SVS Artist Interview with Teju Abiola

  • Here's another interview with one of the SVS forum members who is definitely somebody to follow. Although at the beginning of her career as an artist, she already has rich experiences and expertise that she has shared with us here on the forum, and will, no doubt, continue to offer to the art world as her endeavors move forward. Let's hear from Teju Abiola!

    Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

    I’m Teju Abiola, and I’ll be turning 21 later this month. I’m from Buffalo, NY, but I’m currently finishing up my last year at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida. My favorite medium is watercolor, my favorite article of clothing is a sweater, my favorite fruit is the mango, and my favorite musician is Ben Rector 🙂

    What is your earliest memory of making art? In a nutshell, what has your path to becoming an artist been like since then?

    I don’t know if it is actually the earliest, but I remember being really little and having these cheap coloring books that had little swatches of color at the top that you could wet with a brush and paint with. I also remember making many crude tie-dyes with Crayola markers and paper towel. Otherwise, I think I tinkered around like any child, doing little projects here and there. Most of my art-making was during school art times/classes. I did try my hand at manga for a bit in middle school and failed terribly. I wasn’t really interested in art until high school and spent the majority of my free time as a child reading books. But surprisingly not many picture books! I actually had an elementary school friend who was really into art and drew all the time (she does product design now), but I was only passively interested. If you asked anyone what they thought I'd be, they'd have guessed I'd be an editor, writer, lawyer, psychologist or anything else probably.

    High school is when I really started considering art seriously when faced with the question what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’ve always been pretty good at school, but art was one of the things I felt my teachers really noticed me in. Other kids would slack off, but I cared just as much as any other subject, and it showed. I started doing research, and I guess something clicked.

    Luckily I had a good track record in academics, so my parents trusted me and were really supportive, although I'm sure they were worried since they didn't know what to expect. Neither did I! I had no clue how to get where I needed to go or knew anyone who had done anything remotely similar, but the internet really helped me learn what to practice. Gotta shout out Will's videos here, and my mom for taking me to a few life drawing sessions and waiting outside for me 🙂 I worked really hard to build a portfolio to get into a good art school, and some way somehow, I got in.

    Could you share three pieces of your art that showcase your favorite style to work in?

    Ooh, this is hard! I don’t think I have a cohesive style at all and I lean towards both illustration and fine arts (my portrait work) so it just depends. These aren't my favorite projects per se, but I do like how they turned out for the most part. The first image, The Spirit of Inspiration, is the most recent and a uses a watercolor digital hybrid that I’m currently streamlining and I’ve used in other pieces. The second is watercolor with brown pen and ink, and I was channeling old gift book illustrators. It’s a nice variation for when I want to include a heavier line, but not too harsh since I don’t like hard lines on my own work. The third is minimal, but I really enjoy things I did with the paint. It’s from the story The Light Princess, and I think I managed to capture the feeling that what I was going for.


    We learned recently on the forum that you've accepted a job with Hallmark Cards and have also been picked up by Astound Illustration Agency. Congratulations! What are you most excited for, and what do you think will be your biggest challenge while stepping into this level of the professional realm?

    Thanks! I interned at Hallmark over the summer, and I’m really happy to go back. There is a lot of history there, and really knowledgeable artists who have mastered their craft. I’m so excited to learn from them and be a part of that community. With Astound, I’m excited to work on projects that are tied more closely with my individual voice and style and to really expand my knowledge of the illustration industry.

    I think my biggest challenge will be having confidence in my myself and not being insecure about my art all the time. As a student, I’ve become so used to constant criticism that I second guess my work a lot. On more than one occasion I've have been told to have more confidence. Several times I was asked if I liked what I had done or what I thought of it, and I honestly couldn’t say. I keep reminding myself that I wouldn’t have been chosen if I wasn’t what they were looking for, so I should have confidence that I can deliver as long as I keep working hard.

    You're still enrolled in university, pursuing an art degree, correct? How do you think your formal education has impacted your journey and successes (for better or for worse)? Could you have gotten to where you are without it?

    Yep, about to finish my last year! It’s hard to say how my career would be laid out if I didn’t attend Ringling, but I can owe my Hallmark job and current body of work directly to going to this school.

    Hallmark has a long-standing recruiting relationship with Ringling, and so many Ringles work there that whenever I met one and they found out I went there too, there was this awesome understanding of a shared experience. I also had the opportunity of having them go through my portfolio and interviewing me in person, which I think contributed to me getting the position. I also wouldn’t have met my best friend who all but forced me to apply for their internship. I also wouldn’t have even known to consider them as a potential employer. Neither would my portfolio have been up on Behance for my agent to find if we weren’t forced to have a professional online presence as part of our curriculum. And deadlines, such a natural part of schooling, and I don't really worry about making them. I just know I have to.

    If I hadn’t gone here and had certain instructors, I don’t know if I would have realized that visdev was the wrong path for me, or how much I loved to paint traditionally, or that I loved watercolors until much later if at all. I wouldn’t have learned as fast by myself for sure or learned wonderful things from classmates as well as faculty. There have been so many other opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of by being here. And I’d never have been forced to do things I didn’t like—experiences I’ve learned a lot from.

