That Thing Called Inspiration by Sue Shanahan

February 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

A favorite quote comes from jazz and blues great Duke Ellington. “Every time God’s children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty — trying to communicate themselves, understood or not — miracles have happened.” I have it hanging by my drawing table as a reminder to honor the still, small voice within.
As an artist, I’ve based my work on sharing what is real and important to me. My inspiration comes from dozens of ordinary children who have crossed my path at one time or another. Although every illustration I do is based on an actual child, my art is not exactly realistic. I do magical realism. A child once told me I “take real kids and make them magic.” I like that. Now more than ever, the world needs magic. I have always believed that it is our uniqueness that makes us beautiful. There was a time, however, when my perspective was not well received. When I began my career, art directors informed me that my subjects were not marketable. There was no political correctness at the time, no inclusiveness. The powers that be in the art industry believed, ironically, that for everyone to relate to my images of children, those children must be “stylized.” That meant no children of color, no children with disabilities, no children who were not rail thin. That did not sit well with me, so I found my career as an illustrator at a standstill.
Fast forward 25 years, and my perspective is being embraced the world over. Honoring the whisper within is finally paying off.
The most common question I am asked about my art is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I love the written word and quite often quotations inspire me. I can read or hear something that strikes a chord and images begin popping up in my brain. I illustrated such words quite literally in this illustration below from my book app, Love You to the Moon & Back.
However, my artistic process does not always work that way. I am currently working on the illustrations for my next book app for Auryn. It is the story of a little girl who finds a fairy in her garden. After I completed the illustration below, it struck me that the image was also autobiographicalI had unwittingly illustrated a quote by Maya V. Patel that my sister Ann had given me. “She takes my hand and leads me along paths I would not dared have explored alone.” That describes our relationship perfectly. Ann and I always felt we were traveling companions through life. I feel the painting is a metaphor for my life, where I am the fairy following my sister, the bluebird. Together we are moving on to the next great adventure. I lost my dear sister suddenly a few years back. I miss her everyday. Inspiration is a wondrous and mysterious thing.
About the author: Chicago-based artist Sue Shanahan is best known for creating portraits and illustrations that capture the essence of her subjects on canvas. In addition to illustrating children’s books and digital apps, she has been commissioned by such clients as Walt Disney World, the state of Illinois and Cricket Magazine. Oprah Winfrey purchased Sue’s art for her private collection and featured her as a guest on her “Favorite Things” show. Sue’s work also found its way into the  White House, where her portrait of Chelsea Clinton hung in the former first lady’s private study. Visit Sue’s website at:

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