Tag Archives: The Cows are Going to Paris

Oh, The Places He Goes!

Chris Demarest on the Persian Gulf

Author/Illustrator Chris Demarest on the Persian Gulf

A colleague once referred to Chris Demarest as “the Sebastian Junger for the younger set.” It’s an apt description.

He works by creating visual imagery steadily, whether it’s on-the-go  jumping off planes around the word, or while settling in different parts of the country. He also manages to fold adventure into everything he does.

He is author and illustrator of over one hundred titles.  His upcoming book project is BASIC TRAINING, for Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press (publishers of his Arlington book), is due out in 2013.

Joy Chu:  For years you’ve been known for books that feature your cartoon-style of drawing, including No Peas For Nellie, Kitman and Willy, The Animal’s Song, plus numerous series projects for school texts, poetry anthologies, board books, and much more.

"Kitman and Willy" and "No Peas for Nellie"

We worked together on The Cows Are Going to Paris, Two Badd Babies, and My Little Red Car (all from Boyds Mills Press).

"The Cows are Going to Paris" and "Two Badd Babies"

You are possibly the fastest artist [in terms of drawing] I know.  Every art director’s dream, deadline-wise! You even owned a red Miata during that period, and took professional racing  lessons.

Chris Demarest training at the Skip Barber Racing School track, plus his book, "My Little Red Car"

CD:  That’s funny that you remember the red Miata.  Yes, I bought that after going to race driving school.

You say I’m a fast “draw-ler.”  That was several years back.  I had the record for the fastest turn-around at the Boston Globe: Eight minutes from start-to-received fax, for a b/w illustration!

JC:  I loved your line drawings [in your children’s books], with bursts of bright watercolor, full of humor and wit!

Later on, you embraced a much more realistic, painterly approach. How and why did that happen?

Chris Demarest:   I was a realistic painter/printmaker in college.  I’d always been “drawn” to action images: skiers, ball game players, race cars, generally “boy’ things as a kid.

In college, the focus was more on the human form.  The key to drawing is in both numerous life drawing classes and HOW to draw.  We were never allowed to use anything but a sharp pencil. Anything less allowed us to cheat.

We all know how hard hands are to draw.  So, in having to work with a fine line, it sharpened our eyes and taught us to draw not what we knew in general (hand = four fingers + thumb with lots of joints) but what we saw.  A hand is like a face: It’s unique in size; shape; length.

Having that line skill made transitioning to line cartooning easy.  I knew anatomy well enough so translating that into a cartoon human was simple— or let’s say easier.

I also liked the shift away from a painting that would take a couple of weeks to something that was done in a matter of minutes.

In 1990, I re-located from New York City to Vermont. That move changed my life. I had a family, and we happened upon the local town’s fire department’s open house. Thinking my son Ethan (he was one at the time) would enjoy visiting, I joined their all-volunteer department.

Over the course of two years, I developed a book on fire-fighting while working with them. It started out as kind-of-a Richard Scarry approach (using my own line work).

I like using the alphabet as a template when it works. But as I wrote the story it became edgier.

As the tone of the book changed, so too did the art.  It went through a phase of Virginia Lee Burton/ Mike Mulligan and his  Steam Shovel-like flavor.

My editor at the time told me that it was too scary (“Kids are afraid of fire”). That was when I sensed I had the wrong editor.

Long story short, I later met Emma Dryden. Her only comments after looking at the completed artwork then was “Add MORE fire. Add MORE smoke!” She was so on target!

JC:  Aha!

CD:   It had to be realistic, if I was going to talk about the dangers of fire and fire fighting.

cover from "Firefighters A to Z"That book became Firefighters A to Z,  which subsequently was chosen as a New York Times “Best Book”.

Selected pages from "Firefighters A to Z"

Selected pages from "Firefighters A to Z" (click to enlarge)

Emma Dryden embraced the firefighting idea, and let me do two more books on firefighting, Hotshots! and Smoke Jumpers One to Ten.

I visited the US Forest Service Smokejumper base in Redding CA for research.  Ironically, this was before the Coast Guard book and 9/11.  At the jump base, I was never allowed to leave the ground. No shots from the air, only ground shots.

From "Hotshots!"

From "Hotshots!", done in pastel (click to enlarge)

I was fortunate to see them do a practice jump which was very exciting. Seeing people leap out of a plane at only 1500 feet is impressive. If one didn’t open a chute, the drop would take about eight seconds.  That’s not much time if something goes wrong.

I then shifted toward other themes involving rescue. For a year, I  flew with the US Coast Guard (USCG) out of Air Station Cape Cod, doing research for Mayday! Mayday! A Coast Guard Rescue.

"Mayday! Mayday!" alongside USCG Air Station rescue workers getting ready

Left: "Mayday! Mayday!" cover. Right: USCG Air Station rescue workers (click to enlarge)

From "Mayday! Mayday!", done in pastel

From "Mayday! Mayday!", done in pastel (click to enlarge)

This is where it got interesting.  As unhelpful as the US Forest Service was with the smokejumper book, the US Coast Guard bent over backwards to help.

