What led you to study both visual arts and acting? My parents are both artists—my mom is a basket maker, and my dad is a potter—and their studio was in our yard, so I always had access to clay, ink and rolls of butcher paper. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was draw, sculpt little figures out of wax or clay, and make up stories to go along with my figures. I was happy to sit quietly in a corner, muttering to myself, while my parents worked. When I was a little older, I did a play in elementary school and found that I was pretty good at it. I think this was just because my imagination was so strong. I had been living in my own universe for so long, it was easier to bring an audience into my inner life than it was to step out and join them in reality.
In college, I studied visual art because I received a visual art scholarship from the Herb Alpert Foundation, but I spent my time doing plays and improv. Then I applied to graduate school for acting and was accepted at Juilliard, which is what brought me to New York. But life as an actor—especially an actor in the theater—is a desperate situation. You never have any money or security or time; you miss weddings and birthdays; and even when you do get to work, you have very little agency over the product you are presenting. I started making my picture book, Julián is a Mermaid, as a way to relieve some of the pressure of all the creative impulses that felt stymied. I worked on the first two drafts of the book in the dressing rooms of plays where I had smaller parts—The River by Jez Butterworth on Broadway, and Aubergine by Julia Cho at Playwrights Horizons.
For me, visual arts and acting come from the same basic creative impulse, which is to completely embed myself in an imaginary reality and try on someone else’s skin. When I’m sitting and shaping a story, it feels very much like “making a play”—the decisions I’m making about how the characters look, behave, dress, stand and respond are all acting decisions. But when I’m drawing, I have the agency to decide what a moment is about and how it should be played instead of having to defer to a director I’d probably disagree with.
How does acting feed your illustration work, and vice versa? I think they are tributaries of the same river. When I’m drawing, I am acting—I’m just sitting down by myself instead of in front of an audience. And when I was acting, I was always redirecting the play in my head. I think they call on the same faculties of imagination and empathy... and the courage to try something big and possibly fail.
What helped spark your idea for Julián is a Mermaid? My partner at the time had an older brother who is a trans man, and he had transitioned not long before we started dating, so those conversations that families have when processing someone’s transition were happening. I was also watching a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I had gone down a pretty deep Paris is Burning wormhole. I was thinking a lot about the power of costuming yourself to show the world how you see yourself and how you want to be treated.
At first, my idea was for Julián to encounter a pair of drag queens on their way to a drag ball. But I was also reading a lot of online forums where families would talk about their experiences having a trans or gender-nonconforming child, and I noticed there was this sort of universal preoccupation with mermaids. Which makes sense. Mermaids are magical creatures with great hair who live between the water and the air, and they don’t have anything human below the waist. And then I remembered that New York City has a literal Mermaid Parade, and that’s how the mermaid element took shape.
How did you flesh out the main character, Julián? I don’t know how to explain this part. I just felt him. Physically, he was based on my partner at the time (as a little boy), but his spirit was always very clear for me. I don’t know how this stuff happens or where it comes from, but I could just feel him.
Why did you decide to use brown paper? I’m definitely the kind of artist who is led by their materials. Water is a big element in the story, and I was using watercolor to paint on hot-press watercolor paper, which is white. Now, the characters in the book are all brown-skinned people, but the palette I was using is a lot of pastels and washes, or Easter colors. I started encountering a problem when I scanned the images: the scanner would either expose for the washes, thereby totally underexposing Julián and his abuela, and I would lose all the detail in their faces, the warmth in their skin tone, all the subtlety; or it would expose for their skin, and the washes, especially the water, would show up really washed out. This was happening because there was so much negative space where there was just this glaring titanium white that skewed everything whiter.
Then, I had this epiphany, a flashback to dressing-room conversations in which Black actors would talk about how vigilant they have to be about making sure that photographers know how to photograph Black skin anytime they’re on set for a film or print campaign. For example, photographers need a golden reflector, not a sliver one—if you use a silver reflector to light a Black woman, she looks gray. But because the industry standard is for lighting White people, Black actors are often put in the difficult position of having to explain to the photographer how to light Black skin. I was having the same technical problem with lighting my Black characters. And the problem was the white paper—this “neutral” color, which is, of course, not neutral at all! In the story I was trying to tell, it suddenly just felt so wrong to have these characters marooned on a white page. So I repainted the whole story on brown paper, and my art director, who is a quiet miracle worker, found a way to have it reproduced exactly in the printing. I’m so glad I figured it out in time because it’s a really important part of the unspoken story.
What are your favorite picture books? Eloise because she is absolutely fully realized. I adore her. There is a breathtaking physicality to Hilary Knight’s drawings. The details are just an Easter egg hunt. I think that all of Jon Klassen’s books are basically perfect; We Found a Hat is my favorite. And Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney made a huge impact on me when I was little; I’ve taken its message, about making the world a more beautiful place, to heart.
What plays do you think all illustrators should watch? I’m a big fan of farce—I think there is a kind of delirious physicality you can have in farce that feels too broad in other genres. There is also incredibly rigorous structure in those plays. They teach you the beats of a joke and how to build the precarious tower to its highest possible height before it tumbles gloriously to the ground.
What have you learned about storytelling from the theater? There are no minor characters. Show, don’t tell. Every single thing your body is doing is telling the story. Every single thing on the stage is telling the story. Be specific. Nobody likes a morality play.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make a picture book? Learn to tolerate the feeling of thinking your thing is bad, and continue anyway.