Student Spotlight: Vesper Stamper

Vesper Stamper is one of our few classmates who manages to make beautiful artwork, AND care for her two young children. Moreover she’s recently announced that her novel, the Orange Tree (which she wrote and illustrated for the Book Show) will be published by Knopf in spring 2018! She talks with us about how she manages her time, what it’s like to be both a mother and an artist, and about creating the Orange Tree. Congratulations @vesperillustration !

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You’re one of our few classmates who has already spent a few years working as an illustrator. What made you want to apply to the program, and what were you seeking to gain from it?

Yes, I’ve been freelancing as an illustrator for 17 years since graduating from Parsons with my illustration BFA. I had hit a creative and professional ceiling in my work a while back, and I craved the classroom environment to get that good ol’ kick in the rear from my peers. But most notably, it was a car accident in 2012 which permanently wrecked my working arm which made me reassess what my life and career were going to look like moving forward. I felt this urgency to not lose ground (I essentially had to learn to draw again afterwards) and to figure out what working with a disability looked like for me. It took an awful lot of soul-searching and painfully realistic conversation with my husband, kids and trusted friends, but we ultimately felt that this was right for me.

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Has the program lived up to your expectations? How have you seen your illustrations grow or change?

Oh, without a doubt. I came into the program with a few definite goals: to finally understand light, for example, to get better at composition—but mostly to streamline my work so that I could dovetail greater marketability AND greater artistic satisfaction. I think it was alumna Andrea Tsurumi who said that she made it her goal while here to create a cohesive, encyclopedic visual vocabulary for herself, so that she wasn’t reinventing the whole world every time she sat down to do a piece. I think that’s what we must mean by “style”—but when I heard it put this way, it was a revelation! I really paid attention to that, and especially after David Sandlin had us do a presentation on our influences, I was able to see a very consistent thread through my art making, visually and thematically, even from childhood. It’s given me greater confidence to *own* those things, and a bit of savvy in how to harness them visually.

Because I work through pain, I have to be choosy about my mechanics. I found that certain media work better for me physically (ink, for example, has no resistance, and I don’t get hung up on color, so I’m free to focus on light), and I learned a lot about efficiency by understanding my own symbolic vocabulary—the way I always seem to draw from teardrop shapes, for instance. But the turning point really came for me in a one-on-one crit with Marshall. We were looking at the final art for my first semester book project for Viktor Koen, and Marshall said, “You know, you’re not really telling a narrative here. You’re just storyboarding chronologically. You’re missing the metaphor.” All of a sudden, in that one moment, *everything* made sense to me—my entire career and approach to illustration took a complete left turn, and I understood that it’s all about *poetry*, not a play-by-play. As a writer, I understood that difference, but as a painter, I had been missing it. That one critique was worth the cost of the entire program.

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You’re kind of a wonder woman. Do you sleep? How do you manage a family with two kids and school work? 

You, too, can do what I do! If, that is, you don’t value, you know, eating food or looking in the mirror and stuff. But seriously—I have a VERY supportive husband who is also an artist, so he *gets* it. And my kids are a bit older. It would have been a lot more challenging if they were babies or toddlers. It’s actually been great for them, because they are both artistically creative kids and they get to see what it takes for Mama to do what she loves for a living.

I remember one pivotal conversation early in our marriage, in which we looked at the piles of paper and laundry and knew we had a choice before us: would we spend our precious time and energy on a nice clean house, or a life based on making art? Well, we chose art. And we’ve never regretted that choice. (Except when we’re overtired from deadlines. Then we wish we had a maid. Or a dumpster.)

Also, I absolutely reject the notion that having a family is a liability to an artist. I think that is more of a function of deep, insidious lies our culture tells us about the value of children and marriage and commitment to our human relationships. Artists can be *fantastic* at destroying everyone around them in the name of this “artistic purity” that is a load of crap. We’re humans first, artists waaaay second.

I’m also a musician by trade, and when I was pregnant with my second baby, my husband created a musical project (Ben + Vesper—check us out on your music service of choice!) which enabled me to just sing without a whole lot of work. It was a real gift. Well, we were signed to a label right away, toured, made 4 records—all with little, tiny babies at the time—and we always say that our creative life *started* when we had children, because now we had a *reason* to do it, larger than our own self-interest. It wasn’t just about us. That’s not to say people who make the choice not to have a family are somehow wrong. I’m just saying that especially for us as women, it doesn’t have to be an either-or. If you accept that life is about rapidly changing seasons, there’s no reason to freak out. The key is to not try to do it all at the same *time.* Be fully present to the people who rely on you, keep drawing, and you’ll know when the time is right to take a leap to the next level.

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Your husband is also a filmmaker. How does this creative partnership affect your work if at all? How does having children of your own affect the images/stories you make, and especially as a children’s book illustrator? 