Gunner's Mate USCG "Adirondack"  watercolor

Gunner's Mate USCG "Adirondack" watercolor (click to enlarge)

Their first email response (after validation from Emma) was: “When can you come? We’ll take you up in the Falcon jet and the Jayhawk helicopter…”

Jen/Cobra  watercolor

Jen/Cobra watercolor (click to enlarge)

W-Whiskey  (A-10 Warthog) from "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie: a Military Alphabet" 

W-Whiskey (A-10 Warthog) from "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie: a Military Alphabet" (click to enlarge)

When I forwarded this to Emma, she immediately shot back with: “You get to do all the cool stuff while I’m stuck behind this desk.” Little did she know…

My editor Emma Dryden on her flight with Air Station Cape Cod.  After an ninety minute flight going from terrified to quietly ecstatic (if that's such a term).  Doffing her flight helmet, she leans into me and exclaims "No more books about bunnies and ducks!"  She got a chance to experience some of the adventures I've been on.

My editor Emma Dryden, on her flight with Air Station Cape Cod. After a 90-minute flight, going from terrified to quietly ecstatic. Doffing her flight helmet, she leans into me and exclaims "No more books about bunnies and ducks!" She got a chance to experience some of the adventures I've been on. (click to enlarge)

Two years later, I flew with the Hurricane Hunters into Hurricane Ivan, researching Hurricane Hunters: Riders On The Storm.

The "eye" of Hurricane Ivan

The "eye" of Hurricane Ivan. (click to enlarge)

After the three firefighting books, Emma said: “What can you do with water?”  After Mayday! Mayday! (and inspired by Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm), I wanted to cover hurricanes.  So again, I wrote to my intended target, got clearance and made preparations.

The only difference is no one can predict the evolution of hurricanes.  Whereas the Coast Guard could set a schedule for me, I had to wait to hear from the US Air Force Reserve out of Biloxi, Mississippi. The biggest problem is that it’s expensive to fly commercially at the drop of a hat.  All summer, I kept missing storms because I couldn’t just get up and leave!

Hurricane Hunters Crew portrait

Hurricane Hunters Crew portrait (click to enlarge)

Finally in August, I made plans to visit the air base. Then if a hurricane rolled through, lucky me!  As it turned out, the day after arriving in Biloxi, they called to say a flight was scheduled the next day [to witness hurricane work first-hand]. Finally I was able to go!

JC:  You seem to be entering a new chapter now.

CD:  Emma Dryden told me several times: “You have an uncanny way of reinventing yourself”.  She stated that over ten years ago when Firefighters A to Z came out, and she said this to me again recently.

There were a few transitional books like Cowboy ABC and Lindbergh, where my art style reverted (from light linework) to realism.  But with the firefighting book, I was also able to play the boy again, going out on actual adventures. Previously, my themes were imagined;  this time they were all very real.

Griff Holland. This is the painting that started it all.

Griff Holland. This is the painting that started it all. (click to enlarge)

While working with Air Station Cape Cod, I wanted to give back to them.  It came in two ways: I became a USCG Auxilarist and an official artist  — two separate entities.

Cat shot (catapult).  FA-18 Hornet launches.

Cat shot (catapult). FA-18 Hornet launches. (click to enlarge)

At the first acceptance art ceremony, I met the Rear Admiral (mid-Atlantic).   “Sally” became a good friend and ally who got me into places one normally isn’t allowed.  I got to experience so many avenues of the Coast Guard because of her.

The "Monomoy" one of four patrol boats I lived on.

The "Monomoy" one of four patrol boats I lived on. (click to enlarge)

Then one cold and depressing day in February, an email from USCG Headquarters arrived.  It began:  “Dear Mr. Demarest. We’re contacting you to see about your availability to go to Bahrain…”  Thus began a two month process of working both with them and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (Bahrain). It was an incredible journey and experience.

One of many sunken ships in the Kwar River (Kuwait) from the Kueait/Iraq War 

One of many sunken ships in the Kwar River (Kuwait) from the Kuwait/Iraq War (click to enlarge)

The CO (Commanding Officer) is besieged by dragonflies.  I'd heard about this phenomenon and finally on my last day, out of nowhere hundreds covered the boat.

The Commanding Officer besieged by dragonflies. I'd heard about this phenomenon: Out of nowhere, hundreds covered the boat. (click to enlarge)

The Coast Guard sent me to the Persian Gulf living aboard patrol boats, to document their work guarding the oil platforms off the coast of Iraq.

This is a war zone. Night and storm rolling in against the backdrop of a 50 cal machine gun.

This is a war zone. Night and storm rolling in against the backdrop of a 50 cal machine gun. (click to enlarge)

Nine paintings and drawings from that trip are in the USCG permanent art collection, Washington DC.

My day on the job, landing on the interstate to transport an accident victim.

