A Cafe Chat with Art Director Ellice Lee, by Berrie Torgan-Randall AND a Portfolio Critique Giveaway!

We are excited to be hosting a FREE webinar series this summer dedicated to those all-important first impressions. We call it “First Page Center Stage.” In this webinar series, industry professionals will provide live feedback of participants’ First Pages (for manuscripts) or First Looks (for illustrations). Each webinar in the series will focus on a single category: PB, CB, MG, YA, and NF. The fourth webinar in the series will be led by Philomel Senior Art Director Ellice Lee, who will be giving first looks feedback for illustration pieces on August 23. To find out more about the webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/ and for information about our Zoom portfolio critique giveaway, keep reading!

In preparation for the webinar, Eastern PA SCBWI’s Illustrator Coordinator, Berrie Torgan-Randall, was able to chat with Ellice recently at our virtual café. Here’s what they had to say: 

A Café Chat with Art Director Ellice Lee, by Berrie Torgan-Randall

Berrie: Good morning, Ellice. Welcome to the EasternPennPoints Virtual Café. What would you like to drink in our plant-filled café? (I read that you have a green thumb, so I added a couple of succulents for you to enjoy while I ask you questions.)

Ellice: Good morning, Berrie! Thanks for inviting me. So nice to be here! And how did you know I love plants and currently have seven succulents in my window! Good sleuthing. In these summer days, I’d love to drink an iced coffee followed up with some seltzer!

Berrie: You have worked on so many award-winning books and with best-selling talent including one of our favorite Eastern PA artists—Floyd Cooper.* Do you ever get the chance to meet the authors and/or illustrators you have worked with in person?

Ellice: Floyd Cooper. My goodness, what a gentleman and a talent. His reductive technique still blows my mind. In this new world, “meet” has a whole new meaning since most everything is virtual. And we usually do a video call with our artists (even pre-pandemic) when we first start a book. But back in the day with Floyd, since he’s fairly close by, we actually did get to meet in person. He was coming through town and actually dropped his art off in real life. Since the street in front of our office was piled with snow, and finding parking in NYC is a beast, he handed his packaged art out of a slight opening in his car door because he couldn’t open it all the way! We had a good laugh. But in terms of meeting in person, in the before times, industry and SCBWI conferences were a great way to meet talent in person. Also, if they lived nearby or were stopping through the city, we’d always encourage them to stop by the office for a visit.

Berrie: Once you receive an assignment, how long does it take for a book to go from contract to book launch?

Ellice: For a non-rush/crash project, it takes roughly a year. Things can change along the way based on list balancing (making sure the books we launch each season don’t tip heavily towards one age or group/theme), the seasonality of when the book is optimal to launch, the availability of the illustrator, and just life. To my last point, things happen that are unexpected and overwhelming. So, if we need to adjust scheduling for any reason, we work that out together.

Berrie: I read in your bio that you have a BA in Sociology from UCLA and a BFA from the Art Center College of Design. How do you think your undergraduate degree in Sociology helps you with your job as an art director, and when did you decide to switch gears from Sociology and get your BFA? For me, I switched gears after art school and got my MIS in Information Studies to become a librarian. I later realized that my true passion is being an artist, so I switched gears again to be an illustrator.

Ellice: That’s awesome, Berrie! Nothing is wasted when it comes to education and life experience, right? There is always something that proves informative when we reflect. That’s amazing that you now have a librarian background to add to your brain bank! I am jealous! As for my switch, I’ve always been interested in people and their relationship to one another. So, when I made the hop over to art school, the sociology lessons applied directly. We come from many cultures and are all trying to navigate this world and the people within it. That’s what I feel we do in books as well—we are constantly learning, evolving, and showing the world through our art and writing, the perspective that each one of us uniquely holds.

Berrie: You have commented that you like to find talent on and off the grid. Where do you look for new talent—Instagram, Twitter, some other social platform that I am not in tune with?

Ellice: Yes! We look everywhere we can see art—social media, articles, bookstores, art fairs, street art, passing artists on the street, etc. So, anywhere you’re living life, we are open!

Berrie: It looks like you participate in a lot of volunteer activities. Are there one or two projects that have the most meaning for you? 

Ellice: I’ve mentored high school kids in the South Bronx for 16 years (program ended last year, unfortunately) and have loved being a part of their lives over many years. One of my favorite annual projects is volunteering together for another nonprofit or for the neighborhood (i.e., cleaning up the local park). Year after year, the S. Bronx is the poorest congressional district in America and it’s humbling to see the kids extending themselves to lend a hand even in the midst of their own tough situation. My other favorite activity is leading a healthy cooking session. The S. Bronx has long been a food desert, so we love introducing the community to cooking healthy food with products at their local grocery store.

Berrie: I enjoyed chatting with you and look forward to meeting you during our Eastern PA SCBWI “First Page Center Stage” webinar.

Ellice: Same here! Thanks, Berrie, and looking forward to our webinar!

* Shortly after this Café Chat was conducted, esteemed illustrator Floyd Cooper passed away. Floyd was always willing to give a presentation, a review, and a dose of encouragement to our Eastern PA illustrators. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Floyd’s family.

Ellice Lee, Senior Art Director of Philomel Books, joined the team in 2017. She holds a BA in Sociology from UCLA and a BFA from Art Center College of Design. Ellice has worked with award-winning talent including Alexandra Boiger, Rafael Lopez, Loren Long, Le Uyen Pham, Christian Robinson, Kadir Nelson, Angela Dominguez, Ed Young, and Floyd Cooper. Titles she has worked on have appeared on the New York Times best-seller lists, such as Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor and She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton, featured in New York magazine, TIME magazine and have won Caldecott honors, Coretta Scott King awards, as well as being a finalist for the National Book Award. Ellice loves working with talent who have a compelling story to share—from the political to the social to the inane.

Webinar Info

To find out more about our First Page Center Stage FREE webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/.

Critique Giveaway

Eastern PA SCBWI is giving away a free 15-minute Zoom critique with literary agent Jemiscoe Chambers-Black (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) for an illustration portfolio (6 or fewer portfolio pieces) to one lucky Eastern PA SCBWI member! To enter, please comment on this blog post before 9:00 p.m. EST on Friday, July 23. We will choose the winner at random from those who comment. Must be a current Eastern PA SCBWI member to be eligible. Please include your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (e.g., if you are not an Eastern PA SCBWI member or if you are not interested in a critique), simply state that along with your comment. Materials for the critique are due August 13, 2021. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner! Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner.

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5 Responses to A Cafe Chat with Art Director Ellice Lee, by Berrie Torgan-Randall AND a Portfolio Critique Giveaway!

  1. Wendy says:

    Thanks for the interview! We lost a huge talent with Floyd’s passing (Note: I am NOT an illustrator and am not entering the giveaway–just commenting =) )

  2. Joanne Roberts says:

    Thanks for a great interview. I hope we get to chat more about Ellice’s thoughts on social media for illustrators some time! No need to enter me in the giveaway since I am a volunteer already (though I’d love a prize like that!!) Looking forward to August 23rd!

  3. Kathi Ember says:

    I enjoyed the interview…thanks! I’d love an opportunity to review my portfolio with a literary agent. I am a professional illustrator with over 30 years experience, but my work has slowed quite a bit and I need help with updating my portfolio and finding new clients.

  4. What an incredible interview! I am excited to learn more at the webinar on August 23rd!

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