When an artist names her website Chickenopolis, it’s a pretty safe bet she’ll be a little bit unconventional. Sara Varon (MFA 2002 Illustration as Visual Essay) does not disappoint. She has a thing for chickens and ducks, and has been known to bring homemade cookies in the likeness of her books’ characters to signing events. In Bake Sale (First Second Books, 2011), a cupcake dreams of running off to Turkey with his best friend, an eggplant. She’s that kind of storyteller.
After graduating from SVA, Varon created a number of beloved children’s books and graphic novels. Her work appears in “We Tell Stories,” the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay alumni mega-exhibition at the SVA Chelsea Gallery through December 17. She also designed the exhibition’s welcoming (and charmingly wacky) Children’s Reading Room with her friend and fellow alumnus, Aya Kakeda (2002). SVA Close Up asked Varon to tell us about her College days and fill us in on what’s happening in Chickenopolis.
All-time favorite project?
Well, if you’re asking if I’ve had a sort of dream project, the answer is no. I’m not sure what that project would be—maybe some kind of packaging for a bakery or pet product? But I do really love working on long graphic novels. There are a lot of components to them, and one of the components is story research. Because they contribute to my income, I get to write off any research expenses! So I sometimes do things that are more extravagant than I would normally allow myself to do. A really fun thing I did was for my graphic novel Bake Sale: I took a week-long professional cake decorating class. (It vastly improved my pastry decorating skills, and I baked and decorated the cupcakes on the endpapers of the book!)
Most prominent memory of your SVA days?
It was a while ago now that I graduated, so it’s a little hard to remember. I mostly remember the atmosphere. It was great, like summer camp. I had particularly fantastic and talented classmates, so it was like hanging out with a big group of friends, all working towards a common goal. And the teachers were all so great as well. I especially liked going out on location for Carol Fabricatore‘s drawing class (which was really helpful since I was new to New York) and learning Flash animation in Matthew Richmond‘s class. I also really loved working in the printmaking studio.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on children’s books and graphic novels. I’m in the middle of several projects, although the one I am most excited about is a graphic novel about a tropical donkey who lives in the jungle. I did some traveling into the jungle of Guyana for research, which was pretty exciting. There will be a lot of fun things to draw—all kinds of animals and brightly colored jungle scenes. I really like the world the characters live in, so I’m looking forward to drawing that.
Best advice you got at SVA?
[MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Chair] Marshall Arisman told us that when we are making self-promos, be sure to send out examples of what you really want to make, and not just what you think people are looking for. You’ll get the kind of work you send out, so you want to be sure you like what you are doing.
Words of wisdom for current students?
My advice is a variation on Marshall’s advice: Have fun making your work. If you’re having fun, it kind of doesn’t matter where the work takes you. You’ll get something out of it whether it sells or not. If you have fun, it also comes out in your work, which is always a good thing.
Along with Bake Sale, other books by Varon include Chicken and Cat (Scholastic Press, 2006), Chicken and Cat Clean Up (Scholastic Press, 2009), Robot Dreams (First Second Books, 2007) and Odd Duck (First Second Books, 2013).