"I was trying to convey that life is full of lots of ups and downs. When one chapter ends you have to let it go so you can move forward," says artist Alicia Schwab. Her painting, "Heart Lost," on the cover of this month's magazine, expresses the universal life experience of loss and heartache.

Schwab used the elements of line and shape to create an abstract human form. The door on the woman's chest appears to be opening, her heart is pouring out. "She's letting go to begin again," Schwab suggests. "If you let go, you can open yourself to new possibilities."

Design steps

Being open to new possibilities and building on opportunities as they present themselves describes Schwab's artistic path.

She traces this path back to a pre-verbal time in her life, as a child. "I started thinking visually early - as soon as I could sit up at the table," she says. She recalls drawing with her older brother: "We got so good at it that we would often use our drawings to explain what we were trying to say, even if we didn't have the vocabulary words yet."

Growing up in Wisconsin, Schwab continued drawing through her school years and then went to the University of Wisconsin - Stout where she earned a BFA degree in art and design. Her degree led her to live in Europe, where Stout had an exchange program with a polytechnic school near Hanover, Germany. She partnered with a student and they started a graphic design business.

After living in Germany for four years, she returned to the Twin Cities and worked at a number of design firms. She has designed food packaging for cereals and instant potatoes, mugs, T-shirts, calendars, brochures, corporate newsletters, magazines, a nonfiction book about grief after the loss of a pet, another about character-building skills for teens and a pop-up book for a business.

Kid lit

In 2000, after honing her illustrative skills by working for others, Schwab took a leap to work independently and focus on illustration. In the past few years, her lens has narrowed in on children's book illustration.

Today, she considers her artwork both whimsical and painterly. She uses the rich texture of acrylic paints to create depth, set a mood and to express what a character might be thinking.In a series of illustrations called "Sea Dreams," Schwab creates a colorful, playful underwater world with kids riding on the back of a friendly sea creature. In "Garden Party," insects and animals dance to the tune of a trumpet-playing frog. She imagines what happens when a "Giant Sneezes on a Sky Farm" - the vegetables and animals go flying off in a puffy cloud. She illustrates traditional folktales, such as the "tricky witch" Baba Yaga and Vasilisa "the fair."

"I take inspiration from all over the place," Schwab says. "I'm always looking at picture books. I'm a library junkie. I'm a picture book carnivore."

Schwab says that picture books are a medium to introduce children to storytelling. "Most kids are able to read the pictures better than the words. The pictures are an important part of bridging the gap between the spoken or written language." In her illustrations, words are not written down but rather expressed in the art.

For nearly five years, Schwab has volunteered as the illustration coordinator of the Minnesota chapter of the international organization Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

The organization provides support and education through programs and events, for authors and illustrators to improve their craft. There are chapters around the world. Minnesota's has more than 500 members. "We have a creative community here in the Twin Cities," Schwab says.

Schwab believes that creativity must be nurtured. For her, drawing or painting is a daily practice. "It's like doing your exercises or practicing a musical instrument. Often people think they have to wait for inspiration. I think inspiration comes when you make it a habit of creating. When you work that creative muscle, eventually you come up with better and better ideas and art.

"Being creative and making art is simply who I am. It's something I have to do, like breathing. It's just a necessity for me."

FFI: www.aliciaschwab.com
If You Go: The Minnesota chapter of SCBWI hosts an annual conference Oct. 22 and 23 at the University of Minnesota Continuing Education and Conference Center. For details visit tinyurl.com/MWP-MNSCBWI16