My day on the job with the medical evacuation team of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, landing on the interstate to transport an accident victim. (click to enlarge)

In 2007 I flew over twenty-five missions with DHART, the medical evacuation team out of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.  An exhibit chronicled this period. An article I wrote up on the  experience appeared in their publication, Dartmouth Medicine.

Working with the military prepared me for where I am now, working at the Women’s Memorial, talking to service people almost daily.


"Ada" (click to enlarge)


Pvt. Henry Chu (click to enlarge)

Ensign Ludtke

Ensign Ludtke (click to enlarge)

"Somewhere in Europe"

"Somewhere in Europe" (click to enlarge)

JC:  And you were here in San Diego recently!

CD:  I was deployed to San Diego to cover border patrol operations aboard a small cutter and in their rescue helicopter.

Headquarters sent me to San Diego to cover border patrols on both boat and helicopter.  Like any mission, it’s hit or miss about seeing anything of note.  As it was, there were no incidents.

Spending eighteen hours on the patrol boat Haddock I did get to see them practice rescue basket operations.  I’ve seen it countless times from above in the helicopter but this was new.

This boat was an 85-footer as opposed to the ones in the Persian Gulf (110-footers) and the size difference was thirty five feet shorter.  That meant it bobbed about like a cork.

To date, I’ve never gotten sick either on ships or flying but I was tested.  Sleeping presents a problem when the boat pitches a lot. My concern was less about getting sick than falling out of the rack.  Tucking myself in, literally, saved me from rolling out of the top berth.

Sgt Max McClure, tail gunner and bomb loader

Sgt Max McClure, tail gunner and bomb loader (click to enlarge)

JC:  Tell us about your most recent projects.

CD:  My most recent release, a picture book called Arlington: A Story of Our Nation’s Cemetery (Macmillan/Roaring Brook, 2010) honors the history of the grounds and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to their nation.

from "Arlington"

from "Arlington" (click to enlarge)

My father was buried at Arlington in 1989 and I got to see the whole show. Caisson, bugle sounding taps and the rifle salute.  I also covered a USCG funeral.

By the time it came to do a book on the troops, I chose to cover it as Arlington’s history.  That history in itself is interesting, as it ties George Washington to Robert E. Lee together, via bloodlines and marriage.

Somehow coming to the women’s memorial last year made it feel like I was coming full circle back to my father and his WW II military service, by working on portraits of WW II people.

The 6888 (Six triple eight) battalion.

The 6888 (Six triple eight) battalion. (click to enlarge)

With my move to Washington DC, my work with the military continues as an on-site artist at The Women in Military Service to America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, creating a massive collection of World War II portraits honoring the “greatest generation”.

My next project for the memorial is to create five life-size dioramas, one for each service branch, showing the contemporary work women do in the military.

Chris Demarest's office (in the shadows) Arlington House on the hill, Arlington National Cemetery

Chris Demarest's office (in the shadows) Arlington House on the hill, Arlington National Cemetery (click to enlarge)

Working on-site has provided another avenue. Interacting with the public, who stroll the hallways of the memorial daily has often brought me face-to-face with those who’ve lost loved ones in the recent wars.

Wall of Thanks

The Wall of Thanks, at the Women's Memorial (click to enlarge)

For them I created a “wall of thanks” which allows anyone to leave drawings and messages as a kind of therapy for all.

Note found on the Wall of Thanks

One note found on the Wall of Thanks, in reference to service women (click to enlarge)

It’s my greatest joy, being able to reach out to those emotionally hardest hit by letting them have a voice.

One retired Navy commander, who works at the memorial, calls me “Father Dave” because I remind her of a chaplain she was close to while she served.

JC:  She calls you “Father Dave”? Why, Chris?

CD:  In part, because of the conversations I relate to her [from my interactions], with people who’ve lost a loved one in war.

 Renee Montagne's father (right) and his buddy two months before Pearl Harbor, Long Beach CA

NPR reporter Renee Montagne's father (right) and his buddy two months before Pearl Harbor, Long Beach CA (click to enlarge)

JC:  You are producing amazing portraits!  They reveal a wholly new dimension to your body of work.

And those faces.  They radiate layered stories telepathically when they stare back at us.

Are you looking for donors / patrons / corporate funding for your on-going efforts? On behalf of World War II portraits honoring the “greatest generation”? If so, where can prospective folks contact you?

CD:  Yes, please. For official recognition, contributions of any size can be sent to:

Chris Demarest
Women in Military Service For America Foundation
200 N. Glebe Rd  Suite 400
Arlington VA 22203


Check out highlights from the exhibition The Greatest Generationhere.

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Wait wait. . . there’s more!

@ Everyone:  For those who would like to have a portrait (WW II, Korea, Vietnam era) of a beloved veteran created, the fee for a 16×20 acrylic on canvas, the fee is $500 (slightly higher fee for oils on canvas).

Contact:   Chris L. Demarest

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