Vikram Madan grew up in India, where as a child he was always drawn to art and poetry. But the expectation for him to become “successful” led him to graduate studies at University of Washington and a career as a programmer. After starting a family and working his way up the corporate ladder, Madan felt called to pursue art and writing full time. After spending two years taking classes at Seattle’s Gage Academy of Art and completing the Artist Trust EDGE Professional Development Program for Visual Artists, he now has a studio in Pioneer Square where he paints whimsical characters and scenes. Vikram has public art from murals to electrical box wraps throughout the Greater Seattle area, and writes and illustrates humorous stories, poetry and children’s books.
His latest book, “Owl and Penguin,” is a nearly-wordless story of two friends, Owl and Penguin, whose various adventures and misadventures showcase how friends with different needs navigate challenges from ice cream mishaps to a difference in flying ability with nuance and care. The book is a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book (that’s Dr. Seuss’ full name), and its sequel, “Owl and Penguin: Best Day Ever,” will publish in June of this year.
The Seattle Times spoke with Madan over Zoom about becoming a full-time artist, friendship and problem-solving, and the importance of representation in creative fields. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk about your journey from a career in tech to one in art and writing?
I grew up in New Delhi. My youngest memories are of drawing and doodling and reading comics, but the society was geared towards finding stable professions for their kids so everybody wanted their kids to be doctors and engineers, and I didn’t have any role models for artists or writers. I kept cartooning through my teen years, got cartoons published here and there, but I still went to college for engineering.
I came to Seattle for graduate studies at the University of Washington. I drew some editorial cartoons for The Daily, which was a fairly big paper back then. I really enjoyed that experience of drawing cartoons, but I fell back on my education, ended up working in tech and had kids. That’s when I encountered folks like Dr. Seuss — I had never read Dr. Seuss till my kids were born. I got this idea that I could try to draw or write something but bumbled around with it for a long time. I also really love poetry; I’ve been writing poetry for a very long time. But people don’t want to publish poetry that easily. Over the years, I kept trying my hand and getting frustrated with the rejections piling up and not quite knowing what I was doing. I’d start and stop, but I couldn’t ignore the itch and would come back and scratch it.
Around 2010, I went to Paris and that was my first time visiting the art museums there. I was floored by all the art there. I thought to myself, I’ve spent all these years trying to draw and write but I don’t actually have any training. So maybe in this life I should master one medium. I was not enjoying my work; they promoted me to middle management and that sucked the joy out of my life. I couldn’t shake that feeling that I had to go create things. One of the things that helped me make up my mind was when I took part-time painting classes at the Gage Academy. I was usually the youngest person in the class. and I realized that all the other people had waited all their lives to retire before they were able to actually follow their passion, and I didn’t think that was healthy for me to follow that kind of path. I looked around for tips on how to make this hard decision between the safe choice and the choice you know nothing about. And all the signs were pointing towards trusting the universe.
Can you talk about the importance of friendship and helping each other in “Owl and Penguin,” and the motivation behind having the story containing very few words?
Every cartoonist wants to be able to tell the story without words because that’s really how they can show that they can draw. If you ask most cartoonists, secretly they will tell you that yes, they would love to do a story that had no words in it. I love watching all black and white movies and seeing how they express themselves without the dialogue. There’s a lot of that in animation and art.
One of the guiding principles of animation is that you should always be able to tell from the silhouette of the character what’s happening in that scene if it was just completely black and white. So I was tempted to try and do a wordless story, and I tested the idea on my Instagram followers. A lot of people chimed in and said they would love it. If you’re a bilingual family, it’s nice to have a book you can narrate in two languages or if someone has older kids with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, they felt the kids will not be able to get excited about reading because it was always such a challenge.
I actually spent six months researching friendship. It’s easy to have friends, but it’s not always easy to say why you’re friends with someone or what makes for a strong friendship. In friendship, you have to be not too similar, but you can’t be too different. You have to share experiences, and yet in some of your experiences you have to support each other through it or introduce each other to things you wouldn’t normally do. It’s a combination of all of those factors that makes for an interesting friendship.
What does it mean to you that this book got a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award?
I’m very excited about it on multiple levels. The biggest thing is that people, librarians in particular, will notice this book now. And because it’s an icon Library Association award, librarians, in particular school librarians, will see it. That will get it in front of more kids. What the committee liked about the book was the fact that kids could get into it easily, but also there’s a lot of undercurrents of problem-solving, helping, kindness and empathy and consideration for others.
I think it makes a great book for teachers, librarians, caregivers and parents to discuss these topics as they’re reading them with kids. So I’m excited that the book gets a higher profile for sure. Another thing that I think is important is I’m a brown person. My daughter was born and raised here. She’s 21 now and she’s planning to be a jazz musician. She’s studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. And one of the things she says is that as a kid she did not see people like herself reflected in culture; not in the shows on TV, not in books, not in music. She keeps prodding me to raise my profile a little bit so that kids like her can see that there are brown people and people of color in the arts.
Especially in the Seattle area, which is so tech-centric, a lot of immigrant families are tech-oriented but their kids are born and raised here. It’s important for kids to see that there are paths for brown people and people of color to follow nontraditional fields and to follow their passion, without feeling they have to all become computer scientists, or go into STEM fields. I never had role models when I was growing up and so I hope I can be that for someone who really wants to draw and write or choose a creative career.
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