S.J. Okemow is a Nehiyaw (Cree) and Eastern European multidisciplinary artist. mî Osâwâpikones (Dear Dandelion) is her debut picture book. It is a love letter to that little yellow flower we see everywhere! It explores the aliveness of the Cree language as it adopts new words post-colonization and the resilience of Indigenous Peoples.

S.J. splits her time between Toronto and Australia! We are very lucky to have her, in person, to share her story with us.

Illustrator Q&A with S.J. Okemow

What made you interested in becoming an illustrator?

I’m not sure if there was one thing in particular. I’ve always been drawing for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my favourite thing to give people was a drawing. It felt special to give something I’d spent time and care with and made with my hands. When my little sister was born, I remember making a big deal about gifting her this drawing I’d made of dinosaurs. I guess a part of me wanted to continue giving that kind of gift. 

What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?

I loved books about the body. I had a massive book called The Giant Book of the Human Body by Neil Ardley. I remember it being as tall as I was. I would lie on top of it on the ground and look at the different body systems all working like different little factories.

What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

I love drawing cellular and molecular structures and things that aren’t inherently visible to the human eye. But I also love drawing the natural world. 

What is a challenge you have faced as an artist?

I think the biggest hurdle I’ve faced is to learn to value what I do as an illustrator and to see myself as an artist. I think because I come from a science background, I have a bit of imposter syndrome when it comes to thinking of myself as an artist. That has fed into me not always treating my work with value and subsequently my time. 

What advice do you have for kids who are interested in art and illustration?  

Seek out community. Other people who have similar interests and can really help support you when things feel tough. And of course, just keep drawing!