Illustrator Spotlight: Marlena Myles

© Marlena Myles

Aug. 16, 2019

We are pleased to feature Native American artist and illustrator Marlena Myles and her debut picture book, THANKU: POEMS OF GRATITUDE, a poetry anthology edited by Miranda Paul (Lerner Books/ Millbrook Sept. 3, 2019), featuring poems on the theme of thankfulness by a group of diverse poets including Joseph Bruchac, Margarita Engle, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charlie Waters, and Jane Yolen.  Header illustration: Hanwi/ Dakota Moon Spirit 

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Tells us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

I grew up creating digital art when I was 13, which was 20 years ago! The programs and technology was a lot more primitive and slow (think drawing with a mouse in MS Paint and dial-up internet). One of my favorite artists is Andy Warhol and he’s actually one of the first digital artists, creating on even earlier technology.

Zitkála-Šá & the Sun Dance Opera © Marlena Myles

Saturated colors is one of the trademarks of my work; I wasn’t intentionally trying to illustrate for children, but at my first art market, I became aware of how attracted kids were to my art organically on their own. That made me want to combine a couple of my passions (teaching and art) to pass on important lessons to young people using my art.

Congrats on your debut picture book, THANKU: POEMS OF GRATITUDE. Tell us about your research and planning process as you illustrated the poems.

I wanted to create art that kids would love and want to pick out on their own, so I changed the style a little bit from my art that I sell at art markets. Even though it was naturally appealing to kids, I thought I could make it even more so. Working on the various topics expressed in the poetry, I thought about the feelings and environment I could create with the color palettes -- I definitely didn’t want to use the same colors throughout the book. Also, it was a fun challenge thinking of ways to match the spreads on poems that had such different themes from each other.

How does being a Native American artist and designer influence your work?

I am from the Spirit Lake Tribe of Dakota people and traditionally, we used art to help tell our stories before having a written language. I use that thoughtfulness of symbols and colors to add more layers to the artwork, even if in a subtle way. I think some of it may come across subconsciously. For example, the cover of the book features a child blowing the seeds off a dandelion. My thought process was the different life experiences of the poems are the wind that carries the seeds, which are symbols of the children who will read the book. I give thanks for the inspiration I get from children and their pure reactions of creating and looking at art.

Anpétu Wí/ Dakota Sun Spirit © Marlena Myles

The work I have been creating before (and after) THANKU are pieces that make indigenous philosophies and knowledge more accessible to the viewers. I love to do research and what I learn, I try to impart as an artwork to continue the oral traditions of my tribe.

What is your preferred medium/ illustration process?  

My preferred medium is digital art created in Adobe Illustrator. I have been experimenting in a couple of other programs such as Affinity Design that is a combination of Procreate, Photoshop and Illustrator and Rebelle 3, which creates realistic watercolor paintings (for the days that I just want to experiment without using my expensive paints). My art created in Illustrator consists of hundreds of simple shapes and gradients -- I have a process video which shows what I do better than I could ever explain with words:

What projects are you working on now?

Currently I am working on a Dakota language and culture coloring book. Nothing of the sort exists and I want to give something beautiful, useful and meaningful to future generations.

Wičháyažipa Hiŋšmá Naǧi/ Bumblee Spirit © Marlena Myles

I am also completing an art project that focuses on Hemnican/Barn Bluff for the city of Red Wing, MN that highlights all the Dakota history of the sacred location. It project will include indigenous floral work, art that explains the power of the thunder beings (Wakinyan), highlights Thoreau’s visit to the bluff and the appreciation he had of the indigenous plants. There will also be a Dakota landmap that includes the past and current names of the area in Dakota, so people can understand the history of the land they live on. I completed a map for the Minneapolis-St Paul area that has been hugely successful and I want to continue building on that indigenous place names and history.

Dakhóta Thamákhočhe/ Dakota Land Map © Marlena Myles

What advice would you give to artists who want to break into children's publishing?

My advice is to start telling people about your goals of being a children’s book illustrator. Then put together a portfolio, a resume and develop an online presence so you can be found by those looking for whatever type of artist you consider yourself.

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I study philosophy and neurology for fun. :)

Mahtó Naǧí /Bear Spirit © Marlena Myles

Where can people find you online?

Marlena Myles (Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee) is a Native American artist located in St Paul, Minnesota. She uses her art to celebrate her Indigenous culture & language as well as helping the public understand the significance of Native oral traditions and history and its representation through Native art.  Her art continues the importance of the Dakota philosophy Mitakuye Owasin (We Are All Related) and with this understanding, we can heal the planet and our communities through positive actions and reflections.

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  1. Your art is just stunning!!! Thank you so much for sharing it. I’ll be crossing my fingers for
    Luck this time!!! 😊

  2. Such gorgeous, colorful art! I can see why children are fascinated. I can't wait to read this book. Congratulations!

  3. Your art is beautiful! Congratulations!

  4. Always such a relevant subject. Beautiful cover.

  5. Gorgeous! Very excited to see this anthology.

  6. I love your use of symbols and colors! And your maps - what wonderful projects for a giving us all a better sense of history and the significance of place.

  7. I love the saturated colors and beautiful designs in your art. Thank you for sharing your influences and journey with us.

  8. This art style is wonderful and I love learning about how other artists approach their work.

  9. What a beautiful cover and idea for a book.

  10. I love your artwork, Marlena. I started following on social media a couple of months ago. xo from another Minnesotan!


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