Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lion In The Trees

Discussing animal art with the Layton illustrator Shirley Jackson.

Posted By on November 8, 2015, 9:07 AM

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Some of the most interesting art shows this fall have featured screen-printing, as the artists behind the medium carefully plan out awesome designs and creations using only a couple of colors. Each shape is carefully placed so that when the final product hits the ink, every copy looks as perfect as the original design. A name that's been in the mix for several years is Shirley Jackson, though you may know her better as the artist behind Lion In The Trees, in which she incorporates animals into her imagery in glorious ways. Today we chat with Jackson about her style and coming up through the local art community. (All pictures courtesy of Lion In The Trees.)

Shirley Jackson 
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Gavin: Hey Shirley, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi there! My name is Shirley Jackson and I'm a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. I love animals and have been a vegetarian for 14 years now. My work heavily features, and is inspired by, the animals I care so much for and the natural world.  I'm half black and half Korean, that makes me a liger! I absolutely love matcha green tea ice cream and spending time working with rescue dogs.


Gavin: What first got you interested in art, and what were your early influences?

I started getting into art at a very young age, like 3 or 4 years old. I was always drawing pictures; one time I painted on a wall with nail polish, my mom wasn't very happy about that. Some of my early influences growing up were My Neighbor Totoro (I watched that movie so many times when I was little), Lisa Frank, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neopets, Pokemon, Digimon, The Far Side Gallery and Calvin & Hobbes comics.

Gavin: What drew you toward illustration, and what did you find most appealing about the genre?

The thing I love about illustration is how varied it is as a career field. You can do children's books, editorial, product design, comics—the list goes on. Going to school I didn't feel like pursuing fine art as a career, nor did I want to solely be a graphic designer. I feel that illustration is a hybrid creature of those two fields. It's the genre where I feel my work fits in the most.


Gavin: What made you decide to attend Weber State, and how did their program work out for you?

Weber State was actually my last choice! But reflecting back, I'm actually really glad I went to Weber. I got the majority of my general credits out of the way in high school, so I was able to jump right into classes that dealt with my major. I originally wanted to pursue a career as a veterinarian, so for my first year of school I was on that path. I love science, but being a vet didn't feel like what I was meant to be. I remembered how much I enjoyed drawing and creating, so I decided to change my major to fine arts. Weber State doesn't really have that large of an illustration program. There are only two classes specifically for illustration offered. So, I didn't think much about pursuing that as a career. In the beginning, I fought tooth and nail not  to go into graphic design. I thought the field was pretty stupid, the work produced boring, and that graphic designers just stole things off of others online. My boyfriend convinced me to give one graphic design course a chance with an open mind, and wow was I wrong with my opinion about graphic design and designers! I was still a little skeptical, but I was totally mesmerized and eager to learn more about the field. I think their program worked amazingly for me! I was able to study and work with three teachers who are super passionate about graphic design and their students' success after graduation. They, and my fellow graphic design students, really helped change my perspective and views of the field from being so judgmental to respect and understanding. My teachers showed me the possibilities I had with graphic design and illustration, and that it was possible to do both.

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Gavin: During your time there, what got you interested in typography and screen printing?

I took a printmaking class and just fell in love with the medium. We learned how to create relief prints using woodblocks and copper etching. But screen printing stole my heart after I looked through a book of gig posters. I love everything about screen printing! From the smell of the ink, and figuring out how to create a piece using only three colors (including the paper color), to cleaning off screens with a giant scrub brush and power washer, and being able to create something with my own hands. My passion for printmaking has had a huge influence in the work I create. I usually only use a max of three colors in a piece, and some of my work has an almost woodblock feel to it. Typography, on the other hand, was different. I avoided typography like a disease. I knew the power words had and that they could either make or break your piece. So I did everything I could to not use it. However, when I finally took my first typography class and developed a better understanding of type, I was on the typography train! But what really won me over, and got me hooked, was hand-drawn typography. I'm still captivated by the beautiful typographical pieces people are able to create using both traditional and digital tools, and even unconventional things like food!

Gavin: How was it for you learning those areas and perfecting your craft?

I'm still learning and perfecting my craft! I think I always will be because I never want to stop improving, but boy is it painful! But I'm glad that because of our technology today I can connect and make friends with so many talented creatives all over the world. It helps keep me motivated and inspired to continue growing and improving.

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Gavin: What made you decide to start your own freelance business, and where did Lion In The Trees come from?

Laura Frisk, Travis Bone, Dan Christofferson, Isaac Hastings, Susie Ghahremani of BoyGirlParty, and Meg Hunt were huge influences to me! They're amazing examples that with hard work and time you can be successful with your work. And I knew that was what I wanted to do too. The name Lion In The Trees actually came from a book I have had since I was a little kid. It's called Hold Your Horses: Nuggets of Truth for People Who Love Horses... No Matter What by Bonnie Timmons. I was pretty horse-crazy when I was younger (I still am!) and I adore the cute little illustrations and quips in the book. I was trying to come up with a whimsical and quirky name and went through a couple before going with Lion In The Trees. Travis Bone told me that when choosing a name, it should be something I'd be happy with for the rest of my life. Because it's super hard to change it later down the road. Now, I'm a person that's indecisive. Sometimes, it takes me 10 to 20 minutes to pick a flavor of ice cream at the grocery store (if green tea isn't an option). I even have a hard time figuring out where to apply stickers, because what if I want to stick it somewhere else later down the road (my solution to this dilemma is to buy doubles). So choosing a name for my identity and business was super difficult. I'm not sure why at the time, but I was just flipping through this book when I came across the page about things horses shy at. On this list, there are things from thermonuclear devices to plastic bags that flap. And among those things was: Lions in trees. I thought it was so odd but cute? Like, why on earth would a lion be in a tree? So I played around with the name Lion in the Trees, and well, I've got quite the lion's mane of hair so I decided to roll with it. And it stuck!


Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a new piece?

I'm honestly still trying to better understand and develop my process. Here's what I've got so far in terms of my process—before I start researching and sketching I ask these questions: Who is this for? What is this for? What is the message? Can I extend the life of the piece aside from its original purpose? Meaning, can this piece be more than the answer to "What is this for?" Can it also be a sticker, a screen print, or a t-shirt design? I struggle SO MUCH with the third question! The hardest part for me in the process is coming up with a concept. Sometimes I just want to draw dogs or dinosaurs with no deeper meaning or context. But, I know my strongest pieces have solid concepts within them. But it's so difficult to do when I have so many different ideas swirling around in my noodle noggin. And it gets overwhelming because I find myself trying to cram all of the ideas into one piece. However, I found that when I actually sit down, and try to write a good paragraph or two about my concepts it helps me to weed out the weaker ideas. But once I get a solid and good concept, and sketch down the rest is smooth sailing for me.

Gavin: What specifically drew you more toward nature and animals as your muses?

I've always loved animals and magical creatures! They were the only things I've ever been interested in drawing, and are the things I feel a strong connection to. I've always been captivated by science and how God created things to be so crazy connected, intricate, and yet so diverse. I respect and admire the raw wild spirit animals have and am always awestruck with the majesty and power that can be found, and wielded by nature. We also took a lot of family road trips to national parks like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone when I lived in Montana and Wyoming, which further developed my admiration for nature at a young age.

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Gavin: Do you find yourself changing things as you go or sticking to a single design once you think it up?

Honestly, it depends on the project and how stubborn I am that day. Despite my indecisive tendencies, I can get hell-bent on a composition, or design elements, and do everything I possibly can to make it work. But one important lesson I learned from my favorite college professor was: listen to the design. Much like when working with a dog or a horse it's important to listen to (and communicate with) them through body language. And designs are the same way. When something isn't working out your design is trying to communicate to you that something needs to be altered. And it's up to you as the creator to listen. One recent example of this would be my pieces "Harmony" and "Balance." I was very determined to cram so many animals into one space and make it work. I tried over ten different compositions before I started listening to the design. It told me to split the piece into two print designs and what a difference that made!

Gavin: What was it like when you first started up and put more work into galleries and exhibitions?

My first "big" exhibition was for a group show at Blonde Grizzly back in 2011 (I still have the SLUG Magazine with the advert for it) and it causes me to cringe just by thinking about it! My work didn't really have any direction at that time and I had no confidence in it. On top of that, I seriously over-thought the pieces I made for that show, and I just felt like my stuff was a big pile of trash. Fortunately, I was surrounded by amazing artists so the work I made was easily forgotten. I seem to have only hung onto one of the three pieces I made for that show which I'll share for this interview! But it was a great learning experience for me. It showed me that I wasn't that great at my craft quite yet and that I've got a lot of work to do. And a lot to learn. Since then, I feel like I've grown as a creative and feel so much more confident and proud of my work.


Gavin: How would you say your art has changed over the past few years as you've developed your style?

It has changed TREMENDOUSLY. Like... wow. I think my work has evolved the most over the past couple of years. I'm learning more about who I am as a creative and what I want to say. I'm learning more about different aesthetics I like and how to apply them into my work. And I'm learning how to create more engaging and powerful compositions as time goes on.  Looking through old artwork makes me cringe so much! But I think it's important to reflect back and see where you've come from, and see the evidence of how much you've grown.

Gavin: What's it been like getting your works out to the crafting community as well?

The crafting community here in Salt Lake City is so wonderful and supportive! I'm glad that it continues to grow here because I'm a huge DIY nerd. I started getting involved with the crafting community back in 2011 for the third annual Craft Lake City festival. I started out with handmade/hand-painted upcycled tote bags and wallets, then the next year I did handmade/hand-bound journals and coloring books. And the years after that I started selling more of my screen prints. I was also invited to do a bookmaking workshop with Craft Lake City back in 2013 which was so much fun!  I think if anyone is interested in getting involved in the crafting community I highly recommend getting involved with Craft Lake City!


Gavin: Are you looking to branch out into other artistic areas in the future?

Yes! There are so many different kinds of projects I want to do. I want to design more skate decks, get into stationery design, make and produce a plushie, and do more chalk work! This year I started making a comic called Creature Comforts, and I've had another comic idea brewing. So I'm hoping I'll find some time in the future to bring that into fruition!

Gavin: For those who may wish to commissions something or get an exclusive print, how can they contact you?

For commissions feel free to send me an email at For purchasing exclusive screenprints head on over to my Etsy shop. For giclee prints, t-shirts, and more head on over to my Society6 shop. You can also find me on TumblrTwitterInstagram, and Facebook. I even have a Patreon! Which is an amazing website where you can donate to, and help support your favorite creators and get monthly little bonuses! Some of the bonuses I offer to my patrons are first dibs on new prints and work, access to a secret blog I post on, high-resolution downloads of my sketchbooks, a print club where I mail you one screen print a month, and much more!

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Gavin: What can we expect from you going into next year?

I can't believe 2016 is so near! Some goals of mine for next year are to have more screen prints and getting back into traditional painting with watercolors and gouache. Producing my first line of stationary products and fabric! And getting my work into galleries outside of Utah.

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