Joe Mathieu has illustrated more than 100 children’s books and has created thousands of illustrations for Sesame Street books and other products.
Joe Mathieu has illustrated more than 100 children’s book and has created thousands of illustrations for Sesame Street books and other products.
He is the illustrator for children’s books based on absent-minded grade school teacher Mrs. Millie. In 2005, “Don’t Be Silly, Mrs. Millie,” was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 10 best children’s books of the year.
Q. How did you first discover your passion for art?
A. I started drawing when I was 3; my parents were very encouraging. I started doing Disney characters for my kindergarten class. I was constantly drawing as a child. I was a cartoonist for the Marianapolis school paper. I drew tons of cartoons and I had a ball doing it.
Q. When did you decide to go to art school?
A. There were no art classes at Marianapolis (Preparatory School in Thompson, Conn.), no art at all, only a one-person art department. So I caricatured students, teachers, everyone. I got better and better and I would absolutely flood the paper. The articles would fill the spaces between my drawings. The paper won an art award, and I decided to pursue art.
Q. How did you begin illustrating as a career?
A. There wasn’t really employment for illustrators after graduation. I’ve been self-employed as a freelancer since I got out of school. I spent the year following graduation building up my portfolio. Then I went to New York City and I was scared to death. Sesame Street was just starting and wanted someone young and new to set the style for their books, that’s how I ended up at Random House. That led to Jim Henson and the Muppets, and then we really got going, I couldn’t believe how fast.
Q .What do you enjoy about doing Sesame Street and children’s art?
A. Sesame Street considered my stuff young and hip at the time, and I looked urbane, although I came from a little town in northeastern Connecticut. Originally, Sesame Street was all about the inner city and ethnic neighborhoods. It was conceived to teach inner-city kids how to read. They created a diverse neighborhood where the characters were all friends. It was targeted to inner-city kids, but everyone loved it and it expanded its curriculum. It was nice to be there at the beginning and learn each step.
Q. How did you get involved with the Muppets?
A. Sesame Street was very much tied in with them. Jim Henson was the art director — he sat down with me and explained to me what he wanted. He gave me free rein to watch the show being taped, which I did a million times. I had carte blanche to visit the Muppet morgue — literally a morgue of old Muppet puppets. I watched how personality was breathed into the puppets by the puppeteers. I used to go to the show tapings, alone for the most part, and sit there and sketch. We didn’t have a color TV, no tape machines. I had to draw in real time.
Page 2 of 3 - Q. What are some of your favorite works and proudest achievements?
A. “Big Joe’s Trailer Truck” was by first big solo thing. I’m an illustrator and I had an opportunity to write a book. I never wrote a book before, but I guess I was just hot because of my association to Sesame Street. I didn’t have a lot of time to make up a town, so I just drew the town I lived in. I didn’t think everyone would recognize it, but they did. That really took off, it was translated into a dozen languages, which I never dreamed of. That was my big hit. I had so many opportunities to work with great writers. I even did a couple of Dr. Seuss books.
Q. How did you begin doing artwork for jazz bands?
A. I’m a big fan of ’20s and ’30s jazz. A new label came out in the ’80s called Stomp-off. I called them after their first two recordings came out and just started doing covers. It was a nice opportunity to meet my favorite musicians. I think it breaks it up for me. An album cover is a one-shot deal, it gave me an opportunity to experiment.
Q. After working traditionally for so long, what was the change to digital like?
A. I fought it every inch of the way. Talk about getting out of your comfort zone — I couldn’t even send an e-mail. I tried everything I could to trick people, but the fact of the matter is, if it’s on paper, the young art directors didn’t want to see it. They’d never seen paper art before. They wanted to do changes on finished art, which for years was sacred. You had to make changes in the sketch phase. There was no way an illustrator could compete without working in digital. The rules had changed dramatically overnight. It became harder to find good paper and paints. Paints I used since the ’60s, (and) the companies, went out of business. I had completely embraced digital work, I never wanted to see a bowl and brush again. I never wanted to go back to all those limitations.
Q. What medium do you prefer to work in now?
A. I have to be ready to do either one. It’s a different look, for certain things the traditional way is more appropriate. You can do a really beautiful book traditionally for a few that can afford it. But the mass market is there for kids like we started catering to with Sesame Street. I can still do my very best work digitally, and the book can be treated more casually. I like doing both. In the end, traditional style has a certain depth, softness, subtlety that’s not quite in the digital world.
Page 3 of 3 - Norwich Bulletin
Get to know Joe
Name: Joe Mathieu
Hometown: Grew up in Putnam, Conn., lives in Hudson, Mass.
Occupation: Children’s book illustrator
Education: Graduate of Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson; 1971 graduate of Rhode Island School of Design.