This Month’s Featured Article

Jim Carroll – Artist. Designer. Illustrator. Author. Dad.

By Published On: November 7th, 2016

By Allison Guertin Marchese |

carrollJim Carroll has spent most of his life creating. Though he says on his website bio that he prefers to be outside playing, his work, which keeps him indoors, includes creating art, designs, illustrations, books, websites, and animations for individuals, not-for-profits, and large corporations. For his efforts, Jim’s uniquely creative art work has been honored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the New York Book Awards, and The Port Authority of NY-NJ, to name just a few. His work has also been exhibited at museums including The Leonardo DaVinci Museum of Art and Technology in Milan, Italy.

The creative process

The creative process is elusive for some, but for Jim Carroll it’s clear, concrete, and simple, “I loved making things as a kid, and I just haven’t stopped,” he said. “I like gluing cardboard, I like the smells of paint, and making things out of wood.”

He feels strongly that the artistic impulse is not unique and that everyone has the power to create. “I make a living making designs and illustrations, but I believe for the most part, we are all creative beings at our core. We were created, and we want to create. The real chalenge is whether we’re able to get through the distractions.”

When I asked him about creativ-ity being universal, he said, “It takes creativity to survive, and sometimes just how to figure out your day, make dinner, make a home, build a building, making lunch for your child, or writing a story. It’s all a natural manifestation of what we want to make as human beings … we want to see the world, play with it, try to explain it, or see what the possibilities are.”

In our interview, Jim offered some thoughts on what the purpose of being creative might be. “I don’t think that can be explained any more than we can explain why we’re here. If we’re alive then I think we want to make things. That may not be making a picture … it might mean laying out a day, or a week, or a conversation … we are constantly creating … that’s what we do. Some folks are trying to simply create good health. It’s all primary and it’s all about making.”

A personal outlook on art

To explain Jim Carroll’s unique outlook on his ideas on making art and creating designs, you first need to imagining a big, beautiful sprawl-ing oak tree.

“I see graphic design, design, illustration, painting, and photog-raphy as all the same creature,” said Jim. “For me, you can direct the art into different aesthetic areas with different intentions; whether it’s for beauty or commerce, I just see them as the same visual creature or plant, like a tree, with different branches.”

In Jim Carroll’s tree branches are some of the most fascinating illustrations you’ll ever find. His technique in making illustrations combines many different elements. “Most of my illustrations are created through a collage. I’ll usually start with traditional drawing and paint-ing methods, pen and ink, gouache or charcoal. Next, I’ll look to nature for the raw materials to ‘paint’ these pictures.”

Jim uses his love of nature, his photography, and his computer skills as a graphic designer to help him pull together various elements creating something that jumps off the page. “I will photograph weathered wood and use that as texture for the image of a tree. Sand with water-dropped spots serve as the main resource for the face of a moon. This all comes together in the liquid environment of Photoshop where the finished work is completed. There are also a few pieces here that were simply done with a brush or pen.”

In approaching a new project Jim said that, “I try to go in with naïveté.” He continued, “I like to make art with no constraints … I don’t know what can happen. Mak-ing a mistake is making something happen. The best things I can do is throw things against the wall, and see what sticks.” He continued, “Sometimes I paint and see what it tells me. By being open to those fortunate mistakes, by playing … I find something that I like … just by engaging and disengaging my mind.”

Though it’s hard to imagine traditional paintings being created on a computer screen, Jim Carroll finds a seamless transition between manipulating an image on a canvas and creating one on a screen. “Painting digitally on a screen is just like painting on a canvas with oils,” he said.

Often Jim will step away from the digital world and grab a brush, “I still paint with ink, oils, and anything. I’m always trying to think about what might look cool in this situation. In my book, Papa’s Backpack, all of the textures are very organic.”

Applying art to design work “I’m not a fine artist,” said Jim. “Fine art is there to ask a lot of questions – that’s the purpose. Graphic design and illustration are there to make something real, make it clear. And though there’s a job to do, I do it in an interesting way, that makes it a joy.”

Joy is always at the basis of Jim’s life and work. Play is essential, he said, “When I have free time I need to bike ride, chase a ball, or I get sick and go crazy. When I make stuff I make a picture usually and I try to play and not know the next step – like a dance – there’s a know-ing and not knowing. If you know too much ahead of time, it’s not exciting.

Art isn’t always the easiest way to make a living so I asked Jim how he does it as a creative person in the field of illustrations and graphic design. “In the past I’ve had to mix that with a lot of other things like carpentry and painting houses,” Jim acknowledged. “I’m able to make a living creating illustrations now working with the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY.”

Jim provides all of the museum’s promotional materials, signage, in-vitations, and design work. It turns out that the two are a great match. “The people I work with give me room to create interesting things. Clients can be constricting or liberating, but the Museum allows me to create some beautiful designs. Though some clients want to tell you what to design and control the work, this group asks me, ‘What do you think, Jim?’”

I asked him how he felt about his art when it doesn’t go well?

Is that frustrating when he’s on deadline? “Design is not always art,” he explained. “It’s not set up to be an expression of yourself, it’s set up to sell an event, or a service,” he said. “It’s clear that some of the best clients appreciate listening to the designer.”

The Louis Armstrong Museum is a good story as far as artist/client relationships go. Jim said, “Some-times it’s about making the client happy and they aren’t interested in pushing the boundaries of visual expression, they just want to show they’ve got a service to provide. You can also nurture a client and help them to push boundaries. In the end it’s a service and it’s a business.”

Art in books

Jim says that he’s still interested in all of those things he loved growing up, especially picture books. “I see that as a perfect device for me be-cause I like the idea of telling stories and doing it visually. This is where my skills and interest are.”

Though writing says Jim, “is not my best talent,” he says he’s tried to improve his skills. “Combining pic-tures and written words have been a real joy for me.”

Jim told me that when his first children’s book, The Boy and the Moon, first published in 2010, he wanted the title to be Midnight, because it was about the begin-ning and the end of an adventure focusing on a child who goes out in the middle of the night dancing and playing in a dream with the creatures. Ironically, another author by the name of Jim Carroll, the punk rock poet who published his famous 1978 memoir, The Basket-ball Diaries (Penguin, 1987), also wrote a book called Midnight. To avoid confusion, the publishers of Jim’s children’s book decided to go with the current title.

Though abandoning his original title was disappointing, Jim still reached his goal of making a picture book, both as an object and as a vehicle for expression. At the start of the book process he said that his third child was born, which initially gave him his inspiration to create a book that was predominantly pic-tures with some text. The result was a story about a small child playing in the world, “having a party,” Jim said.

Since hitting stores in 2010, the book has had great success and outstanding reviews. Amazon read-ers call it, “dreamy, magical, and mesmerizing.” The book’s publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, writes The Boy and the Moon illustrations are “Gorgeous atmospheric paintings that lure readers of all ages into believ-ing that anything can happen – at midnight!”

Papa’s Backpack, A Tribute to the Bond Between a Child and Military Parent, Jim’s second children’s book published in 2015, is a departure from the first. As Jim described it to me, this book is a very personal story dealing with the unsettling circumstances that military families face when a parent suddenly goes off to war leaving a child and re-maining parent home to manage feelings of fear and loss. “It’s not a book that holds up battle and con-flict as something to be considered noble,” Jim explained. “It’s more about separation for the parent and child – real and dangerous – and this starts a conversation about a parent saying, ‘I’m with you.’”

Jim’s publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, describes it this way, “Papa’s Backpack honors the bond between a parent/soldier and a child, and acknowledges the difficult and emotional process of separation during deployment. A young bear cub dreams of accompanying Papa when he leaves on a mission, wanting to stay close to provide comfort and moral support, ultimately overcom-ing adversity together.”

Jim said that he grew up at a time when the Vietnam war was on the nightly news. “I watched the war every night and saw guys that were muddy and bloody, and I believed that that could be my job someday, trying not to die, and it haunted me.”

Ultimately he never did have to face the draft or go to war. Jim said, “I kind of hid between the wars. I got to stay home.” Despite his good luck, he was never quite able to shake loose the sadness he imagined children were dealing with when a parent went off to battle. “This book was my way of thanking those who had to leave their kids and to try to fill the void,” he said.

Goodreads website gives Jim’s heartfelt book, Papa’s Backpack, a rare 95% rating. It is also a book that is featured on blogs like Books That Heal Kids. On freelibrary. com, they have this to say: “Papa’s Backpack is a terribly touching, beautifully illustrated book about a little bear whose Papa has to go away to be a soldier. Wanting to go along, the bear child imagines himself in his Papa’s backpack, safe together through the scary wartime journey experience. Realizing he cannot really go, but wanting to stay close to his Papa, the little bear makes a bear doll just like himself to go in his Papa’s backpack. A sensitive poetry narrative accompanies tenderly expressive bear family portraits in a layered, contemporary style to complete this helpful book for children of all ages who experi-ence separation from a parent for military service.”

On the horizon

In the moment, Jim Carroll is working on a book about music. It is another children’s picture book which is being presented to publish-ers in the next six months. Though Jim didn’t reveal the details of this new project, no doubt it will be a book that stimulates the mind and the heart as Jim’s first two books have so magically done. And no doubt the new book will also be playful because it is from the author who says that on any given day, he would rather be outside, riding his bike.

To learn more about Jim Carroll, please visit