In The Day You Begin, written by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by award-winning artist and Illustration alumnus Rafael López (BFA 85), a girl named Angelina with caramel skin and black curls peeks out from behind a classroom door on her first day of school.
She looks hesitant, standing alone, and the book begins, “There will be times when you walk into a room, and no one there is quite like you.” Later, her classmate Rigoberto, from Venezuela, is teased by other students for his accent until a teacher says Rigoberto’s name and homeland so softly and beautifully that the words “sound like flowers blooming the first bright notes of a song.”
With its message of celebrating diversity and finding a voice and acceptance, the book soared in September to No. 1 on The New York Times’ list of best-selling children’s picture books.
“It was so easy to connect visually and emotionally to the story,” says the Mexico-born López by phone from his San Diego art studio, an industrial loft built in the ‘30s. “I was an immigrant and went to high school in the Midwest,” he says. “People would stare at me and say, ‘He speaks funny.’”
López says he felt connected to the characters in Woodson’s writing, such as a boy standing apart from other kids. “He made me think of my 16-year-old son Santiago, who has high-functioning autism,” he says.
The Day You Begin, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is one of more than 10 books López has illustrated. His credits include 2015’s Pura Belpré Award-winning Drum Dream Girl.
And as the founder of San Diego’s Urban Art Trail—a movement to create murals bringing local communities together—he’s worked on 17 murals across the country, inspiring the children’s picture book Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood that he illustrated in 2016. López has also created seven United States Postal Service stamps honoring Latino music icons such as Selena, and a 1947 legal case in which the forced segregation of Mexican-American students was deemed unconstitutional. In 2008 and 2012 he created official posters—geared to Latino voters—for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“Words create feelings, but visuals should do the same,” López says. “For The Day You Begin, we wanted the characters to be strong at the end, and not victimized. I injected a lot of symbolism. I don’t care for illustrations that convey literally what the writer is saying.”
López learned and embraced that firm sense of conceptualism at ArtCenter.
Raised by architect parents in Mexico, López loved to paint, and did his own childhood take on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. After learning English in the U.S., and taking biology courses at the University of Texas, he went on to take art classes. Alum Michael Steirnagle (BFA 72 Illustration), an instructor, told him about ArtCenter, and he looked through the College’s Viewbook. “That moment changed my life,” says López.
Steirnagle helped him pull together a portfolio, and he applied to the College, and got in. Late Illustration Department Chair Phil Hays (BFA 55 Illustration) and current Environmental Design Department Chair David Mocarski, then Illustration faculty, inspired López to be experimental.
“David Mocarski taught a great conceptual poster design class, and was so tough,” López says. “I loved the friendly competitiveness between students. ArtCenter was the perfect place for me.”
After graduating, López did corporate conceptual work—including illustrating annual reports for web firms—for 12 years. Yearning to express his own voice, he went back to Mexico and reconnected with his roots, imbuing his illustrations with Mexican folklore. In 2000, he got a call from publishing company Luna Rising, who asked him to illustrate the children’s picture book My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz, about the Cuban singer. He was terrified, he says, but never looked back.
“I wake up and do what I’m passionate about, and never consider illustration to be boring,” he says. “When I get a new project, I let the story sit in the cauldron of my brain for a week before starting to sketch characters,” he adds, explaining his process, which also involves blasting Latin jazz in his studio.
In the future, he hopes to do a book about his relationship with his son, to whom he dedicated The Day You Begin. “We’ve connected through drawing, and he’s taken over my studio!” he says, laughing gently. “The book wouldn’t necessarily be about autism. It would be the story of us.”