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An artist paints a new life through his books ©
For years, 30-year-old illustrator
Chris Soentpiet longed for an opportunity to compensate for the
life he missed out on during his childhood. When the native Korean
was 6, his mother succumbed to cancer, and almost exactly a year
later his father was killed in an auto accident. Two years after
that, the boy and his 12-year-old sister were transplanted from
Seoul, Korea, to Hawaii, where neither his adoptive English-speaking
Indonesian father and Irish/German mother understood his language
nor he theirs. Taking their four other children and the two Korean
orphans, the couple moved to Oregon.
After feeling at sea for two decades, in the past seven years he
has seen the publication of 13 books containing his award-winning
watercolors. Two of them, "Momma, Where Are You From?"
and "Where Is Grandpa?" were released recently, and two
additional volumes are scheduled for the fall.
But no one can say Soentpiet's career was handed to him on a golden
palette. When he was a senior in high school in Oregon, his art
teacher helped him obtain a scholarship to Pratt Institute. The
talented but dispirited student was required to uproot himself and
relocate again, this time alone, to Brooklyn, working part time
for a construction firm to finance his living expenses while attending
Disgruntled by his commercial-art major at Pratt, he decided to
show his portfolio to a guest lecturer who was an illustrator of
children's books. Ted Lewin encouraged him to pursue a similar course.
"As soon as he said it, I knew this was my calling, that this
was something I want to do for the rest of my life," Soentpiet
But a dean objected to the switch. "He said I'm not going to
make any money in children's books, nor will I be guaranteed a job,
that I would have a better chance in commercial art. I didn't follow
his advice, but later I found out he was right," Soentpiet
"I lived on instant noodle soup for a long time until I got
somewhere. But I also learned that when you really want something,
you have to discipline yourself and go for it, no matter how difficult."
In 1992, after graduating from Pratt with a bachelor's degree in
fine arts, his ambitions were thwarted by 10 publishers rejecting
"I began to regret that I didn't listen to the dean,"
he recalls, "but I thought I'll try one more." The next
prospect opened its doors wide enough to publish his first book,
"Around Town" (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994), about
what young people can achieve on a summer weekend, which he both
wrote and illustrated.
Now that his work has won acceptance, Soentpiet selects carefully
from among the manuscripts he receives from publishers. He chooses
to illustrate only those that depict juveniles in a well-defined
ethnic and historical setting. "We have to know who we are.
It's very nice to come to America and assimilate, but immigrant
kids should not forget where they came from, because they can learn
from their history and from the past," he says, alluding to
his own desire to recapture his past.
"Chris has everything going for him," says Lewin now.
"When I first met him, I saw from the illustrations in his
portfolio that they belonged in children's books. I told him, 'Take
this work and go that way with it.' He listened to me, and the rest
is history." A story that depicts human struggle is another
prerequisite that affects Soentpiet's choices. He accepts books
such as "More Than Anything Else," in which Booker T.
Washington is deprived of a formal education in the 1800s, when
there were no schools for black children. "It is remarkable
what he became as a grown-up," Soentpiet says of Washington.
The illustrator says he has declined at least a dozen proposals
that didn't meet his criteria. When he agrees to illustrate a book,
before he sets brush to paper, he invests considerable time in research,
even traveling abroad to get a better flavor of the history of the
country and period.
As his fame spreads, the artist has been invited to an increasing
number of schools to demonstrate his skills and promote art appreciation.
"It is good for the kids and a way for me to affect an entire
school in one day," he says, adding that he speaks to about
500 children per school about 30 times a year. "If I can make
a connection between why I chose to do this sort of thing, this
is probably the deepest reason. I would like to have lived some
of the activities I illustrate. "
--By Sorah Shapiro
Sorah Shapiro is a freelance writer
Newsday Photo / Moises Saman .