Artist Matt Myers gave up a thriving advertising career in New York City to follow a different path — illustrating books for children.
by Jim Moriarty • photographs by Peter Taylor
Once upon a time, there was an artist who lived on a shady street with four women and seven chickens in a simple house with a blue door and a yard with red flowers, and he was happy. Matt Myers, the illustrator of more than 30 children’s picture books, the writer of four, a percolating novelist, a man with an eccentric wit and a painter of serious ability, is a tumbleweed of talent, propelled by a cyclone wind of creativity.
So, how did this Oregon-born, Manhattan-dwelling, former ad guy, who can draw a perfect circle freehand, find himself in Charlotte? Why, chasing the love of a woman, of course.
Myers grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the youngest of four children of two graphic artists, in a rural town named for the daughter, Aurora, of the man who founded a religious colony there in the 19th century. “My best friend lived across a filbert orchard,” he says. “Ever see the movie Stand by Me? That was actually shot 20 miles from where I grew up. That whole walking on the train tracks and being scared that a train’s coming — that was my childhood.” He attended what is now called Pacific Northwest College of Art, then put his considerable illustrating skills to work in the advertising world. He jumped from a firm in Portland to one in Seattle and then to various posts in New York.
After 20 years in advertising, he was on the precipice of earning the kind of corporate money people climb the advertising ladder to make when he quit cold turkey in ’98. “I holed up in my West Village apartment and just painted,” he says. “I’m giving myself permission to quit advertising and just be an artist. What kind of artist do I want to be?
“If you can imagine a Far Side cartoon but rendered in traditional oil paints — light and shadow and all that kind of stuff — that’s basically what I did,” he says. “They were all gags. They had a caption. I was giggling while I was painting. I realized I hadn’t felt actual joy while I was creating for a long time.”
His paintings sold faster than you can say Gary Larson. “For years I thought I was wasting my time in advertising,” Myers says. “But if I hadn’t gone into advertising, I wouldn’t have learned to work quickly, get over myself, work past the first idea and understand that I’m doing something for another brain, not just my own.” New York also gave him the kind of connections that would open up his picture-book world.
“I think we’ve done about six books together across a little over 10 years,” says Neal Porter, Myers’ editor at Holiday House Publishing Inc. One of those books was Myers’ first as both author and illustrator, the semi-autobiographical Hum and Swish, released in 2019. Myers’ next book with Holiday House, Children of the Forest, will be out in the spring of ’22. “I think it’s among the best things he’s ever done. It is amusing, it’s funny, but it’s also really, really beautiful,” Porter says. “Despite the fact that everybody thinks they can write a children’s book, it’s a really difficult skill. You have to write something that’s accessible to a 4-5-6-year-old that’s still kind of rich and deep and satisfying as a story.”
One other thing New York gave him: his wife, Maya, a freelance editor and children’s book author in her own right who had settled in Charlotte. “We met in a restaurant in Brooklyn, through mutual friends,” Myers says. “The first moment I saw her I was like ‘I want to be friends with that person.’ We became email friends and then text friends, and then we realized we’d fallen in love with each other. She said, ‘I’ve got three daughters, and I’m not leaving this town until they’re at least in college.’ When she told me ‘You’re in Charlotte, or you’re not with me,’ it was ‘OK.’ I really can follow orders very well.” He loaded his paints, brushes and the paper plates he uses as palettes, along with the stuff from his West Village apartment, into a U-Haul, waved farewell to exorbitant rents, and headed south.
“He truly sees the world as a child does, and it’s wonderful. It’s a miracle — so many of us lose that as we grow older.”
Drew Daywalt, author of the classic The Day the Crayons Quit, named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, worked with Myers on Disney’s Star Wars book BB8 on the Run. In a business where the writer and illustrator frequently exist in separate silos, Myers and Daywalt were dispatched on a book tour together. “It was like sending a couple of middle-school kids off on a trip. He’s a great combination of a 10-year-old’s perspective with an adult’s talent,” Daywalt says of Myers. “He truly sees the world as a child does, and it’s wonderful. It’s a miracle — so many of us lose that as we grow older.”
Myers’ latest book, Dino-Gro, released in June, is about a sponge that grows in water. “It grows too much, and they kick it out of the house,” he says. It was what Myers calls one of his “gags” at first, but over time the gag morphed into a story. “It ties into the feeling of wanting to nurture something that’s being shunned by others. Your job as a picture-book writer is to tug the heartstrings — get at a simple story that resonates with everyone.”
The creative process can be grueling. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, trying to get a whole story in under 600 words,” Daywalt says. “I’ve written novels and screenplays that were not as hard to do. It’s like spending six months on a sonnet.”
The same publisher who bought Dino-Gro, Random House Studio, has another Myers project in the pipeline — two boys who, tricked by a wily girl, have paid a nickel apiece for opposite ends of the world’s longest licorice rope. Ultimately, the gag turns into a story about friendship.
“Without getting mystical or anything, I feel like the best ideas, the best inspiration, comes from rejecting yourself — not in a meditative way, but you just forget about yourself for a while,” Myers says. “You become a kid again and forget that this is a human being that has to make a deadline. You’re just having a blast.”
And he is. SP