    I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am because I wouldn't have known this was a place I could get to. But I do think I could have still been successful if I had taken a different path. But for me and the way I learn, I definitely think school was the right decision. I also started right out of high school at 17, so more formal education after a lifetime of formal education made a lot of sense. I got so much concentrated information in such a short amount of time. I grew up here. However, I will say, I’ve binged tons of art videos, podcasts, youtube channels, read books, scoured websites, used SVS etc, outside of class and on my own time which has rounded everything out so far.

    One main negative thing is that because almost all my art education has been instructed, I’m not truly sure how to approach making art just for fun. I didn't have as many opportunities to fail or make art ignorantly and freely. That’s something I’m working on now that I have some breathing room before starting professional work.

    Since I also have a Nigerian name, I recognized yours. 🙂 Has your heritage influenced your art? I appreciated seeing the work you did for Inktober this year (viewable on your website! which showcases diverse faces with beautiful plant life. How important do you think it is to show cultural diversity in the work we do as artists (especially for the children's book scene which, as Will Terry and Tyrus Goshay discuss here [], has mostly white contributors)?

    I recognized yours too! My parents emigrated from there and I was born here. They aren’t artsy people (doctors actually), so they never exposed me to Nigerian art aside from music, and most of my influences are from the art I grew up with and experienced here. I’m very blessed that they support me completely in this pursuit, and they’ve definitely given me that Nigerian work ethic. That’s the main influence I think. It sounds kind of weird, but compared to what I know they’ve gone through and sacrificed, especially for me to have the privilege of being an artist, being an artist is easy. It’s an honor to be able to do this work every day. I do have a personal book project in the works that is inspired by my Yoruba culture and family that I hope to complete and publish one day.

    I think that today when everything we do is global, it’s really important to show a diverse grouping of characters. Especially for children and especially if you are trying to tell them stories. Just consider the people you know and see in your life. There are so many different people everywhere. If you truly want to reach kids and reflect the essence of what we all experience, that is a real part of life. I don’t know about other countries so much, but if you look at the US, there are a lot of different people, and one of the easiest ways to see that is how different we all look. I’m just entering adulthood, but I feel that some adults forget what it feels like to be a child and not feel like you belong. We’ve all felt that way, whether about race or not. If you could help a child feel more like they had a place, why not?

    Honestly, unless there is a particular historical or cultural significance to the story (such as Civil War/ancient Egypt/Hanukkah/Chinese New Year) there isn’t really any reason not too, in my opinion. Just look at The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. A beautiful story about a black child, written by a Jewish man. I think it’s a fallacy to say or think you can’t create authentic stories about people who are different than you. Unless you are writing a story based only on yourself, all your characters are different than you.

    Do you have anything to ask of the SVS forum community? Or any concluding words of wisdom?

    Here's my question: What is a piece of art that has changed you, reflected a feeling, or inspired you that is not illustration or the field you are going into, and how/why? Think fine art, music, dance, film, literature, poetry, photography. I think it’s important to be inspired by many different things. Mine that I’ll share is the song "Fear" by Ben Rector; it's about the struggle of reaching a goal, the fear that still hangs around once you reach it, and how you learn to work with it. To me, it reflects how I feel about pursuing my art.

    I’ve listened and read so many interviews with successful people of different professions and all of them discuss putting in the time and effort, failing, and continuing to work until they made it. I knew that no matter how long it took, I was going to put in the time. It’ll be hard, it’ll sometimes suck, but as long as I keep grinding through it and put in the right time and the right effort, I'd get there eventually. Who knows, this might all go south for me in a year or two, God forbid! Regardless, I'll keep working because eventually is good enough for me 🙂

    Also, listen to everyone as if they each have something amazing to teach you. I’ve learned a lot that way.

    Thank you for this opportunity, Kathryn!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Best wishes for your artistic journeys ahead!

    Once again, here's Teju's portfolio site:

    Feel free to chime in below to answer Teju's question or respond to what she's shared with us.

  • Loving these interviews! 🙂 It's always great to see an insight into another's journey.

  • SVS OG

    Thanks again for these interviews! Its so fun to learn more about the people who are our peers here on the forum.

  • SVS OG

    Hey @Teju-Abiola, what a great interview and how excited I was to read you are from Buffalo! (I’m an hour and 45 minutes away in Alfred, NY and my son is a huge Bills fan.) I love your work and love your perspective on your art and life in general. I think you have a great career ahead of you.

  • @demotlj Yay, New York, haha! Ah thanks 🙂 I'm lucky to have had great people to help me a long.

  • Pro

    Great interview, such an interesting read! Thank you @KathrynAdebayo and @Teju-Abiola !

  • @Teju-Abiola Since I first saw it in middle school, I've been inspired by the short animated film from 1987, "The Man Who Planted Trees". It's about someone who gives beauty to the world without wanting fame or repayment. He just wants to live quietly and plant forests... and that selfless attitude has always struck me as perhaps the most beautiful thing to witness in the world. Here it is on YouTube:

  • SVS OG

    @Teju-Abiola wow! I can’t believe you’re younger than me. Your art is amazing!

  • Great interview. Thank you for doing these @KathrynAdebayo. @Teju-Abiola great to know you and your art better 🙂

  • @Teju-Abiola I love Ben Rector! I got to hear him for the first time at a Need To Breathe concert two years ago. I don't know many people who have heard of him.

  • @chrisaakins I finally got to see him live in November and the show was amazing! He's my fave 🙂 Yeah, I don't know too many people who know him even though they might've heard his more popular songs before. I force my friends and family to listen to him, lol

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