We had the good fortune of connecting with Donna Letterese and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Donna, why did you pursue a creative career?
I’ve chosen an artistic and creative career path largely on account of my love for storytelling. I believe that pictures can communicate narrative as profoundly as words, and I love Illustration and Cartooning because of how crucial moments can be captured in a single image, while longer stories are told across a series of them. I also love how words and pictures can intertwine, either humorously in something with puns, or in something more serious like a graphic novel. It’s one of my great joys in life telling these stories in my own practice (using Illustration, Writing, or both when working in the Sequential Art format). And, I also truly love guiding others on how to tell stories themselves– which is why I have worked as an educator in afterschool programs, libraries, and art centers, teaching children and teens how to make their own art and comics since 2010. It is so much fun teaching kids how to communicate their experiences, whether realistic or fanciful, using Illustration, Comics, Polymer (Sculpey) Sculpture, and making little Books. I have always made up stories and drawn, from the time I was a kid. Being an only child, I often made up stories and comics to show and tell to my Parents, and spent a lot of time making up involved narratives with my stuffed animals and dolls at home. I grew up outside NYC, was lucky enough to take afterschool art classes, and was always inspired by playing pretend, exploring cities and nature, and being able to access theatre and museums of all kinds. While in Undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College back in New York, I majored in Dramatic Writing and Psychology, and minored in Visual Art, which ultimately came together to give me a focus in Illustration and Sequential Storytelling (a.k.a. Comics and Cartooning). I moved to the West Coast after graduating, continuing to make my own stuff while initially working as a comic book editor, then teaching art at places like LA County Libraries and Barnsdall Art Park. Whenever possible, I kept up with continuing education classes in things like Printmaking, Children’s Illustration, and (Scientific) Botanical Illustration. In 2018, I began the MFA in Illustration Program at California State University, Fullerton. I am now working on projects that experiment in blending the different genres and mediums together that I love, and I love my program dearly. I have great cohorts in the program, wonderful and supportive Illustration professors, who push us while encouraging us to do our best work, and I feel like everything I’m learning is helping me hugely as a visual storyteller as well as an educator. I love bringing back knowledge and inspiration I get as a student back into the classroom (or Zoom room, as we now do) teaching my own students. Despite how difficult and scary and so many other things/adjectives can be used to describe our current times, I’m really grateful to be part of an artistic and educational community– both as a student and as a teacher– where even though everyone is separated we can still connect and help one another through Discord, Zoom, and the like, and we can still share and post our stories, pictures, etc., communicating during a time when there is so much being felt and thereby so very much to draw about, write about, and communicate overall.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Art is always challenging– I think working to continue to have a creative practice, be it personal, professional, or both, is a continuous challenge. Everyone says it, but it is very true to “Keep Going” (in quotes because of the Austin Kleon book which is a guide for artists; I recommend all of his books for creatives and pretty much anyone)– and for every time you have a positive reaction and a yes, there will have been countless times before that time where you did not get a positive reception at all, a rejection, or maybe not even an acknowledgement of your work, submission, etc. I have just continued to work teaching, to make work, to always try new things, and to constantly stay learning myself– so I would not say getting to the place I am at as an Educator/Professional/Graduate Student has not been easy, but it has taught me a great deal. Whether someone chooses YouTube, resources like Schoolism, going and sketching out on their own, or goes and uses a structured environment like a school to learn, I think constantly learning, practicing, and being willing to change/grow is a way to eventually overcome challenges, to learn about yourself, and to continually get better as a creator. I’m not sure “brand” is the right word, but, what I do in storytelling is communicate things from the darkest to the lightest ends of the spectrum, emotion wise. When I started out, I was known for making punny greeting cards that were entirely by hand and one of a kind, and then I transitioned to cards I’d draw, then scan into the computer, and then get printed at a small printer. Those made people laugh and groan. When I got more into Botanical Illustration, people really responded to the more Scientific/Realistic renderings created in those series, quite different from my Cartoon-y stuff. On the other hand, comics I’ve created have had some sweet and small moments and journeys between characters, but have also had really dark moments. What I’ve been working on recently, and really focusing on more and more during my MFA Program, is finding a way to blend together things that have a duality. Dark and light, intense and sweet, cute but dark, the