In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place that’s usually about the third song of the evening – sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth, but it’s quite early – and the leading lady usually sits down on something; sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of Covent Garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors… but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night. ~ Howard Ashman.
For many Disney and musical theatre fans, Howard Ashman left an imprint in theatre, film, storytelling, and song that has withstood the test of time. His brilliant voice in storytelling has changed the way, we see music, film, and theatre.
Ashly Lovett is a very talented American artist, whose art and style is gaining a lot of attention. We asked Ashly a few questions about her art, career, and upcoming projects.
How long have you been a professional artist?
I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design with a Bachelor’s degree in Illustration in 2010. Since then, I’ve been taking illustration jobs, but I didn’t start doing full-time freelancing until 2015.
What medium do you use for your art?
In 2015 I started working exclusively with soft chalk pastels on paper. And more recently, I’ve been taking those pastel pieces and coloring them digitally in Photoshop.
How would you describe your artistic style?
At the beginning of my career, I was never good at describing my style. It’s hard to step back and look at yourself from an outsider’s perspective. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve had others calling my work dark, ethereal, luminous, or haunting. My good friend Cory Godbey gave the best description with his Forward in The Little Mermaid. It was a feeling I always had about my artwork since I was a child. It is an almost therapeutic feeling that made me want to draw in the first place. I’ve never been able to put it into words. It was a warming surprise knowing others interpret my artwork the same way I always have deep down. Cory’s words were a gift. Here is a small excerpt of the Forward:
“Ashly’s work is transportive. With ease, she guides the viewer from the familiar world to one dappled in a strange light. That world is steeped in a kind of bewitched nostalgia. There’s nothing mawkish or wistful there, rather, Ashly’s haunting portraits feel like a pang of remembrance, the shudder which comes from recalling a forgotten memory at long last.”
What inspired you to illustrate Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid?
It took me a while to find a story intriguing enough to dedicate two years to its creation. What I loved about the story was the tenacity of the main character, the little mermaid. Although naïve, she pursued her deepest desire to know the lives of humans and have her own soul. In the original story, mermaids live for 300 years, but they become seafoam when they die. They don’t have a soul that lives on even after your body dies. But if a mermaid were to join in a union (marriage) with a human, they would become one sharing the soul.
Also, I knew the imagery would be right up my alley. I love drawing the flowing organic shapes of the mermaids and their long hair. The story is rather dark with a bittersweet ending, which appeals to my style. These are all visual narratives that played to my strengths. I went a step further and added my own elements. For example, I gave the mermaids bioluminescent hair to play up the luminosity. I gave the little mermaid a skull collection of creatures from the world above to make it more haunting.
Who is your favorite character in The Little Mermaid? And why?
The protagonist, the little mermaid, is my favorite character. She’s never apologetic about what she wants and remains kind. At the beginning of the story, I do think she may have been impulsive to give up so much in hopes of finding love and an eternal soul. And although the ending is sad, her journey only made her stronger. I admire the emotional and physical strength it took, and in the end, she sacrifices herself for someone she loves. She never became bitter when she had every right to be.
What scene was your favorite to illustrate in your book? And why?
That’s difficult to say since each illustration presented its own challenges and enjoyment. But if I have to pick one, it would be the moment when the little mermaid rescues the prince from the shipwreck. I’ve always had the illustration in my mind. It was also a type of scene I’ve never tried to illustrate before. It was a sea landscape with a burning ship during a severe storm. I drew a lot of inspiration from Howard Pyle, an American illustrator from the 1900s responsible for the classic illustrations of Treasure Island.
What lessons do you think people can learn from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid?
The biggest takeaway from the story for me was to go big or go home. The Little Mermaid made some overwhelming choices and sacrifices, but she was bold and stayed true to herself. She grew from her pain and became something more remarkable in the end.
How did you find out about your publisher, Eye of Newt Books? And what’s been your experience working with them?
I met them at a convention through a mutual friend. Eye of Newt Books has been very agreeable to work with and believed in my project. They’ve been very respectful of the book and my creative choices. Their enthusiasm was just what I had hoped for when imagining the future for The Little Mermaid.
What was the biggest difference between having a book published through Kickstarter vs having a book published traditionally?
