While Sarah Asper-Smith has no problem describing the overall aesthetic of her work —“strong, clean and vibrant” — as an artist, she doesn’t quite know what to call herself.
“Designer? Author? Visual storyteller comes close, but that sounds way too pompous,” she said the other day while sipping tea in her apartment on Seward Street. The apartment, which happens to occupy the bottom floor of her childhood home —“we rent from my parents; they’re good landlords”— doubles as her graphic design studio, triples as her museum exhibit design workshop and quadruples as the physical location for her online stationary and apparel company.
“I’d even call the books something else,” said Asper-Smith, 33. By this, she was referring to the two children’s books she’s published, both with Sasquatch Books, “Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish?” in 2010, and, just this past December, “I Would Tuck You In,” which Amazon recently named a critic’s pick for December; the publisher has already ordered a second printing.
Lushly illustrated by Asper-Smith’s husband Mitchell Watley, “I Would Tuck You In” is a playful, endearing and educational introduction to Alaska’s wildlife as mother animals describe the ways they express love for their babies.
In it, a mother octopus grows eight arms to hold her baby. A mama grizzly snuggles next to her baby all winter long. A rufous hummingbird’s heart beats 1,000 times per minute for hers (see what I mean by educational?). And so on.
“Like the first book, it also started as a series of greeting cards,” Asper-Smith explained. “Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish?”, which she wrote and illustrated, presents a collective noun for an entire alphabet’s worth of animals (e.g. “a flutter of butterflies,” “a zeal of zebras,” etc.).
“But this time, the publishers didn’t like my art — I believe their exact words were ‘are these your finals?’” she said; the way she sees it, that’s just as well. “Mitch did an incredible job. His illustrations are really, really lovely.”
Also complicating the process, the book’s concept changed slightly from the original.
“The cards — which you can still buy, by the way, with my drawings on them — were also intended to be romantic,” she continued. “So I had to lose the more ‘adult’ ones, like the hoary marmot, for example, who would ‘whistle as you walk by.’ Not so appropriate for kids. I also scrapped the oyster — I never liked that one to begin with.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Asper-Smith’s burgeoning career in children’s books is that these days, she hardly spends any time doing it.
“The book just came out, but, you know, all the work happened so long ago,” she said. Like most self-employed professional artists, she shifted focus as opportunities changed. Also like most professional artists, she admits difficulty in finding balance between work for hire and her own creative pursuits.
“Yeah… I need to find more time for everything.”
Lately she’s mostly worked planning, designing, constructing and installing museum and cultural center exhibits for her own company, Exhibit AK. One of Asper-Smith’s exhibits currently graces the main space at the Baranof Museum in Kodiak; this past summer, she partnered with the Alaska State Museum to install “History of Alaska Tourism” exhibits on Princess Cruise ships.
“You wouldn’t think so, but exhibit design and graphic design are actually pretty similar,” she said, crediting her museum work for the educational component to her books. “It’s mostly figuring out how to turn a two-dimensional design into three dimensions. But in both cases, I’m trying to tell a story. An exhibit is someone else’s. A book or a print is my own.”
If her clarity of purpose seems remarkable, it might owe to a near lifelong interest in design. The daughter of a writer and a carpenter, Asper-Smith cut her teeth in a now-defunct special design program at Juneau Douglas High School. While other teenagers were manning fryers and herding tourists, she designed print ads for the Capital City Weekly.
Asper-Smith briefly attended Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., before taking classes in Northwest Coast formline art at UAS. She lists formline art as a major influence.
After a series of design internships, including one in New York City that placed her blocks from Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001 —“I left pretty much right after that”—Asper-Smith earned a BA in art from Earlham College.
And though she began taking on graphic design clients, in addition to creating her own stationary and apparel —“my whole life, I’ve always wound up working for myself, designing”— Asper-Smith began working with Banghart and Associates helping to prepare exhibits at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow and Anchorage International Airport.
“Bob Banghart has helped me immensely,” she said, echoing a sentiment I’ve heard from other exhibit designers and curators around Juneau. “And of course, Alaska has a lot of smaller cultural institutions looking to hire someone like me, who can do everything and not charge very much.”
Of course, Asper-Smith still takes on graphic design work for hire, and sells her own work online, in local shops — Alaska Robotics carries the most complete line — and all over Alaska. Full disclosure: I’ve owned several Asper-Smith kitchen calendars.
Has she ever thought about making her books into a museum exhibit?
“Hm. That’s a good idea. I’ll put that on the list.”
“I Would Tuck You In” is available at Hearthside Books, Rainy Retreat Books, the JACC and Alaska Robotics, and online at smackofjellyfish.com or Amazon.com. Asper-Smith also has an Etsy storefront at www.etsy.com/people/smackofjellyfish.
Asper-Smith will be reading from “I Would Tuck You In” on Sat., Dec. 22 from 1-3 p.m. at Rainy Retreat.