cartoon and the realistic botanical. I’m excited about finally finding a way to blend together my varied interests in the Illustration and Sequential Art I’ve been focusing on recently. Some of that has been blending together quite Cartoon and Real elements. However, I’ve also begun to use my main character– a Sprite– to communicate very real and dark things, in a way that fully shows the pain or fear of what she is going through, within a fantasy realm. The work I’ve been doing on this series is what I’m most proud of, and driven forward by, There are Air Monsters who have chased her (and if you look at their faces, it’s clear what they are based on and why breathing their air would be dangerous and terrifying), at points she has to wear a mask fashioned out of a leaf, there are shadow-y monsters in the forest she has had trouble facing but ultimately cannot ignore, and she has a (former) best friend who is a Firefly. Or, to be more accurate, that former friend is a “Gaslight (ning) Bug.” There’s the cute element of the pun, as he’s a Lightning Bug. But, as the phrase says, he specifically is a “Gaslight (ning) Bug.” Which means he changes the darkness or brightness of his glow while pretending her eyes are playing tricks on her (literal gaslighting), he berates her while insisting he’s just trying to help her and tell her the things that others wouldn’t, and he overall is a character that, so far, my readers love to hate. I think there are many great comics with realistic scenarios and all humans. That being said, I think things like emotional abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, and cruel behavior can be really hard to take in, in an entirely realistic narrative– so I have been enjoying exploring issues of relationships and mental health and fear and all of that, using anthropomorphic animals, insects, monsters, a Sprite, and the like. In this comic series, the Sprite’s main best friend is a Bee. She’s also friends with a Cat and Ladybug. These are the adventures she has more in the light– and not when she is terrified, running from Monsters or hiding or trapped in Dark forests, or in the past being worn down by the “advice” of the Gaslight (ning) Bug– she explores playing in the rain with her Beloved Bee, and she wanders into new realms, like a night-time clearing with a Butterfly Tree, and a Sunset scene at an abandoned dock, with a Seahorse in the distance she eventually befriends. I’m looking forward to doing more scenes where she’s not just exploring on her own and having fun, but even more ones where she and the Bee have infinite adventures of happiness together. This series is allowing me to explore the brightest and darkest parts of life, exploration, and joy, using a mix of ink, and ink and digital color, to depict different environments, stories, and interactions. My hope is that the sweet vignettes and stories make people smile, and that the sadder ones might hurt to read or look at, but be identify-able with– and thereby, also help whoever is reading or viewing those narratives.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If and when things are normal and open again, there’s so much to do. In DTLA and Gallery Row, the Hive Gallery is a great space for combined solo, group, and resident artist shows. If you were to drive down to Long Beach, the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) is a fantastic museum. And of course, I would absolutely recommend people visiting L.A. to visit Barnsdall Art Park, in East Hollywood. There’s so much to see there! There are classes always going on, often two shows at the same time art wise (both in the Junior Art Center Student Gallery, and the Barnsdall Municipal Art Gallery). The Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright is also on the campus, which is a great historical monument and museum. And the park itself has wonderful views of the city, and is a great place to spend the day, sit, read, have a picnic, and enjoy the surroundings. If someone were staying in the general Barnsdall area during a week, I’d say to also check out Homestate down the hill from the park for Tex-Mex food, and to pop across the street there if one were in need of Art Supplies, to the Blue Rooster Art Supply Store. Down the street from Barnsdall, into Silverlake, is a great Yoga Studio called One Down Dog. Over the hill from Los Feliz/East Hollywood into Atwater Village, Heartbeat House Dance Studio is a wonderful place for Dance, Fitness, Fun, and Community. Special shoutout to Kumbi, Laura, and my Ujam Teacher Jerod Williams! Ujam is a super fun form of dance, blending Cardio, Hip-Hop, World Dance, and lots of styles, for a fabulous workout. Across the street from Heartbeast House is a great ice-cream place called Wanderlust, with really creamy and yummy ice-cream, with classic as well as fun experimental flavors. Lastly, the Pasadena area is near and dear to my heart– Vroman’s Bookstore, an indie bookstore, is a place you can get lost in, with so many great books, journals, greeting cards, and so much else to buy and look at. Setobello’s has proper Neapolitan Pizza (a big deal to me as an Italian-American of Neapolitan descent), and it’s so good. And if you venture out a bit beyond Pasadena, San Marino’s Huntington Gardens have amazing literal gardens, and frequently really well curated fine-art shows, in addition to their permanent collections, and a gift shop with truly incredible pieces (and some toys for kids) by artisans and companies that put out great work. That said, as much as I love Huntington Gardens, my favorite L.A. area garden is the Los Angeles County Arboretum, outside Pasadena in Arcadia. The gardens are incredible, it’s where I took my Botanical Art Classes through Continuing Education at Otis, it has a lovely gift shop as well and– best of all– PEACOCKS ROAM THE GROUNDS! Sorry for the Internet shouting, but, they are such beautiful creatures, and I’ve always loved going and walking around there while the Peacocks are wandering about as well. It’s so cool to see the male Peacocks puff out their full tailfeathers, and really adorable during baby season when the Peahens and their chicks are wandering around. If you’ve never gone, and/or seen/heard a Peacock in person, be prepared. They are loud, and quite vocal in their expressions. That noise is kind of a lot, but personally, I love it, and I think their calls are wonderful and hilarious.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
