Bob Staake retreat…from Dave Szalay!

SZ NR home drawing

A peaceful fun sketch done recently by our artist Dave Szalay of the Norman Rockwell Home and studio in Burlington VT while he was attending a very special Bob Staake retreat: The Art and World of The Children’s Picture Book.   I was most interested in learning more about this intriguing intensive, especially as I had just spent time at the CT Rockwell museum and Stockbridge town over a Dec. trip, and felt many artists in our market might be as well. So I asked Dave to tell us more…… he kindly shared the following.

“I initially found out about this event through Bob Staake’s Facebook post.  He framed it as the inaugural event for the American Creator Seminar program, a proof of concept that world be offered in a variety of unique iterations in the future.  

It was pitched as an uncommon seminar to a small group of student/guests in Norman Rockwell’s famed Arlington, VT studio, March 16th-18th. I signed up right away even though I was still reeling with excitement and inspiration from the big SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC a few weeks earlier. [where DAVE won an honor award!)]  This event was especially appealing to me as both a professor and as an illustrator, and aspiring author who made a mid-career leap of faith into children’s literature.  There’s nothing better than learning from someone like Bob Staake who has been in the kid lit trenches for so many years. 

As the event came nearer I plotted out my drive….to Stockbridge MA!! That’s right Massachusetts !  I have been to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge several times and just glazed over the fact that this was actually going to be in VERMONT! The night before, I was reading through the material and getting ready to set GPS on my phone when I realized this was not where I thought it was.  The drive was similar at about 8.5 hours so I was just glad I didn’t go to the wrong place!

I was a long drive and a little snowy, icy and treacherous with near whiteout conditions through the mountains of New York. I was surprised to feel reenergized once I turned onto the little winding road that lead to a red, one lane covered bridge over a creek in front of Rockwell’s former home. The home looked like one would imagine. A large white colonial house painted white dating back to the 18th century. It sits on the Covered Bridge Green and the nearest neighbors are old farms. Pulled into the little dirt path of a driveway and my tires crunched through the ice and frozen mud.  Once inside, I noticed immediately how the old wooden floors creaked and the ceilings seemed a bit low The home hugs it’s visitors like a comfortable old quilt with the familiar homespun charm found in many of Rockwell’s paintings.

SZ farm

DAY ONE: Seven autor/illustrators from all corners of the country (Seattle, Chicago, MA, NY, OHIO and TX) arrived and checked in throughout the morning at Rockwell’s historic home. The syllabus/agenda instructed us to head over to the studio behind the house that afternoon for introductions and orientation. As we all headed over individually, we gathered around a table in Rockwell’s little cabin-like studio with a fire crackling in the fireplace and the cold wind howling outside.  Each of us took a turn introducing ourselves, stared where we are in our careers, and what we’ve worked on so far. Bob gave us a little background on how he got involved in children’s publishing and the path that lead him to Cape Cod and his current work. This was scheduled from 2-3pm but the lively conversation soon turned into 3 1/2 hrs!  The format was very conversational. There was plenty of time for questions and comments and we all laughed at Staake’s humorous delivery.  He made us all feel comfortable and like old friends just hanging out talks about writing and illustrating.

SZ interior tables

I don’t think any of us knew how much time passed except we were all getting hungry. Around 5;30 we all headed out for dinner on our own.  At 9pm w were to meet up again for a wine tasting and conversation in the living room of the Inn.  It all wrapped up between 111;30 and midnight. I was exhausted but I couldn’t fall asleep, so I sketched the rustic old home.

SZ drawing interior

DAY TWO:  We had breakfast together in the Inn and then headed over to the studio for Bob’s presentations.  Having created over 70 fairly different books, Bob showed how his diverse approach is anything but formulaic.  Some of his books are written in rhyme, some in prose, some feature die-cuts and some are even wordless.  He read some out loud and walked us through sketches failed manuscripts, and filled us with anecdotes from his personal experiences.  He would often pause to show us how he worked in a certain style or technique.  It was an incredible glimpse into Bob’s process and knowledge.  He generously shared his views on the dynamics between the author/illustrator and publishers and editors.  He took us back into the trenches of what it’s like to do upwards of 25 revisions to a manuscript or cover versus creating something in a few days that is ready right away for publication.

Time flew by again and in what seemed like minutes, hours passed and it was time for lunch in the Inn.  During the afternoon session, Bob discussed his successes and well as flops. He talked about crafting the story and the importance of balancing the words with the images.  Imagery IS language as he explained, and he demonstrated just how to formulate a good recipe for creating engaging picture books. And he showed us some of the systems he developed to organize, archive, complete, and harvest in-progress work.

It was nearly 5pm and time to split off for dinner again. A small group of us headed off to eat and socialize.

SZ bs table

DAY THREE: We met the next morning in Rockwell’s old studio again after breakfast at the Inn.  The discussions began with what publishers might want to see.  Do they want “message” books or do they prefer light an humorous stories? Should you compromise your ideas or stories just to get published? Is an agent essential? [!!] Most importantly why it is important to write, write, write and keep a journal of ideas. Bob shared his notebook so we could see behind the curtains so to speak. 

An hour or so before it was time to leave, Bob asked each of us to give a quick presentation pitch of a current story we’re each working on that we brought with us from home.  We each took a turn presenting and briefly commenting on each other’s work. it was a quick run through so it had to be as concise as possible.  Some of us read aloud, while others just showed prototypes and preliminary images. It was great to see what everyone was working on.

Really enjoyed making new friends, Tina Hoggatt, Maria Scrivan, Mike Allen, Tannie Smith, Marjorie O’Brill, of purse Bob Staake, and his wonderful wife Paulette who was always nearby in the wings keeping his event on track. There’s a lot to be said of the spouses and partners of creative people!  [AMEN!]

Staake’s goal this final day was to wrap it all up and leave us motivated, confident, and inspired. In fact he said he wanted us to be inspired to a degree that we could hardly wait to get back to our studios prepared to get our work published!  It worked, As we gathered for a group photo we couldn’t resist the opportunity to recreate the classic ‘Brady Bunch’ pose on the stories in Rockwell’s studio. This picture perfectly captures the tone of the weekend. 

SZ brady bunch

Illustrators and writers typically lead a solitary work life. I make a point of getting out and expanding my network and this was my primary goal. When you have an opportunity to spend time with the likes of Bob Staake, the experience becomes a milestone.  This is one thing I learned from my time in grad school.  My talented illustrator friends at all career levels, are among the most generous and supportive people I’ve met in my life.  This session was jammed packed with valuable information but felt very conversational.  Everyone contributed and Bob expressed how this open forum format allows the instructor to respond and adjust – as well as learn from the group. I left not only inspired but equipped with some new information on managing my studio, the process of writing stories, making smart decisions when illustrating picture books, and working with editors and agents.  all invaluable.  I hope Bob Staake’s American Creator program continues. Well done Bob!!”

And well done DAVE!!  this shared experience feels very warm and real, inspire of the COLD NE weather!  I, and all who read this, thank you so much for sharing.  Check out this and other events like this retreat! They can be a needed ‘gift’ to your creative soul….and a leap forward for your  personal career!    


About catugeau

art agent
This entry was posted in artist interviews, Children's Publishing Market, Norman Rockwell Museum, scbwi, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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