With a Kickstarter, you have to do everything. Not only do you have to have a finished high-quality product, but every Kickstarter campaign begins with budgeting. You have to find a manufacturer, choose materials (paper type, bookbinding, cover style, etc.), then work out the logistics of shipping, shipping materials, extra rewards, and then figure in how those rewards will affect said shipping and budget. Then you have to make a realistic funding goal.
On top of that, you have to create graphics, text describing your project, advertise for it, and there’s a considerable amount of customer service involved. Then there is shipping fulfillment and all your deadlines. I could go even further, but I think you get the idea. If you’re up for the challenge, it can be gratifying in the end. A funded campaign is always a source of pride and future income with the final product.
The steps with my publisher were much shorter. They purchased exclusive rights to publish the book after a detailed contract was drawn up and reviewed by my lawyer. Afterward, I provided the InDesign files, and they took care of the rest. They took care of the logistics of choosing materials, manufacturing, advertising, etc.
What advice do you have for fellow artists and illustrators who want their work to be published either through Kickstarter or with a traditional publisher?
Suppose you’re not someone who likes doing Excel sheets to work out a budget, logistics, schedules, customer service, shipping, etc., I would not suggest doing a largescale Kickstarter. It takes a lot of organizing and good budgeting skills to make sure you can have a profit at the end of it all. The most common mistake with a Kickstarter is underestimating the costs. I have a detailed article on MuddyColors.com titled “Check List for a Successful Kickstarter.” It goes over how to best prepare for a Kickstarter project.
Going with a publisher is undoubtedly easier, but it’s not always a straight path to getting your foot in the door. I was fortunate to ask the right questions and be introduced to an art director in person. This goes back to the advice I give to all emerging illustrators. It is all about networking and getting to know others in the industry. I highly suggest attending conventions and workshops when possible. Some of my favorite smaller, more intimate conventions are Spectrum Fantasy Art in Kansas City, MO, Lightbox in Pasadena, CA, and Illuxcon in Reading, PA. The bigger conventions aren’t bad either. These would be the comicons in Chicago, New York, Seattle, etc. Always have plenty of business cards with samples of your work on the back. I love Moo.com for my business cards.
Do you plan on illustrating more fairy tales in the near future?
I do. The one I’m currently working on is called The Book of Fairy Tales. It is a collection of fairy tale stories featuring famous and infamous fairies. There will be some well-known fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and other lesser-known stories like The Water of Life. You can learn more about it at AshlyLovett.com/kickstarter. It’s been slow progress in finding stories I want to illustrate. I prefer illustrating tales with profound lessons and admirable characters. That can be difficult with older public domain stories.
My long-term goal is to create a collection of books centered around the theme of fantasy. The first has been The Little Mermaid. The second will be The Book of Fairy Tales. And the third will likely be about mythology. I like having long-term personal projects that I can really dive into and create something different with my own voice while also having others interested in my passion projects too.
Howard was released on Disney+ on August 7th, 2020. For any fan of Disney, this film is a must watch.
The film opens, in the recording studio of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Howard Ashman and the cast recording the soundtrack. His passion for music, storytelling, and directing are evident in the footage.
From there, Sarah Ashman Gillespie (Howard’s sister) candidly talks about how some of her most fond memories of Howard, were of the world’s he created.
The film portrays Howard as a true creative at heart, who understood his purpose in life was storytelling through music. Like most creative personalities, Howard was both confident and self-conscious, seeing his vision crystal clear, yet struggling to make it happen. He was stubborn, yet passionate and in many cases, it’s that combination that innovators and visionaries are made of.
Howard founded the off-broadway company WPA, which years later, which impressed Jeffrey Katzenburg, who years later, would beg Howard to work with him at the Walt Disney Studios. Howard eventually said yes and brought his friend and fellow composer Alan Menken on board for a little project called The Little Mermaid.
Alan Menken, Jodi Benson, Glen Keane, Ron Clements, John Musker, Roy Disney, and Jeffrey Katzenburg in the documentary talk about their experiences working with Howard on The Little Mermaid. Howard at the time of film’s production had learned that he had AIDS, yet continued to work in spite of that. He had worked on two other Walt Disney Studio films prior to his death in 1991 that included Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
For any fan of Disney or of The Little Mermaid, Howard is a must-watch. It explores the life, struggles, career, and untimely death of a man who changed the Walt Disney Studios and musical theatre forever.
Thank you Howard for giving a mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul. We you and will remember you for your contribution to musical theatre and Disney.