First of all, thanks so much to my friend Allen Carter, fellow cartoonist and public transit nerd like myself, for recommending me to be in the Shoutout series as well! He’s a great person and has hilarious comics, so please check him out at Carter Comics. I’m really grateful to my Mom and Dad, who have always encouraged me and believed in me as a person, student, creator, and in all things– I’m really lucky to have them. My Dad was the person who taught me how to pun (which I do all the time, as the queen of Dad Jokes– or as my friends say, “Donna Jokes”). He passed away this year– I want to honor him in my life, as a person, a punster, a writer, and as an educator– he was a bad-joke-teller and writer as well, and a beloved History Professor for many years at Kean University in N.J. I’m really grateful to my extended family, related to me and chosen family, scattered throughout the East Coast in Westchester, NYC, Pennsylvania, and beyond. My East Coast (NY) based best friends from childhood, from high school, and from Undergrad (including my best friend from London, where I studied abroad for half a year during what seems a very long and magical time ago) all mean the world to me– as do my closest friends I’ve made in California, beloved friends in the PNW, in Graduate School, and on the West Coast overall. Dr. Restaino my HS English teacher was hugely influential, as were my theatre teachers. I still keep in touch with my History Teacher Ms. Donnison, who is and was a wonderful person/teacher. My Sarah Lawrenceoad and Goldsmith’s College of London (Semester Abroad) were amazing and changed my life, especially Stuart Spencer, Gary Burnley, and Marvin Frankel (RIP). Before starting grad school, taking Botanical Illustration (and joining the guilds BAGSC, and later PNBA) through Otis College with Olga Eysymontt taught me so much about drawing plants and flowers. Cal State Fullerton has been a place of great growth and happiness for me, and in many ways I think Grad School changed my life for the infinite better– broke a kind of “Westworld” loop for me, if you will– and professors in my department like Cliff Cramp, Christian Hill, Kim Dwinell, and Joanna Roche are people I owe a huge debt of gratitude towards. Places I’ve taught like CWC Charter School Hollywood, WGS Art Center, libraries throughout LA County, Meltdown Comics, MoLAA (the Museum of Latin American Art) and of course, Barnsdall Art Park, have been a huge joy. Teaching kids is such a great thing in my life, and I’ve been really privileged to have been able to do for over a decade. It’s great to have been part of peoples’ lives and educations/journeys in comics making, and really fun when I run into people again, and/or stay in touch after a long time. At Barnsdall, it’s been great having been part of an artistic community, getting to know students and parents, meeting adult students, and befriending the people who have worked at, volunteered for, or in general been involved at the Park. I’m really grateful for the mentorship of my former Barnsdall boss, Leslie Thomas, who always listened with encouraging words and advice, and also wrote me a Graduate School recommendation. I feel really lucky to have the friends I’ve made through Art Fair, Zine Fest, Convention, and Art Show World. Special shout out to my friends from the “Koffee and Komics” AKA “Samurai” crew, like Karl Alsatetter, Gerimi Burleigh, Jamie Gambell, Vince Moore, Jesse Toves, and the whole crew. That began my experiences vending at conventions, and also gave me my first experience being published in an anthology, for which I’m really grateful. Any Comic Convention I’ve vended at, any art fair I’ve vended at, shops that have carried my cards, and any gallery or place where I’ve sold my own work, I’m really grateful to people who have been kind, encouraging, resonated with something I drew if it was sadder or more intense, or laughed/smiled at something more “cute-sy” or punny I created in a greeting card or story. Support of stories I write or draw means a lot to me, and I don’t think even in these many words I can fully communicate that. If I have forgotten someone, I am really sorry! Feel free to message me after this interview and I’ll be happy to follow-up post about you on Instagram, if you like. I’m overall really really happy and lucky to have met many great people in my life, across both of this country’s coasts, in other countries, and/or on other continents. Lastly, I’m grateful for animals, silliness, artists and plays and books that have inspired me in my life, and all things high “koala-ty.” I’m a big teddy bear fan and lover of Koalas. I would be remiss in not also thanking FUZZENSTEIN, Fuzzles, and the many other marsupials/bears in my life. If you know me, you know who I am discussing. If not, feel free to click on my Instagram link– I will surely post a photo of one or the other of them soon 😉