Children’s Book Artist provides insight on life, art

By Anna Kleinschnitz, Editorial Editor

Stacy Innerst is a painter, children’s book artist and an adjunct professor at La Roche University; he is also an extremely interesting person to have a conversation with.

He appeared in 720p, but even the low graphic quality of the internet couldn’t disguise his bushy white beard and his kind eyes framed by black glasses. 

He considered his answers carefully, but it was clear he thought of many things at once. Often, he would start sentences and finish them on a completely different subject. 

Such is the way of an artist, to begin with one idea, but get inspired along the way and lose your original train of thought.

Behind him, books about history and art spilled out of multiple bookcases and covered every surface. His warmly lit office- the walls of which were paneled in a 70’s style reddish wood- gave a comfortable vibe to the room and to the subsequent interview. 

Q. What did you want to be when you grew up?

A. Well, I pretty much always knew I was going to be an artist cause that’s just the way I worked. I was always drawing- always, from the time I was really small. I didn’t really know I wanted to be an artist, but I was. 

By the time I got into school, even middle school, and high school, I was taking as much art as I could just because I was interested in anything I could learn. By the time I got to college, it was: Yeah, I’m going to be an art major.

Q. Since you always wanted to be an artist, do you remember the first thing you drew?

A. I don’t remember the very first thing I drew, but I do know that when I was really young, if I wanted something, I would draw a picture of it. 

If I wanted a bike, I would draw a picture of it and customize it- you know, what ever kind of bicycle I wanted to have. That was my superpower when I was a little kid, that was the way it worked, and that’s what got me really into drawing.

Q. What medium do you enjoy working with the most? Is this what you usually work with?

A. I like to paint. It’s kind of a tossup between acrylic, watercolor, and gouache, but I really like to draw with a paintbrush and I think watercolor works really well for that. But my first love is really painting with acrylics and that sort of thing.

Q. How do you go about the visualization/creation of the characters- especially since a lot of your subjects are historical figures?

A. What I do when I’m doing character sketches of historical figures is a lot of research. I find as many images as I can, but beyond that I just try to bring them to life. I want to make it accessible and fun for the children that are reading these books and looking at these pictures. 

I give them a lot of facial expression; I try to do a lot of expressiveness with eyes. I generally exaggerate, not comically, but I will exaggerate. For example, Thomas Jefferson, I’ve seen a few paintings of him with red hair so I kind of made his hair extremely red, almost orange. That’s the kind of thing I do to draw kids in. 

Q. Since we’re talking about it, do you have a special interest in history? Did this impact your art at all?

A. Yes, I do. I studied history when I was in school- I actually changed my major from art to history at some point because I was so interested in it. I studied art history quite a bit too. So, yeah, I’ve always had an interest in history as storytelling because I always thought, when I would read history or read a biography about a real person, that life was as interesting as a fictional life for me. 

I’ve always loved that and that’s why I was kind of drawn to doing historical picture books for kids because they’re great stories, you know. They’re great stories about real people and that’s where I really got to marry history and art together- my two great interests.

Q. Who/what have you considered an inspiration in the art world? Is there a specific movement or person you look up to?

A. I always struggle with this question because there’s just so many. I look at everything and I think many artists are the same way- you are looking at everything all the time. It kind of gets filtered into your psyche and then you spit it out. But I would say, as a movement- and it changes all the time, expressionism. I’ve always liked, believe it or not, German expressionism, which is not real kid friendly sort of aesthetic. 

But I always loved Max Beckman as a painter and some of the other German expressionists. I’ve also always really liked Picasso, for some reason, especially when he was younger. I always loved the way he depicted people and I kind of picked up some of that in the way I depict people for children’s books.

Q. Yeah, I can see Picasso in your recent book with Abraham Lincoln- especially with his nose.

A. Yeah, the nose is the thing. I think that’s what I really picked up from Picasso. At a certain point, he had these real fleshy noses and eyes, kind of heavy eyelids on the eyes. I started mimicking that in a way, I kind of stuck to that.

