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Illustrating Success

Illustrator Bonnie Matthews
Illustrator Bonnie Matthews

If Franz Kafka had hired Bonnie Matthews to illustrate his story, Metamorphosis, he might have embarked on a whole new career for himself. Kafka's man-turned-into-bug Gregor might have worn a purple striped t-shirt, a straw hat and pushed a coral pink gift cart with a polka-dot umbrella (Gregor was a traveling salesman afterall).

While Matthews may not have been able to transform Kafka into a turn-of-the-century Dr. Seuss, she would have served as a fine example for his story as she knows something about undergoing life-altering changes.

A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Communication Arts and Design, Matthews arrived in Baltimore in 1991 and found work in graphic design while she attempted to establish a career as an illustrator.

Of course, never having trained as an illustrator did nothing to dissuade her.

"I didn't have anything published yet, but I sent out samples of mock editorial-style illustrations to magazines. A couple things trickled in. I applied for a job at North Charles Street Design and thought I could do illustration at night. Eight months later I got my first children's book," she said.

Matthews admits to becoming "burned out" doing graphic design and decided to commit herself totally to her drawing. "I needed to push myself to do illustration. I work really well with fear�you have to pay the bills! And here I am, 19 years and 25 books later," she says.

Her books include Coral Reefs by famed marine biologist and explorer, Sylvia Earle; the pop-up book, Bon Voyage; What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., among others.

Drawing on a whim

Matthews's style is often described by herself and her colleagues as "whimsical," which is appropriate as she lets her whims guide her hand.

"I create on a whim. I started na�ve, colorful, very whimsical, but not in a cutesy way. I'm not perfect, my drawings aren't anatomically correct, with five fingers, that sort of thing. It's really consistent and happy. Because of my style and use of color I get a lot of clients with products geared towards kids�foundations, children's hospitals, comic books, things like that�but I've also done stuff for T. Rowe Price which is geared to a totally different market, but still fun," she said.

Lesales Dunworth, creative director for the Baltimore investment management company, T.Rowe Price, couldn't agree more.

"I've always been a fan of Bonnie's work," says Dunsworth, who has known Matthews for 17 years. "It has a certain kind of whimsy that's really appropriate for a broad audience, to both adult and children's audiences. Her work has a lot of depth and personality, the kind that you can study for a long time and find a lot of little clever surprises�lots and lots of detail," she says.

For Dunsworth, Matthews' illustrations are a reflection of her own ebullient personality.

"She's very energetic and upbeat, and that's how I've always found her. I think that really comes through in her work�it has a lot of vibrancy and an optimistic tone�and a bit of spunk, as in the 'Baltimore ladies' she draws. They have a spark, a little edge, but in a positive way. I think her work is pretty unique, and it's so hard to be original these days," Dunsworth says.

Drawing on determination

While Matthews has continued to enjoy success in her professional life, challenges in her personal life took a toll on her body. She gained weight, tipping the scales at 265 pounds. Through hard work and determination, Matthews lost 130 pounds and found herself online, writing to Oprah Winfrey in hopes her story might serve as inspiration to others.

"I wanted to share my story with other 40-year-old women to help them take control of their lives. Four days later, I get a call on my cell phone from one of Dr. Oz's [Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose popular health program is broadcast nationally] producers as Oprah Winfrey owns both shows. I met with them in October and in December we taped a show and aired it January 4th for a big New Year's Resolution episode," she recalls.

"By the end of the taping, Dr. Oz said, 'We'd love you to be part of the team, we want to hear more from you,' so he made me the Wellness Warrior blogger for the show. I blog every week, I post recipes, talk about weight loss, food, how to do into the gym and not feel like crap because you feel everyone's looking at you," Matthews says.

And with a new book she's writing � "I'm calling it, You've Got To Want It More Than Pizza" � Matthews is finding new potential for her talent as an illustrator. Matthews related how a recent meeting with Thomas Harding, co-founder of the Organic Foods Production Association, encouraged her to attend a Capitol Hill summit to share her story with key legislators as way to educate young people on the benefits of healthy eating. .

"He (Harding) loved that I was an illustrator and thought I should meet people in the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture to create brochures or even a fun kids' book, to get this in front of a White House aide to show Michelle Obama and her 'Let's Move' organization, so that's on the horizon," Matthews said.

When she's not meeting with congressmen or having dinner at the home of the deputy undersecretary of agriculture, Matthews "works her butt off" at the gym, develops healthy recipes ("A lot of people are scared of grains because of carbs, but you need grains"), works in a wine bar, and wows people with her cooking.

"Oh my word," Davis exclaims, "During our last fundraising drive, Bonnie said she'd be more than happy to donate food. To have someone offer, I said, 'Hallelujah!' I knew her artwork, not her food, but thought she'd be great at whatever she tried. Well, I thought I'd be knocked down and trampled by staff running to the table to get the food. It was amazing�mango salsa, glazed brussel sprouts, kous kous, apricots, almonds. People for days were emailing, asking 'Where did you get this food, tell us about this woman!'"

Blogger, chef, fitness guru, artist, writer�Matthews continues to recreate herself.

"I want my own cooking show!" she confides in an email. She also would love to be a motivational speaker, sharing her energy to inspire others. As anyone who has met Matthews knows, that metamorphosis is already complete.

A communications professional for over 25 years, Dan Collins has been a reporter, features writer, editor and columnist since 1984, including stints with The Washington Times and the Times Publishing Group (later Patuxent Publishing and now part of The Baltimore Sun) and The Baltimore Examiner in Baltimore. His freelance writing career has included his work for the Beacon newspaper as well as other publications including Baltimore Magazine.

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Captions: All images and illustrations provided by Bonnie Matthews
1. Illustrator Bonnie Matthews
2. An iguana drinking coffee illustrated by Bonnie Matthews
3. Coral Reefs, a picture book illustrated by Bonnie Matthews for published by National Geographic as part of their Jump Into Science Series
4. An invitation and paper doll illustration by Bonnie Matthews for the Goddess Sleepover for the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore
5. Tamin Petunia, illustrated by Bonnie Matthews06 Gift wrap illustrated by Bonnie Matthews originally produced for Marcel Schurman and licensed to Random House for their in store wrapping paper

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