This is the latest in a monthly series in which industry leaders describe the projects and products that give them the most joy and pride. This month, artist and writer Jessica Hagy reflects on how art can lift you up during difficult times.
The best thing I ever made is this book: The Art of War, Visualized. It’s a cornerstone of my portfolio, a piece of work that proves I can illustrate literally anything, and it’s how I got my creative groove back after a long illness.
I’d been spending far too much time in hospitals, far too much time in a mental fog of exhaustion and nausea. The biggest part of my recovery was making this book. Making art kept my mind off of everything else, gave my hands a task to complete, and gave me a piece of work that I could look at and be proud of.
It started when I was rummaging around in the my basement, and on my bookshelf I saw that my husband had multiple copies of The Art of War. I figured, “Hmm, maybe I should have read this by now.” So I did.
I was expecting something really dry, cold, and brutal. I was expecting to learn the proper way to arrange heads on spikes, a step-by-step plan for murdering large populations efficiently. I’d expected something testosterone-fueled and rage-propelled. I didn’t get that at all. I thought Sun Tzu was a bloodthirsty slayer. But he wasn’t. Sun Tzu turned out to be a wise and gentle guide — with the tone of a college professor in a wooly sweater with leather patches on his elbows.
Instead of a manual for harnessing aggressions, I found a very thoughtful — dare I say, mindful — book about situational awareness and social responsibility. It was a book about patience, caution, and diplomacy. Reading it, I understood why so many people adored this text — why it was a staple of business schools across the world. This book was smart. It was human. It was strategic without being back-stabby. And I wanted to explore it even further.
The Art of War was written in short verses, composed almost like a book from the Bible (which makes sense, seeing as it was written approximately 2,500 years ago). But seeing it through an illustrator’s eyes, I didn’t see the Bible. I saw the New Yorker.
Think about the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest: You’re given an image and you need to come up with a verbal twist on it. But in Art of War, I saw the reverse of that game. I saw 300 captions that just needed images — the perfect challenge for any illustrator.
And I saw a project that would help me feel better. After being too sick to work for months and months, I seized onto illustrating The Art of War. It’s thirteen chapters, so I built myself a strict set of deadlines: two chapters a week.
The project was done even sooner. I still had it; I could still draw fast, smart work on crazy deadlines. I felt like I was getting back to normal. Making art literally made me feel better. It was therapy, this project. My agent saw what I was up to, and had me put a book proposal together.
Soon I was reworking my original drawings in India ink, formatting the entire project to fit between covers. The result is a gorgeous book that taught me the true meaning of strategy. It taught me that I can recover from anything. And it taught me that if I’m ever feeling unwell or uneasy, I should pick up a pen. I’ll begin to get better — mentally, physically, and at my craft.