Storyboard: John Parra

Growing an artist

The definition of insanity is moving to New York City without a place to live. If that’s the case, plenty of people throughout history could be considered insane, including myself.

My mom and I drove out to New York together after I found an available listing for a studio apartment in Queens. As anyone who’s ever played the real estate game in New York will tell you, there were… complications.

Once we arrived at the apartment, two older brothers, who happened to be the property managers, came to greet us. One of them said that he noticed that I had an ArtCenter College of Design bumper sticker on my car. Turns out, the brothers were both ArtCenter grads who had studied photography at the College in the 1950s, and maintained a studio in Jackson Heights. I was so nervous about my journey to New York, but as luck would have it, ArtCenter had found me!

To this day, many of my closest friends are ArtCenter graduates. The friendship comes from a place of mutual respect. You trust and help guide one another in a personal and professional capacity. ArtCenter is a place where brilliant, professional creatives show you the wisdom of the old masters. Your job is to process that wisdom, take what inspires you, and move onward into the world.

There’s an immediate sense of intimidation that settles in once you’ve graduated. What the hell are you going to do now? Post-grad, I sought out work in the illustration field. I was struggling to find my niche, when someone offered me an opportunity to illustrate a children’s book.

At first, I wasn’t interested. What was I going to learn by illustrating a book for kids? I did not yet know that these books can educate children on critical subject matter, and run the gamut from literature that addresses heavy issues to lighthearted escapism.

As a kid, I was a fan of Curious George and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I was a visual learner, perpetually lost in my imagination. As an adult being presented with this curious offer, I really had no idea what I was getting into. All I did, at the end of the day, was say yes to a job.

The first book I ever illustrated is called My Name Is Gabriela. It is the story of a girl from Chile who grows up to win the Nobel Prize. That led to another illustrating job; the rest, as they say, is history. Normally, I stick to illustrating these books, but the next one I’m working on is the first book I’ve written on my own. It’s called Growing an Artist, and it is a semi-autobiographical story inspired in part by my father, who worked in landscaping for most of his life. In that sense, the title has a double meaning.

I solicit advice from members of my own family when I write. For instance, my granddaughter will come over, and we’ll hang out. She’ll take a look at what I’m doing. If she gets excited, it means I’m on the right track. It’s all about planting that seed that will eventually blossom into a full-blown love of learning.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the arts have always been one of the first things that a school cuts from their budget. I always tell people the purpose of music, theater, and visual art programs in schools is not necessarily to create more artists; it’s about teaching kids how to cultivate a problem-solving skill set that is creative by its very nature.

What did ArtCenter give me, at the end of the day? A rock-solid work ethic and the ability to manage my own demanding schedule. It taught me to never miss a deadline, and to hold myself to the highest of standards. ArtCenter truly is a place that prepares you for things you simply cannot prepare for on your own.

A wise professor once told me to learn the rules, only so I could break them. And that’s exactly what ArtCenter does.

John Parra
BFA 97 Illustration
New York Times Listed, Pura Belpre Illustration Award recipient
International Latino Book Award winner

… the purpose of art programs in schools is teaching kids how to cultivate a problem-solving skill set that is creative by its very nature.

John ParraBFA 97 Illustration
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