and won, and he had a small wife that he loved. Some facts that I found a lot of conflicting information on were about his location, his origin, how he died, and especially where he was buried.
One of the last lines states, "He was buried in front of the white house in the sand. And when the train goes by they will all say, Hey, there goes that steal driving man." Up until here everything in the story is pretty vague. But when I hit this line I immediately thought it must be the presidential white house, right? Well of course i looked it up because we don't want to teach the children fake news. After hours of reading countless articles I found out that it was not the presidential white house. Why would it be? It doesn't make sense socially for that time period, as much as we want to believe the president cared about a black railroad worker. What people have found to be the truth is that John Henry was an inmate at a prison and he built railroads because it was common at that time to have them participate in this type of labor. The articles go on to say that he probably was really strong and maybe he did challenge the steam engine to a race, but we was not taken up to Washington DC to be buried in front of the White House. The white house this iconic story refers to is a small white house in front of the penitentiary where they buried dead inmates in a small grave. If you want to read more check out the links below.
So with this new information I illustrated an nondescript white house with a little burial mound in front. I think it displayed very simply what is in the text. The feedback I received was what I expected. She told me with certainty that the white house referred to in the story was indeed the presidential White House. All I could do was shake my head because a simple google search would tell you otherwise but she was so direct with her command it made me nervous to defend myself. After talking it over with my boyfriend I decided to speak up. I know I wanted to get paid but I thought I owed it to my people, my culture and their stories. Its not lost on me that this actually downgrades his status, to some, but the truth is always the best option. The story is about accepting challenges and using your strength. I don't believe that a crooked political systems headquarters gives anyone any validation.
I responded to my client with a respectfully worded message about how I took the time to research and found different information and felt like we shouldn't mislead people. Of course all the resource materials I had combed through was attached for her own education. Thankfully she was extremely open minded and we landed on the third option which is a more developed concept of what I originally tried to do. The one difference is that we added a train to the scene which really tied it all together. I was so happy that I stood up for myself and educated myself and others. I hope when people read the book and are baffled as to why it isn't the presidential white house they will seek out their own answers and come upon the truth. Hopefully.
After all the drawings were finalized I painted them with watercolors. Scanned them into the computer and added the vignette faded effect to each illustration using Adobe Photoshop. It was a little tedious but really easy to do. I then uploaded them to the Upwork platform and was paid! Seeing my name on the cover as the illustrator was such a proud moment for me! I know that this isn't my very best work but I am pleased with it as my first go at creating consistent characters, landscapes, and dynamic perspectives in each scene. It was really a lot more work then I was expecting but I would totally do it again using all the things I learned from this experience.
Have you ever heard of John Henry? Let me know in the comments if you plan on tackling a dream project this year?
John Henry references: