Self Portrait, oil on canvas 2001
“You might consider illustrating for magazines in the future”
My elementary art teacher encouraged me with notes such as this on my assignments. At that age, however, I
was more interested in the advice my classmates had to offer: ‘How do you draw so good? It’s not fair. I hate
you!’ These comments were made tongue-in-cheek, and I also received optimistic input, but the negative
caused me to develop a strange desire to hide my creativity in school. In high school, I took only one art class.
My creativity remained at home, and was in danger of becoming just a hobby.
I arrived at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, with a silver trumpet made in Elkhart, Indiana, and I had no
idea what I was going to do with it. I had been very active musically in high school, but I somehow couldn’t see
myself as a professional musician, and at that time, I didn’t want to teach either. Thankfully, I had decided to
tour the art department during my first campus visit. After meeting the professors and discovering what current
students were doing with charcoal and oil paint, I had a clear feeling that my art was going to be more than a
hobby or small scholarship incentive.
Backyards and Bellybuttons
I was raised in a rural farming community with
three siblings and three cousins and fields and
pastures enough to let our imaginations get out
of hand. We built tree houses,swam in murky
creeks, and got into trouble. I began to love
writing, and I wrote about the life I was living. My
stories usually began in my backyard and veered
off into places I wished to go with people I wished
to meet. The tale of a young ballerina named
Main Street Kansas, detail, charcoal on paper, 2001
Pinky Lee Gets Published
My first illustration job came in 2000, illustrating stories for With: The
Magazine for Radical Christian Youth (now defunct). Serious topics, serious
paintings. A couple years later, Carol, the editor, asked me if I did any
cartooning. Up until this time, the humorous side of my art had been
reserved for family and close friends, but I decided to give it a go. After all,
I would be sharing a page with John McPherson of Close To Home fame.
I loved John’s cartoons, so I thought I would create my own one-panel
cartoons about the issues teenagers face, and throw in some hilarious twist.
However, I soon recognized my need for recurring characters to give the
Bookmobiles and A First Book
After college, I worked in the bookmobile department at the Topeka and
Shawnee County Public Library in Topeka, Kansas. In addition to
circulating books and driving bookmobiles, the staff functioned as an
outreach section of the library. This wealth of programming provided an
outlet for my art. I illustrated posters, brochures and other library
publications. More importantly, I began to realize the great artistic quality
of children's books.
While in Topeka, I met L. Kobie Wilkerson, who was a first grade teacher
at the time. He had written several manuscripts and was looking for an
illustrator. We started planning, and in 2005 I began illustrating Fred and
Adventuremobile, drawing for Bookmobile
summer program brochure, 2002
Fast Forward to 2016 . . .
I am currently partnering with Love II Learn Books and Dream Builders University Press. Kobie and I produced Queen Infinity, our second book together, and we anticipate several new books in the coming year(s). Quills, a story of my own, has been published by Herald Press. And, I am working on a follow-up to last year's Malik's BIG Dream, written by LaMarque Ward.
Aaron J. Ratzlaff
Updated January 2016
Books Are Good For. . .
My little brother and I loved to drive on books. We gathered up all the picture books we
had in the house and lined them up end to end in the living room. With our toy cars we
drove over The Cat and his hat and Amelia Bedelia, and parked on Harold’s purple
crayon. This memory marks the first time I really enjoyed spending time with good books.
Sometimes, I would unroll the scroll from one end of the house to the
other, just to see how much I had drawn. It took me about one year to
fill it up, and I was sad . . . until I turned the paper over. In two more
years, I had filled up the other side with ever-increasing detail. This
time I had a plan. With single sheets of 8½ x 11 inch photocopy paper
and glue, I stretched the roll to accommodate my imagination. Today,
I feel like I’m unrolling a great historical document containing the
pictorial history of my imagination. Some of it is quite scary.
Katie Krumpet who loses her belly button down a storm drain is perhaps my favorite.
In my college art classes, I was constantly groping for a subject I couldn’t find. I chose to paint landscapes,
which were challenging, and yet lacking some needed depth. I needed a story to drive my creativity. Reaching
back to my childhood, I found the energy and emotion to create some of my most successful drawings.
Books Are Good For Reading, Too
A good story never gets old. That goes for a good illustration as well. My grandmother read to me and my
siblings the books that she had read to her children when they were young. The pictures seemed to move
along with her expressive voice. Upon arriving at her house, my little legs would sprint me to the toy box where
my left hand would pull out a hammer and peg toy and my right hand would grab Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike
Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.
Infinite Paper & The Imagination of an 8-Year-Old Boy
My dad worked for an electric company. The computer printer in his office used long rolls of paper--like paper
towels, but without the perforations and absorbency. When the company decided to upgrade to a more
modern printer, the long rolls were useless to them . . . but not to me. Dad knew I liked to draw, so he brought
home a roll of the old printer paper. It was long and smooth, almost shiny, and blindingly blank. It was the
longest piece of paper I had ever seen, and it was perfect for drawing trains. The cars could go on for miles,
and they did: over mountain peaks and through monster-infested tunnels. They wove through wild worlds filled
with heroes and villains and ingenious inventions that only an 8-year-old could imagine.
cartoons life—characters with their ownnames, quirks, and family systems. True to form, they began to take on
traits of my friends and family. I even named one of them Pinky Lee after a stuffed animal my sister had.