A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Duncan at the 2016 Wow Retreat hosted by Kristen Fulton. Duncan was a presenter and gave us a wonderful presentation of his illustrating and writing process. In fact, Duncan received a standing ovation! We loved him :>)
Having a bite of dinner, lunch and or breakfast together, I learned that Duncan was born in Mexico City, Mexico. He didn’t say when and I didn’t ask but, I will say he is young and handsome. As a young child, he moved to the artistic town, San Miguel, de Allende. It’s up in the central region of Mexico and he says it’s a lovely place to live. While he was with us in Georgia, his wife and one year old daughter anxiously awaited his return. Wondering if his wife is also an illustrator or author, Duncan said she’s a dancer!
I know you will enjoy reading about his journey.
How did you go from living in a quaint little town in Mexico to being a student at the Parsons School of Design in NYC?
I was born in Mexico but my father is American. I am a US citizen and I have a lot of family in the US. I attended a high school in San Miguel for a year but I was not happy at that school. A cousin of mine who was a about to graduate from a small progressive boarding school in Massachusetts called Buxton encouraged me to apply there. I applied, I got in and I received a very good scholarship. I went there for three years. The school was very arts oriented and I did a lot of painting, photography and writing there.
After I finished high school I wanted to continue doing visual arts but I was also interested in writing and in other subjects. I decided to attend the Parsons School of Design because they had a dual degree program that allowed me to take those liberal art classes at Eugene Lang College, Parson's sister school. Plus I wanted to live in a big city.
This seems to be where and when you decided to focus on illustrations. What prompted making the change from Fine Arts to illustrating?
I wanted to pursuit a career in art since I was a kid but I did not consider doing children's books until the opportunity presented itself to me my last year in college. My senior thesis at Parsons was a short comic book based on a friend of mine named Sergio. Sergio is Mixtec, which is an indigenous group from the southern region of Mexico. There is a large Mixtec community in New York. I was surprised by this when I met him and heard him speaking his Mixtec dialect with his cousins and friends.
The first thing I did when I decided to do my senior project based on Sergio's journey was go to my school's library and look up Mixtec artwork. I found images from Mixtec codex from the 14th century. I was fascinated by the geometry, the repetition and the flatness of the drawings. I decided to do a modern day codex of Sergio's story. That is how I came up with my illustration style and why the character's in my books are always in profile like they are in the codex.
One day a professor came to critique our thesis. She really liked my artwork. She had illustrated several children's books for Abrams and was good friends with an editor there. She asked if she could show him my work. I said of course. I met the editor at his office some weeks later. He liked my art too. He said he would like to work with me if he received a manuscript that suited my illustration style. I told him I liked writing also. He told me a few basic things about picture books and gave me his email.
A month or so later I had an idea for a picture book about two cousins that send letters back for to each other; one lives in a rural community in Mexico, the other one lives in an urban center in the US. The editor liked my concept. I had to revise the manuscript many times but it eventually became my first published book Dear Primo; A Letter to My Cousin.
You have a very creative way of working. You like making collages but do you begin with the computer? Can you share a little of your process?
First I draw on regular letter size piece of paper. Then I scan my drawings. After that I collage different textures like denim, brick, and hair into my illustrations with Photoshop. The textures are images that I've either scanned, photographed or found on the internet. You can see a video of how I do it here: https://youtu.be/w1avdB7jHcg
My illustrations are inspired by Pre-Columbian art so they have an ancient feel to them. My digital collage technique hopefully makes a little more modern and appealing to kids nowadays.
You’re now also an author. You have several books that you’ve written and illustrated. Princess and the Warrior, and Funny Bones are just two. Where did you get your inspiration or were they commissioned by your publisher?
I have illustrated eight picture books, six of them I wrote myself. Some are fiction and others are non-fiction. Some of them are about art like Funny Bones and Diego Rivera: His World and Ours. Others are about social justice like Separate Is Never Equal and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. The first one is about the segregation that Latino children experienced in California in the 1940s. The second one is about the dangerous journey that undocumented migrants go through to reach the US.
My upcoming book The Princess and the Warrior is based on a legend that explains the origin of two volcanoes on the outskirts of what is now Mexico City, which hundreds of years ago used to be an ancient Aztec City. The story has some similarities to Romeo and Juliet and to Sleeping Beauty but it is set in the Americas in Pre-Columbian times. I try to tell stories that can be appreciated by all but that are specially relevant to Latino children. There is a very small number of books that reflect their culture and their experiences even though there are millions of Latino children in the US.
You are one of the few who does not have an agent and work primarily for Abrams Publishing. I say kudos to you! Not many could do this.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with your journey.
Duncan has many published books and has won many awards. You can visit him at his fun website. I am totally impressed.
Here are a few examples of Duncan's books and work: