After graduating from high school, John Holyfield decided on a graphic design major at Howard University, because it had been drummed into his head for so long that being a graphic artist was the only way he could make money as an artist. While in college, working at an art supply store, he brought in some sketches he had done to show to the other employees at the shop. They were so impressed with his work, they suggested he send it out. As luck would have it, one of the recipients wanted to publish his images as lithographic prints. Holyfield has been painting ever since.
Having worked as a professional artist, creating and selling his oil paintings and lithographs of those images for the past 12 years, Holyfield welcomed the opportunity to work on his first book for children. "The idea to illustrate a children's book had always been in the back of my head," he says. "I've always wanted to illustrate books with story lines my two sons would like."
According to Holyfield, Ethel Footman Smothers, author of The Hard-Times Jar (FSG/Foster) sought him out to illustrate her manuscript. "She had seen my prints and thought the imagery fit in with her story," he says. "I really liked the story and we took it from there."
Holyfield worked with editor Frances Foster on the picture book, through a process he calls "relatively painless." "She gave me free reign to do what I wanted to do," he says. "Even with early sketches, she could see that I captured what she and the author both wanted."
Holyfield says he was inspired early on as a child by the work of Norman Rockwell and Ernie Barnes. "Rockwell's work is very narrative," he says. "You can just let your imagination go with his pieces." As for Barnes, the illustrator remembers watching the television sitcom Good Times as a youngster and being drawn to the closing image of a mural of all the characters; "I saw Ernie Barnes's name as the credits rolled," he recalls, "and saw that he was the artist who painted the mural. I think my style is a lot like his. I didn't set out to copy his style; it all came about subconsciously."
Holyfield describes his own style as having an old, southern feel to it. "I've been at signings where people come in and look at me, then look over me, trying to find the artist who did the paintings. They are looking for someone much older than myself. They don't believe it's me." While in his artwork he focuses on the African-American experience with themes of family, music and spirituality, Holyfield finds that all races enjoy his work.
For The Hard-Times Jar, Holyfield painted on canvas with acrylics; he says he deliberately did not paint features on characters who aren't the center of attention on the page, because "they are the supporting cast. I wanted Emma, the main character, to be the focus," he says.
He admits that he wasn't sure how critics and readers would see the book. "I've come to know how people will react to my paintings, but I had no idea how this book would be received. So far I've had a few reviews and everything has been favorable. It's really nice to see that. [The whole experience] has been a real treat."
While Holyfield does not currently have another book project in the works, he does say that the publication of this first book has changed his life. "It's finally validated my artistic life with my sons," he says. "They now have something to take to school with them."