For Baltimore-based creative Janna Morton, it’s the little things that matter. In the highly illustrative, yet clearly inspired-by-life scenes she depicts, she doesn’t skimp on the details. From girly knick-knacks lining a teen’s bookshelf to clothing adorned with animated patterns motivated by her own penchant for vintage fashion, these touches paint characters from her images with distinct personalities.
Morton’s illustrations have appeared in children’s books, The New York Times and Buzzfeed, and her work has also been exhibited in Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis, among others. As part of a monthly space featuring creatives from Women Who Draw—an open directory of more than 2,700 professional female, women of color and LBTQ+ illustrators—here Morton discusses her process, her personal visual journalism projects inspired by social injustice in her city, and … her artistic renderings of men posing with wild animals in their online dating profiles.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Yeah. For as long as I can remember. From like age 3, I’ve just always been drawing. My mom was an art teacher, so she was always very encouraging of me drawing, and always made sure I had art supplies everywhere I went. That was my favorite thing, just always bringing a sketchbook with me everywhere.
Were your school’s art teachers also supportive of your aspirations?
Looking back on my old drawings from when I was a kid, I don’t think that they were super exceptional, but I was very passionate about it. It was something I really enjoyed, and any time I could turn a project into an art project, I was going to do it. The people around me encouraged that, which was great. My mom was always very encouraging of it; my teachers were perfectly fine with me doing extra-credit art projects. The kids in my class were always asking me to draw for them.
Your subjects are such characters, and clearly you view the world in a unique way. Where does that come from?
A lot of things. I’m very much inspired by plants, and any sort of elements of nature. I love those shapes, I love the colors—the greens of different types of leaves layering over each other. In addition to that, I’m very much inspired by vintage wares and thrift store finds. I love fashion from the ’60s and ’70s, and home décor from that period as well. It’s very vibrant and colorful, and [has] clashing patterns. That’s very much me.
You employ a lot of really fine details. In your piece “Flyaways,” for example, the girl has some things you might actually see in the bedroom of a kid her age, like detailed posters and fashion magazines.
Adding the fine details is probably my favorite part. I want images that I create to be something that from far away, at first glance, you can see it—you can appreciate the color and the movement and the subject matter. But I also want it to be something you can keep looking at—if it’s hanging on your wall or it’s in a book or in a magazine, you can keep wanting to look at it, and every time you look at it you find something new.
You have a broad array of clients. Do you adapt your style for different audiences?
I don’t think I change it too much. I think about whatever story it is that I’m trying to tell more so than I think about the client, unless they’re asking me to think specifically about something regarding their viewership. I usually just think, How can I best tell this story, or get this idea across, or get this feeling across? I actually like it when a client has something specific that they want me to illustrate. … I find it more fun when I have rules that I have to stick to and play around and try to stretch.
In addition to your commissioned editorial projects, you do your own comics and zines. Can you tell us more about Retail Therapy and Tinder Guys With Tigers? Are they inspired by your own life?
My dad died in 2015, and then my mom had been struggling with cancer for years and ended up dying in 2017. I was their main caretaker during that period of time. So, at the time, I was writing a lot about what was happening, but it was very hard to do anything about it visually. As time has gone on, I’ve been working on putting a book together, which will be a collection of comics. Retail Therapy is one of those about that period of time.
Tinder Guys With Tigers is very much inspired by me doing online dating over the past three years. One of my favorite things to do is to collect weird images that I’ve seen on online dating apps. I’ve just seen all these strange connections between all these certain profiles. Why are there so many guys with tigers? I had to investigate that visually, and that’s where that came from. It’s a thing! People think that I made it up, but it’s real. It’s a place you can go and pose with tigers. And people do it—they go there and pay them money and get pictures with tigers, and then post them on their dating profile. It’s very popular.
I also saw a personal project of yours about the youth protests against police brutality in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in custody in 2015.
Watching the cable news networks and seeing how they were talking about Baltimore, they were talking about it like we were in some sort of warzone—like the racial tone they were [using to describe] the people who were looting and who were standing up against the police. It really just made me think about how much we’re influenced because of what the television tells us. I just wanted to go out and draw from life and show what this experience was actually like from someone who was on the ground in the city, walking around, talking to people, experiencing it.
Do you think female illustrators face unique challenges?
Definitely. I think part of it is that like many other areas of business in our world, there is an old-boys club of male illustrators who get to certain areas of power, and they lift up their friends who are also men, and they maintain that power and don’t often share it with women. I think also we all have a bias, and often art directors will think that they’re being more inclusive, but they’re actually still hiring more men than they are women, and particularly hiring more white people than people of color. I think it’s definitely getting better and it’s something people are thinking about more, which is why I think Women Who Draw is such a good asset for people who are trying to correct their bias.
Do you think Women Who Draw has made an impact for you?
The Flyaways piece you mentioned earlier was for Lenny Letter. I know that they specifically found me through Women Who Draw because they were looking for someone who was a woman and an artist of color. With Flyaways, I’m not sure if they knew that I’m mixed race, or if that came into play with that story and talking about natural hair care and different things. It was really nice to be asked to work for them for that reason—because I felt like someone was looking for my particular point of view.