Q. A lot of your work revolves around music and instruments, is there any specific significance to that too?

A. I love music. That’s my other love, actually, I’ve always played music. I started playing the drums when I was in fourth grade and, believe it or not, at some point in college I thought, ‘Do I want to be an artist or do I want get into a band and go to LA and become a musician?’ 

Of course, I wasn’t good enough to go to LA and become a musician, so I’m glad I chose art. But I’ve always loved music and playing music and I still play with bands and that sort of thing. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do several music themed books. In fact, the first book I did was called “M is for Music”; it was an alphabet book.

Q. Many of your pieces have a cool color palette, I was wondering if this is deliberate in the tone you want your work to have and how this reflects what you do, mainly child’s work?

A. Yes, my palette is not super colorful, with some exceptions. I do keep things pretty muted. I just like the quiet of that for some reason. My art isn’t real garish or anything, it isn’t shouting, it’s just sort of talking. So, I keep the color palette pretty calm in general. Plus, I started doing these historical themes- if you used psychedelic colors when you’re doing Thomas Jefferson from the 1700s it doesn’t make sense. 

And for George Gershwin, I did everything in blue because the book was about him writing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, so I just used blue for the whole book, which was great fun. The color is super important, but I just finished a book about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and you know they’re tie-dyed hippie sorts of guys, so that is like day-glow color; it was a real departure for me.

Q. That’s exciting. It can be good to go out of your comfort zone.

A. Oh, definitely, it was good for me. It forced me to use colors I generally just shy away from.

Q. What inspired you to create your series Growing Up Through the Cracks? Did this have any type of personal significance to you?

A. I was honored to do that series. I used to work for newspapers and I worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so I used to do kind of serious adult topics, I wasn’t doing children’s books then. They asked me to be a part of the team that did a series on childhood poverty in our region and then in Scotland, too. So, they took me on as a children’s book illustrator to kind of illustrate the day in the life of a kid who lives in poverty. 

I didn’t grow up in poverty, but I grew up kind of poor- not poor, my dad worked hard, but there were 5 kids and we were grateful for everything we got. So, I really sympathized with the situation these kids were growing up in and I found that I was able to get them to talk to me. Just tell me stuff, quietly, about what their dreams were and what they liked to do in a typical day in their life. So, it worked out really well, I thought. I got to know these kids and they really opened up. It was just a great experience, one of the most meaningful things I’ve done as an artist, I think.

Q. Speaking of different locations, I read that you moved here from New Mexico. What brought you to Pittsburgh and did that impact your work in any type of way?

A. Yeah, it sure did. I grew up in New Mexico. I was born in California, then we moved to Eastern Pennsylvania, and then we moved to New Mexico when I was 12. So, my teen years – high school, college, young adulthood – that was all in New Mexico. That was where I learned to be a painter. And I was really influenced by the art there, and there’s a lot of art there. A lot of artists migrate to New Mexico. The light there and the color- everything is different there. 

Then, I came to Pittsburgh to work for the newspaper and immediately, I realized everything is different here. Even though I loved Pennsylvania from my childhood, I realized it is completely different here. I mean, the sky is not blue, it’s kind of gray, it rains all the time. You were talking about my color palette earlier- that really influenced the muting of my color palette. I kind of fell in love with brown and green and the colors that are around here. It just influenced the way I saw things and I was aware of it. I was aware of my color palette changing and I’m glad it did, actually.

Q. Is there a specific person/event you would be interested in illustrating in the future?

A. I wish I would have thought about this.

Well, yes. Being a lover of history, there’s just so many historical figures that I just love. Oh, there’s so many. I’ll tell you, I’m writing 2 books now and they’re both fiction. I’m going to kind of skirt your question a little bit. One of the books I’m writing is about being a twin- because I am a twin. I have a twin brother. 

I want to write that story from a twin’s perspective about what it’s like to basically never be alone. From the time you’re born, you’re sharing a room, you’re sharing everything. That’s the subject I really want to tackle, you know, it’s me. It’s really an autobiography in a way- in a kid’s book kind of way. Not to be too vain about it, but it’s what I want to do. 

Oh, you know what, I’d like to do a book about William Blake. A kid’s book about William Blake, which is almost impossible. Maybe some part of his childhood. He’s one of my poetic, artistic heroes. 

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