Freshman draws in success with creative illustrations

by Victoria Hulbert / Beacon Staff • April 22, 2015

When freshman Jenna Miller received an email from the Emerson mailroom earlier this semester saying she had a package ready for pickup, she knew exactly what it was. 

What Miller, a visual and media arts major, picked up that morning was a published copy of her second illustrated book, Counterintuitive, What 4 Million Teenagers Wish We Knew, a project she had been working on over the last few months with Tyler Durman, a writer and public speaker. 

“I was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s here,” said Miller. “I had seen little parts of the book but hadn’t seen it as a whole yet.”

The paperback, subtitled “bite-sized wisdom 4 parents and teachers,” was released on Feb. 16 and was the culmination of several months of work for Miller. Her pictorial interests, though, started much earlier.

Miller, 19, said that although neither of herparents is an artist, visual art is a hobby that has come naturally to her since she was a child.

“I was that weird kid that would get yelled at for drawing in class in elementary school,” said Miller. “I would staple together pieces of paper and make stick-figure stories. I don’t think it made sense to anyone but me.”

Her career in illustration began in 2013, when she was a senior in high school. The father of her mother’s boyfriend, author John Altson, contacted her because he knew of her artistic abilities. He was working on a children’s book titled Veggies, A-Z: See ‘em, Rhyme ‘em, Cook ‘em, Eat ‘em.

“The book is a combination of poems and cute stories to get kids to eat their vegetables,” said Miller. “I drew a little character for each vegetable and I designed the cover.” 

Altson told the Beacon in an email statement that it was a delight to work with Jenna on his book, which was published in November 2013.

“She is a young woman of many talents,” he wrote. “She is a gifted artist and has a great future ahead of her.”

Her illustrations are nearly always done in Sharpie or ballpoint pen. She has journals filled with pages of intricate mandalas—geometric figures associated with the Buddhist and Hindu religions—all in thick black marker.

“My artwork is all very detailed,” said Miller. “My illustrations I tend to lean more towards a graphic comic book style. In my other artwork, I focus more on graphic design elements like attractive negative space and bold lines.”

Miller, whose arms were covered in hand-drawn henna-style tattoos, she said she often draws on friends for fun and has thought about becoming a tattoo artist one day.

“My high school teacher back in Oregon has a tattoo that I designed,” she said.

Miller said her artistic process revolves around music.

“If I don’t [listen to music], then I get distracted or bored,” said Miller. “It really depends on the mood of the drawing to what genre I listen to.”

Her involvement with the Counterintuitive project was sparked by an event in 2011, Miller said. Durman, the author, had come to speak at an assembly at Wilsonville High School in Portland, Oregon, where Miller was a student. Each year, Durman gives presentations to more than 200,000 students and adults, according to his website. Miller said she was so inspired by his presence during his speech that day that she went home and immediately liked his page on Facebook.

Three years later, in 2014, Durman posted on Facebook that he was looking for an illustrator for a book he was working on. Miller said she quickly sent him a message, and after seeing some of her previous work, Durman hired her. 

Durman told the Beacon in an email statement that he interviewed dozens of applicants who were interested in the illustrator position, but Miller, whom he had not met before, quickly rose to the top.

“She listened and was open to direction,” Durman wrote. “She understood my vision and added to it respectfully, without ego.”

For the next couple of months, Miller worked remotely on Durman’s project, checking in with him on the phone to keep a schedule for the illustrations. A few months ago, Durman told her the book was finally coming together and was going to be self-published.

“My illustrations in Tyler’s book are black-and-white, comic book-style representations of the characters and ideas in his story,” said Miller.

Miller, who wasn’t paid for the project with Altson, but did get her name printed on the front cover, said she did it for the experience. For her second illustration project with Durman, Miller said she was paid, although she didn’t go into it thinking that she would be, and said she would have done it regardless. In the Acknowledgments at the back of the book, Durman thanked “the very talented teenager Jenna Miller for the sketches.”

In the future, Miller, who said she started editing homemade videos when she was 11, hopes to incorporate her visual art within her film work through something like animation, along with doing illustrations on the side.

“She is a kind human who cares about people as much as she cares about each brushstroke, color choice, and perspective,” Durman wrote. “I’m the lucky one to have had the chance to know and work with her.”