Eileen Ryan Ewen is a Catholic illustrator and the artist behind Word on Fire Spark’s latest release, Bless the Lord. She lives in Ohio with her husband, four children, and three cats. Haley Stewart, Editor of Word on Fire Spark (Word on Fire’s children’s imprint) interviewed her about her faith, her journey as an artist, and this new book project.
Eileen, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? Tell us about your family!
Though I was born in Virginia and have lived in St. Louis and Chicago as an adult, my current home of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is actually where I grew up. It is a wonderful, eclectic place full of memories, friends, family, and a cast of characters I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I live with my husband and four kids, ages ten through sixteen. My oldest is a boy, followed by three girls—so he’s well-versed in Taylor Swift songs. We also have three cats named after Addams Family characters. Pugsley the cat is a lot like Pugsley the character.
What’s your religious background? Did you grow up in the faith?
I’m a cradle Catholic, born from two cradle Catholics. My father was even a Franciscan friar for several years and studied at seminary before deciding that he was not called to be a priest. Our faith was always very central to our lives. Not only did my siblings and I attend Catholic schools and weekly Mass, but discussions about religion were common. My parents always welcomed questions, encouraged us to think deeply and look widely at all sides, and shared the beauty of the Church’s teachings. I think because of this, I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty and nuances of the Church and the beauty and nuances of human nature. Today, my kids attend (or have graduated from) the same parish school I went to, and my eldest daughter is a freshman at the same Ursuline high school I attended.
Have you always been an artist? What was your journey to becoming a professional artist like?
Yes! The art bug definitely runs in my family.
When I was in fourth grade, I wrote and illustrated a little story I made up on a rainy day. My teacher saw it and said I should submit it to the school’s literary journal. I did and ended up winning second place out of the entire school. It dawned on me that people make books for a living, and I knew then that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
I was lucky to attend a high school with an excellent studio art program. From there, I majored in painting at Miami University. Following college, I knew I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but wasn’t quite sure how to break in.
It was after my youngest daughter was born, probably at the busiest and most sleep-deprived moment in my life, that I decided it was time to finally get into kids’ books. It was probably a blessing to have such little time because I couldn’t explore a million different illustration styles or dabble with oil paints. Instead, I taught myself watercolor painting and stuck with that. In fact, my first book contract was the result of an illustration postcard with an illustration of my family on the front that I sent to art directors at a publishing house.
Ever since that first book, I’ve continued to illustrate children’s books and am always trying to grow and learn as an artist. I honestly feel I am one of the luckiest people to get to do what I love, with the people I love, every day.
What were the books that really captured your imagination as a child?
There was an old Legends of King Arthur in my house. I can’t recall the edition, but it was well worn and gorgeously illustrated. My siblings and I all recall being enamored with it, primarily because of the illustrations and getting lost in its pages. Another book from my early childhood was The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola. I received it for my First Communion. Both of my parents loved the illustrations as well as the story. Seeing adults so invested in children’s books, appreciating both story and art and picking books for their children that appealed to them as well (not just blindly picking something off the shelf), has made an impact on me both as a book creator and as a parent.
As an older child, Jane Eyre, Where the Red Fern Grows, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were my favorites that I read over and over. I remember wishing they were illustrated!
How do you understand your calling as an artist in relation to your Catholic faith?
Art and faith have often intertwined for me, even when I didn’t recognize it at the time. Twelve years of Catholic school and teachers reminding us that our talents are gifts from God that should be shared definitely helped form a connection between my drawing ability and God.
Another way I understood this was from the encouragement to create art from my family. My dad was a history professor, but he also loved to draw and tell stories with us. This was before parenting resources suggested such inclusive activities, especially from fathers. I believe it was love for family, instilled in part by our faith, that inspired him. His own father had only an eighth grade education, but still put himself through art classes as an adult. I think that instinct and desire to create has trickled down through generations. It is also why I will always include my maiden name, Ryan, on any art I create—a nod and thank you to past generations who made sacrifices so I could have the great privilege to create art for a living.
Lastly, the person who directly helped me make the connection of art as a vocation was a writer friend of mine named Maggie. I met her when she was already a grandmother of many, and I had just had my fourth baby. I was feeling like my pursuit of art was pointless, maybe even selfish. I was really struggling with trying to pursue art, working late at night, and considering giving up creating until my children were older.
Maggie squashed the idea of giving up and reminded me of the characteristics of a vocation. Did I have a desire or calling to create art? Yes. Was I good at it? Yes. Does it make people around me happy? Yes—despite being an exhausted mom, I had to admit that my children and husband loved my art, and I saw my children creating art themselves and falling in love with books. Finally, does it make the world a better place? Yes, Maggie answered for me. Art, and children’s book art in particular, make the world a better place. I think of Maggie’s words all the time. Six months after she encouraged me, I received my first book contract.
Bless the Lord is an illustrated board book of an ancient prayer. How did you come up with your beautiful, imaginative illustrations for this project?
Bless the Lord made it easy to come up with illustrations! The beautiful language in this prayer is rich with imagery. With the variety of seasons, animals, and landscapes, it spoke to my illustrator heart.
I came up with three babies as a sort of vehicle to help young readers connect with each page and page turn. Of course, the three came about initially from the stanza, “Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Bless the Lord.” As I researched, I discovered that these three men were sometimes described as “the three children.” I thought about how perfect it would be to make them toddlers in the specific illustration where they’re named, but then carry those same toddlers throughout the book. Sometimes having no concrete character (other than God) can make it hard for readers to relate to books. My hope is that the three toddlers resonate with young readers, and they can see themselves in this book.
I was also lucky to have the input from my parish pastor, Fr. John McNulty, on several tricky spreads where I really value the insight of a biblical and Catholic scholar.
What have you found to be helpful in cultivating family prayer in your home?
Praying as a family is something I’m constantly trying to improve on!
We pray before dinner as a family and before bed when I make the rounds to each room. And yes, I still read to most of my kids, despite the youngest being ten! But I do try to say a prayer with them before they turn in for the night, as my parents always did with me. I value this so much as my children get older as there are times I haven’t seen them all day due to school, sports practice, or play rehearsal. So connecting with them one-on-one, for even a few minutes each evening, is a blessing.
Having busy, active kids, coming and going at all times, makes it so hard to come together to pray! I do find having crucifixes, the ultimate WWJD, in each room of our home is a reminder to say a small prayer, even just to myself, as I go about my day. I treasure having Advent wreaths during Advent, as it’s a reminder to slow down, light the candle, take a moment. And each day as each child goes out the door, I say the same prayer with them that my dad said every morning as we left: “Grow in Grace, Beauty, and Wisdom.” Those simple words embody all that I hope for them.
What hopes do you have for this lovely book as it makes its way into the hands of young readers?
My hope for Bless the Lord as it goes out into the world is that kids and parents find beauty in the words and art. I hope they make the connection that an ancient prayer still resonates in today’s world and in relation to our modern lives. I hope kids—even if they can’t read yet—get lost in a lovely world, just like I did ages ago with that worn copy of King Arthur. I hope parents who read it with their children can feel the marriage of words and art and the Lord’s gifts. Prayer and language and visual art are such powerful forms of human expression and praise in an era where so much is loud and empty noise. So I hope kids find a quiet moment to fall deeply into this book, and it’d be my greatest joy if they can recall that simple wonder and fascination with it for years to come, even when they are adults.