Interview with Artist/Illustrator Susie Ghahremani

Photos: Suzie Strong

Susie Ghahremani Paintings

The work of San Diego based artist and illustrator Susie Ghahremani perfectly captures the charms of the world with childlike innocence and wonder. Her impossibly adorable style has landed her big-name clients of the likes of Chronicle Books, Bloomsbury USA, Bank of America, Target, T-Mobile, and The New York Times, and she has been the recipient of awards and recognition by American Illustration, Alt*Pick, Giant Robot’s artist of the year and Venus Magazine’s Best DIY business. Her hard work and success does not stop there. Susie also crafts and develops her own line of stationery and gift items under the pseudonym Boygirlparty, exhibits her paintings internationally and recently celebrated the release of her first picture book, ‘What Will Hatch?‘ written by Jennifer Ward.

CS: Your work has a very consistent style. How hard was it for you to arrive at it? Did it come naturally, or was it an evolved process?

SG: I think it was a natural development, but I resisted it for the longest time because my tastes in art as a collector myself are different, and I was trained in traditional drawing and painting techniques (at Interlochen, RISD, etc). The evolution to my particular style came in trusting what I’d do naturally, rather than forcing it to be something conventional. Using colors I like rather than the ones that are realistic. I think I’m always refining my work and style as well, so it’s an ongoing evolution.

CS: What is the typical process involved in creating one of your works?

SG: It varies – sometimes I have a little sketch in my sketchbook that is the perfect fit for a painting, so I’ll just jump right in to the foreground and fill in the background as I work. Other times, very precise sketches are completed and I transfer them in chalk to wood to paint compositionally. Other times, I’m just winging it as I work, beginning with a background. I primarily paint in gouache on wood. Yes, all those complicated little patterns are hand painted one by one.

Susie Ghahremani Portrait

CS: You live in San Diego, which is a beautiful city, but not one most people associate with an art scene. Is there an art scene there? Do you consider yourself a part of it?

SG: If there’s an art scene here, I’m really not aware of it! I’d say it’s one of the very few drawbacks to living in this beautiful, relaxed city. I put a lot of pressure on myself to generate work, to work hard and long hours, and I think I would lose my mind if I lived in a place like NYC. The external serenity of San Diego balances out my internal pressures and allows me to not worry about what other people might be doing or saying.

CS: As New York, San Francisco, LA and other cities become more and more unaffordable for artists to live in, many are looking for alternative places to live. Do you think they should consider San Diego? Do you think it is relatively affordable?

SG: San Diego is expensive. Most of the people who live here are retired, wealthy or in the military. It was a weird choice we made to move here– initially it was supposed to be temporary, but there’s something that was just magic about it and kept my husband and me here for nearly 9 years now. I’d love it if more artists lived here so I’d have more company, but I’m not sure affordability should be the incentive! Come for the beach, stay for the ever present Mexican food and margaritas with Susie.

Susie Ghahremani "What Will Hatch?"

CS: You sell your work under the name Boygirlparty? How did you arrive at that name and what does it mean to you?

SG: I began using the name boygirlparty around 2000 – initially as a name for my music solo project (now called Snoozer). I have an impossible to spell (for most) name, and wanted to find a word that had the energy and impression I was hoping for. A boygirlparty is the first party you go to as a kid that has a mysterious element to it — boys and girls are both there, and you have no idea. what is in store. That mystery, that excitement and the whimsied innocence is why I’ve held on to the name for all these years. I hope it matches the feeling of my work.

CS: You graduated from RISD with a degree in illustration in 2002 and recently returned to teach a class there. What was it like going back to your alma mater to teach? What class did you teach?

SG: I loved it, but it definitely takes mental adjustment to think of myself as the teacher and not a peer in an environment that is so familiar to me! Being back at RISD was and is amazing. It is such a creatively charged environment. I wrote and taught a course called “Creating a Printed Collection,” intended to help students develop their concepts dynamically and as part of a larger body of work. Rather than creating images one-by-one, the focus was to develop a collection that presents a unified concept across multiple images. I also helped them navigate foreign printing processes to learn technical aspects of production of their work (i.e. CMYK vs RGB) so their reproductions can be as controlled and true to their intentions as their original pieces.

Susie Ghahremani Paintings

CS: How much are you able to divide your time between commissioned work and personal work?

SG: I try to keep the scales even on this one. If I’m working on a solo show, personal work weighs heavier, and if I’m working on a book, commissioned work dominates. I feel most satisfied when there is some balance, though.

CS: If money wasn’t an issue, would you just make personal work, or is there some specific satisfaction you find from translating someone else’s concept into an image?

SG: I love this question! I think it’s important to acknowledge that I don’t think many people land in a career in art for the money at all! I love having diversity of projects. I’m happiest when I have lots of different types of projects, and I think prompted work feeds my personal work anyway.

I’m a problem solver, I naturally jump in to situations I can help in, and I do crosswords and other types of puzzles all the time. Editorial work (i.e. illustrating magazine articles) is like a visual puzzle for me. I love the challenge of finding visual ways to express complicated concepts. Some of my best work has been created in response to articles I had to illustrate. And I love reading, so editorial work will always appeal to me as an artist and human both.

Thankfully not too much of the work has revolved around just carrying out someone else’s visual direction or illustrating concepts someone else had for me. I think if that were the case, I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

CS: How did you go about getting your first clients after school?

SG: I had created my website, and people just seemed to find it! And I sent out a small postcard to a very targeted list of people I admired. It was simple then and it’s much more complicated now, but the gist is, they just seemed to find me then, and they still do.

CS: You are now a very successful illustrator. Do you have an agent? If not, do your clients generally come to you at this point, or do you seek them out?

SG: Gosh, thanks! I just this week signed with a literary agent Stefanie Von Borstel (10 years after I created the logo for her agency!) Clients generally come to me. I’m a terrible self-marketer.

Susie Ghahremani Studio Books

CS: Do you have any advice for hopeful illustrators on how to break into the business?

SG: Say yes a lot, but respect your own copyright and rights at the same time. Take jobs that you want, not the ones you think you should want.

CS: What are some recent projects you are most proud of?

SG: I have an illustration coming out in next month’s Rhode Island Monthly magazine that I think is one of my best ever, and just did an info-graphic for start-up Spire, Inc.! I just finished my role as board member for ICON the Illustration Conference where I co-organized and ran a huge pop up show for over 65 artists, a fine art show for over 70, a curated bookstore, produced several workshops, produced several main stage speakers, and so much more – it all turned out perfectly. So I am now recharging with some much needed rest before jumping into the next series of projects and events!

CS: What upcoming projects/shows are you most excited about?

SG: I’ll be exhibiting my work at Art Expo SD during Comic Con – July 24 – 26th at the Wonderbread Factory with my good friends Esther Pearl Watson and Mark Todd. Also, I’m currently the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Artist of the Month! I’ll be in a SCBWI art show in collaboration with the City of Carlsbad showing some of my paintings from my picture book “What Will Hatch” this fall. I’m excited about all of it!

See more of Susie’s work on her website.