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-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!

6.29.2014

A Conversation with Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson
Cheryl Johnson is a life-long Mainer and the author/illustrator of several picture books, most of which feature Mish, a talking mushroom, including Mish the Mushroom Man, Mish's Winter Celebration, and The Three Mishkateers and Dot.

She does everything herself, including her own marketing, which has taken her down a rather strange path of late... 


LOANS, CANCER AND PICTURE BOOKS

If I am understanding you correctly, you are currently dressed up as a giant mushroom, walking about Portland, ME, trying to sell copies of your picture books?

I did it for four hours today and got a lot of attention - and a lot of strange looks! But I did make a couple of sales. It's pretty hard on the neck – the mushroom cap is heavy - but I intend on doing this until October of this year, or whenever my outrageous student loans are paid off-whichever comes first.

Having a student loan debt which has risen to $90,000 dollars is making me very desperate.

At 38 I started art college...oh my goodness...big mistake, that! I graduated with $38,000 of debt and the interest has driven it up to $90,000 - by this time next year, it will certainly be $100,000. The interest rate is 9 ¾% and there is just no way I can make over $750 dollars in payments every month until I'm 90! I owe so much money now, it's destroyed my security and my credit.

Was art college necessarily a complete mistake?

I loved it. I went to MECA from 1993-2000 and was on the dean's list for most of it. But I made no meaningful, long-lasting contacts that furthered my art career. They didn't even offer illustration at all back then, so I had to take oil painting as a major.

I thought I'd be able to teach art after I got my BFA and found out that nope, I needed $30,000 more to get my masters or teaching certificate. Crum!

I had to find jobs immediately to pay my mortgage and support myself and the two children who were still at home. Then I was diagnosed with cancer! Go figure!

Wow. It's like you're the Breaking Bad of the picture book world.

Cancer, the cause primarily of all my financial woes, is something I live with every day. I had breast cancer, diagnosed less than 6 months after I graduated, so I took two back-to-back deferments to figure out what I was going to do. I had two sons still at home -12 and 14 - and I was a single parent. I watched my mom die in less than two years of fighting cancer, you know: chemo, radiation and surgery... over and over and she still died a miserable death.

The oncologists gave me a 50% chance of survival if I did their chemo and radiation. The odds were not good enough so I opted instead to find less destructive ways to cure myself. I found a book here in Bridgton by a woman named Hulda Regher Clark called The Cure For All Cancers. 14 years later I'm still here.

Sidley's Story
From Sidley's Story
The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot

The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot

TALKING MUSHROOMS AND SELF-PUBLISHING

So you only published your first book last year? What have you been doing artistically for all those years previous?

As a teenager, it's all I did, hours and hours every day. But raising four children and working minimum-wage grunt jobs in order to survive, I didn't have the time or the energy to pursue my real passion.

At the moment I work for Stave Puzzles, located in Norwich, Vermont. They are wonderful people and I have loved working for them, but I cannot make a decent living working for them, as a freelance and someone who does not do my own cutting, I have to wait for a person to cut my designs, test them and get back to me.

The process is slow as molasses and doesn't pay me for many hours of work. Last year I made about $3,000,including the royalties. My best year was about $8,000, still not enough to begin to pay my bills. It's very technical drawing, I have to stick to a strict criteria.

I'd rather draw children's books.There are 6 so far-since last October. I am working on 2 more.

Why a mushroom? Where did the idea for Mish come from?

I really have no idea. When people ask me that, I've started responding "Why not?" I mean....Sponge Bob Squarepants? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Mish is just...well...Mish. I have a glass mushroom bank on my bureau that I've had since I was about 8 years old… maybe that's where I got the initial idea.

Mish


Did you immediately go the self-publishing route?

I always wanted to publish books but I never had a clue what to do. I had written Mish years ago and I sent it out to about twelve different publishing houses. Not even a personal rejection, just form-letters saying thanks, not interested.

I then contacted a vanity-press publishing house who said they liked my story and were willing to pay for part of the initial printing and also market it, but they wanted one of their house artists to draw the cover and they wouldn't do the first printing in color. The premise of that story is color!

I'm a bit territorial about my art.

Self publishing seems to be the answer at present. There is no start-up money involved, Createspace even issues the ISBN freehand all I have to do is create!!! Awesome!

I am praying that someday a national company will pick me up. I wonder how many books I'll have to sell before someone notices? I've sold about 600 so far, since October.


Cheryl Johnson
A young fan approaches...
Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

ON THE STREET

Between being on the street and working various jobs, how do you find the time and energy to create?

When I'm pressing to finish a book, I draw day and night. It's not unusual to devote 15 hours a day to drawing. I get up and stretch often, walk three miles every day, that's when new stories come to me. I don't really know where I find the energy sometimes, except that I just feel compelled to keep at it.

My children - once a major distraction - and working minimum wage exhausting jobs both kept me from doing much creating before. Now I have more me time. I'm 59. If I don't do "my thing" now, when am I? At 80?

My neck and back start hurting towards the end of a couple 15 hour days but I work through it. I am in a creative headspace 24/7 so no, it's not hard to get back to it. When I'm not doing my thing, I have withdrawal.

What has been your approach, being out on the street?

When I was dressed as Mish last Wednesday in Monument Square, I just stood by my cart and smiled a lot, waved if people looked my way. Many people were curious enough to come right up to me and ask, "What is going on?!" So I got to tell my story over and over.

People took lots of pictures of me and asked if their kids could stand beside me.

Has it given you a different view of Portland?

I sit on my little mushroom stool these past few days, observing the people walking by, sitting on benches... Yesterday, a girl with a hula hoop did her act in front of the monument, it was very cool.

To me, it's like being in a free-form impressionist moving picture, the colors and forms changing continually and over lapping into each other.

I love Portland, as a city. Lots of good energy there.

What advice would you have for a young artist contemplating art school?

Have rich parents.

For myself, I'm hoping I get to hang around the planet a few more years so I can give back to the universe a little more.


For more information about Cheryl, please visit her website, Mish and Friends.

She also has a GoFundMe page!

Cheryl Johnson

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.

1 comment:

  1. I meet Cheryl through a friend, a wonderful person with a never ending smile. Little did I know her life's journey. I had the privilege to watch Cheryl illustrate her first book, as she shared them with her friends. I meet Cheryl at a book signing at Bridgton Library I purchased two books for my granddaughter for Christmas. She loved them she reads them to her cousins and the children she babysits. Wonderful stories with fun and life's lessons.

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