I went to an arts high school here in NYC and I swore I’d never marry another artist—too much ego. But when I met Ben, who was studying painting and printmaking at Hampshire College, I found his work incredibly free and life-giving, but also generous and un-self-centered. Finding a man who is committed to living his artistic life and his faith in such harmony can be a rare, rare thing. So ours has always been a real meeting of hearts.

The influence of his expressionistic painting really freed my work from its trite confines. We watch a lot of Eastern European “slow cinema” together, people like Tarkovsky and Bela Taar, whose films are works of design genius in which every frame is a painting. It was Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” which spurred the visual vocabulary of my book project, The Orange Tree. I also work as a co-editor on his films. We’re both

storytellers. Ben imbues his subjects with an intense degree of dignity, and that’s a value we both share. He and I firmly believe that art is not primarily about self-expression but about reflecting the world, really as almost a prophetic gift offering.

In terms of my children, they are one of the main reasons I do what I do. We’re trying to raise emotionally intelligent and empathetic human beings, and I think a life of art making is a great path to that. My children teach me empathy, pure and simple. And they’re great artists already, to boot.

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Congratulations on having the Orange Tree published! Can you tell us about the book? What led you to this theme and what was the process like in getting it published?

OK, this is TOTAL craziness. I came to this program as a *picture book* illustrator, y’all! I saw a documentary about the post-Holocaust recovery period, in which all these strangers who had lost everyone they loved were making the unbelievably brave choice to marry and start families, and realized I needed to tell this story—if nothing else, than to assuage my own curiosity about the subject (I’m a non-fiction-aholic). Then the massacre in Paris (Charlie Hebdo and the following one at the Jewish market) happened right after I began the book, and it pulled back the veil on the cancerous growth of global anti-Semitism. I was really fueled by this urgency to hold out this opportunity for empathy and education about persecuted peoples, especially from my own heritage.

So, The Orange Tree is a Young Adult novel I wrote about two teenage survivors of a concentration camp and their attempts to find hope after unbelievable loss. I had just signed with an agent before I came into the program, and I had a picture book on submission, which was roundly rejected, but one of the editors mentioned she was always looking for WWII/Holocaust stories, and my agent suggested steering my story from adult toward a Young Adult audience. I did, and it magically transformed the story. She mentioned it to this editor, and unbeknownst to me, she began following the story. We submitted the story a few weeks ago, and Knopf generously gave me a two-book deal, which we just announced! I am SO excited. You could knock me over with a feather—I never saw it coming. I just did a project I felt passionately about, and someone noticed. My team at Knopf is, frankly, a dream team. It’ll be out in spring 2018.

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Can you tell us a bit about your thesis project?

It was important to me to use thesis as a chance to circle back around to picture books, which I am so passionate about as a form. So I am doing a picture book, with this cute little guy I call “Traveler” and his pet oryx, which illustrates the Book of Job—namely, the questions God asks Job after he has been through this tremendous suffering. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t moralistic. Madeleine L’Engle said, “I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.” The great thing about these Job questions is that they are all about making peace with the unknowable, the mysterious, the things that make you cover your mouth and say, “I just don’t know why.” And I think that’s a gift we can give children, especially those in crisis: to say, “I don’t have a neat answer for this, but I know that you are of infinite value and I will do my best to protect and love you.” And it’s been fun to try my hand at big, fantastic creatures, elements of creation, animals, and children after all the soul-wounding that comes from delving into Holocaust study. Thesis has been a balm and relief!

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What are top three pieces of advice for thriving in this program?


Every illustrator should tattoo this on their head, man. First and foremost, I’m going to pull the experience card here and say that I do NOT believe illustration is a “competitive” industry. We’re all a bunch of loners at our drawing tables, people. Come on. Except for the copycat posers, everyone’s work is so different. I think being competitive with other illustrators is a zero sum game and only leads to crappy, derivative work.


The illustration community is incredibly small and connected. You can’t afford to write people off or make enemies with *anyone*, peers, teachers or clients. Be a cheerleader. That’s what makes the illustration industry so great. Illustrators are born communicators, which means we (hopefully) build our whole lives on empathy and helping others. We humans only get a few decades of working life, right? You may as well use at least part of that creating a welcoming environment for those who come right behind you, just like those before you did for *you*. Treat people as YOU want to be treated, like *human beings*—both clients and peers—and you’ll reap the rewards for years to come. That’s absolutely been my experience.


No one owes you anything, and you don’t know that you’re working harder or less than someone else, so don’t be a jerk. Keep yourself on a very short leash. Remember how privileged you are—you get to *draw pictures* for a living! It’s like winning the lottery! So trust your own artistic voice, and pay this whole thing forward whenever you get the chance.

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Talk tomorrow,