What Matters to Lane Smith

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Lane Smith has illustrated around fifty children’s books over the last 30+ years. He worked hard on every single one. He believes some turned out okay.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

In no particular order:

Drawing and painting alone in my studio, sometimes with music, sometimes in complete silence.

Doing anything with my wife Molly. Even going to the DMV.

Spending quality time with our dog Jojo and cat Lulu. I mean, really concentrating on wriggling a string for Lulu or waiting patiently, for as long as it takes, while Jojo smells a rock.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I can never remember a time when I didn’t draw. But a turning point came when I was around seven years old. My uncle Orlin was visiting. He looked at my doodles then held them up for my parents and said, “He’s really good.” My parents sort of nodded back but it hit me then that maybe drawing could be something other than a silly diversion for myself.

What is your biggest regret?

I’m not going to talk about that here. That would become another regret.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

My heart broke when my mom died. Everyone says, it mends with time. It doesn’t.

What makes you cry?

Mostly happy things. Molly and I will be watching a movie where a hundred soldiers have been slaughtered and death and destruction is raining down on everyone. Meh. Then a soldier’s long-lost dog arrives at the door. Molly looks at me with a double-take: “Are you crying?”

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

I am happiest when writing and illustrating a book, everything is rosy, the future is all promise. Then the book pubs and regardless of the critical or commercial outcome, good or bad, I go into a kind of depression. I immediately move on to the next project. Only years later will I revisit the book. That’s when I become very proud and glad that I made it.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

My answer is a sidebar to the last answer. No, I do not believe in an afterlife. What I do believe in is the art we all create. It will live after we are gone. Even if all of my books are out of print there will be at least one copy in a dusty box somewhere that a kid might one day stumble upon to have a laugh over or be touched by.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I tend to obsess. I will get up in the middle of the night to scribble a note or to tweak a drawing. Also, I think I have a bit of OCD because I am always drawing my lines ruler-straight or making the circle of an eyeball or sun or moon perfectly round. I have to remind myself to stop that. Later I go back into the art to erase the perfectly round moon and redraw it as a spontaneous lopsided thing. It always looks better.

What do you love most about yourself?

I wouldn’t say I love this about myself, actually, it’s annoying: I am very optimistic about pretty much everything. I did a book called Stickler Loves the World about a joyous optimist. That’s basically me. The other day I was walking my ninety-year-old mother-in-law. Her right arm was holding onto mine as her left tapped the ground with a cane. I pointed out to her how puffy the clouds were, how blue the sky was. “What a perfect day!” I said. A flock of birds flew overhead. “Look at that! Wow!” I said, and again I couldn’t help announcing that the day was perfect. Without looking up she said, “If you say that one more time I am going to hit you with this cane.”

What is your absolute favorite meal?

I am a terrible cook. My wife is an amazing cook and I am happiest when, instead of going out, she says, “I think I will cook tonight.” All of her meals are my favorites.

That aside, nothing beats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take you back to when you were a kid. Some days I’ll make one (with Jif, always Jif) and childhood memories of munching on a PB&J and doodling on a sketchpad flood over me.

(I should sigh heavily now and describe this feeling out loud. But I don’t want to get hit by a cane.)

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