Vashti Harrison is an artist originally from Onley, Virginia. She has a background in cinematography and screenwriting and a love for storytelling. She earned her BA from the University of Virginia with a double major in Media Studies and Studio Art with concentrations in Film and Cinematography. She received her MFA in Film and Video from CalArts where she snuck into Animation classes to learn from Disney and Dreamworks legends. There she rekindled a love for drawing and painting. Now, utilizing both skill sets, she is passionate about crafting beautiful stories in both the film and kidlit worlds. We spoke to Vashti about being a creator and her book Little Leaders, which comes out on December 5th, 2017.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
Everything. I definitely categorize myself as a maker and storyteller. My background is in filmmaking so for a long time I was making 16mm experimental films and documentaries. But I also have a true passion for narrative screenwriting. Drawing and painting are old loves that I picked up again after film school. Over the last two years I’ve made the transition to author/illustrator, so I’ve mainly been focusing on making books for children! In my spare time I’ve always loved making jewelry and handmade books.
BGC: Why do you create?
I’m definitely at my happiest when I’m making things. I get inspired by things all the time, when I walk down the street or see something lit beautifully. For me to make a drawing, a film, or a piece of jewelry is to process the beautiful feelings and moments I encounter every day and turn them into something tangible.
BGC: When did you start making art?
As a child I always liked to draw. It was what I did through high school and even college, but I feel like I truly started making art when I started making films in undergrad. As a “drawer” I was very good at replicating things, but I was never really expressing anything with my drawings. Things finally clicked, though, when I started making films. It was kismet that the only filmmaking professor at the University of Virginia taught experimental art cinema. This way of filmmaking taught me to approach cinema as an artist. It was a pure form of experimentation that allowed me to learn how to tell stories and make meaning with images in a thoughtful and conceptual way. I later went on to get my MFA in Film/Video at CalArts. There, I took some drawing classes and it sparked this passion for drawing again. This time though, it was different. I brought to it this love for storytelling that I hadn’t developed before.
BGC: How did the Little Leaders project come about?
During Black History Month in 2017, I started a drawing project for myself. I wanted to illustrate one Black woman from American History every day for the month of February and post a short bio about her life. By the first one, I knew it was a project that would mean a lot to me and other people. I was very affected by reading the stories of these women, I felt their passion and boldness in a deeply emotional way that I hadn’t expected. The posts got very popular on Instagram, so I asked my agent if she thought there was potential for a book here. We pitched the idea to several publishers and ended up with a deal from LittleBrown Books for Young Readers.
BGC: Who is your audience?
Little Leaders was definitely created with young Black girls in mind. When I was just beginning the project, I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it would have been if I had known about famous women artists and filmmakers as a child. I might not have doubted myself so much. So the book in many ways is a love letter to little Black girls, to share with them the many opportunities that are out there. It is also a celebration of bold Black women, so it is very much a book created with them in mind as well. But mostly I believe this is a book for anyone. You don’t have to be Black or be a woman to be inspired by these amazing leaders from American history. Any artist can read Alma Woodsey Thomas’ story and be inspired. Any science lover can identify with the passion behind Alice Balls story. I hope every person can see a little bit of themselves in the stories within my book.
BGC: What has been the response from the community/audience?
It’s been very exciting to see how much buzz has been stirring around the book. There was a day after one of my posts went viral that it got boosted into the top 30 on Amazon! People are very very supportive and write to me every day thanking me for creating work like this. I cannot wait until it’s out in the world and I can share it with everyone.
BGC: Who/what inspired you to do what you do? Who/what continues to inspire you?
I am consistently inspired by other artists, so I am an active consumer of content. I especially love going to film festivals.
BGC: Why is it important as a Black person to create?
I get messages from people every day who write to me to tell me they are inspired by what I am doing, and that my work means something to them. I think people are hungry to see more creative content that represents people of color in multifaceted ways. There is a lot of homogeneity in the mainstream, because people of color have rarely had the opportunity to tell their own stories and create their own images. People are ravenous for something new so I think if you are a creator with a new perspective to share now is the time to unleash it.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
Balance is hard. For me, my life is my art. I’m a workaholic. I work from home, so there is no end to my workday. I’m hoping to structure it more, but honestly, I am truly excited to be where I am so I wouldn’t change much. I am so passionate about what I am doing. I am constantly inspired and only wish I had more time in the day to do all of the things I want to do.
BGC: Do you have any support systems that hold you up?
My family is constantly supportive. My mom helps me run my Etsy shop and my dad is constantly coming up with ideas for Little Leaders. Before I signed any book deals, they were there. I lost my job working on a TV show in 2015 and had to move back in with them. I left and came back a couple times hoping to find work in the city. They provided the support I needed to pursue a career in illustration and from that foundation was able to build up the idea for Little Leaders.
BGC: Advice for young creators/ones just starting?
Practice, experiment, and don’t feel like you have to make a choice right away. For me, it was really important to try out so many things. I went to the University of Virginia for undergrad – a huge school known for its academics and not so much its art program. I truly learned to value art when I was away from it. And when I discovered the passion I had for cinema, I brought to it the knowledge I had gained from studying Art History, Psychology, and Economics. It all worked together to build a consciousness that I believe to be integral to my creative process.
BGC: Future projects?
I’m working on Little Leaders Book 2, and am illustrating a couple different picture books for other publishers. I’ve been throwing ideas around for a screenplay for a short film that I want to make with a buddy from film school, as well as a graphic novel.
BGC: Any dream projects?
I really really really want to have the time to work on an illustrated middle grade novel I’ve had in my head for a while. It will just take time so it will have to wait until I have no other distractions. I really look forward to being able to work on that!