Real-world experience brings illustrations to life


Jasper native Sami Pfaff was snorkeling in the springs around Crystal River, Florida, last week when a manatee rose up underneath her. The giant marine mammal startled Pfaff with its size, but the gentle giant let her touch it as it slowly swam by.

Jasper native and Ball State University senior Sami Pfaff sketched the skull of a manatee at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., during a research trip for a children's book on manatees she is illustrating. (Photo provided)

“It just appeared out of nowhere and it was right there,” Pfaff said.

The daughter of Ron and Kim Pfaff is a Ball State University senior animation student and spent four days in Florida last week interacting with manatees as research for an upcoming “Conservation Tales” children’s book she’s illustrating. The series focuses on endangered animals and is written by Ball State biology professor Tom McConnell. Pfaff has been illustrating the books since the first tale, a book about cerulean warblers, was published her sophomore year. That book took most of the school year to produce, Pfaff said.

In the two years since the cerulean warblers book published, two more “Conservation Tales” books have published with Pfaff’s drawings — bats and bees — each taking about a semester to complete. Another illustrator, Sierra Hensley, joined the team during work on the bats book to draw the people. Pfaff and Hensley also worked together on the bees book.

“That was really helpful,” Pfaff said. I’m more (into) the animals and backgrounds.”

Illustrators Janice Carter and Sarah DeMars also joined the team and worked on a book about salamanders. Currently, four “Conservation Tales” books have been published, and the team — which has grown to 14 and includes graphic design and elementary education students — is working on three more books: manatees, sea horses and sea turtles. Pfaff chose to work on the manatees book.

Pfaff’s trip to Florida was all about manatees and learning their mannerisms. At Crystal River, Pfaff got to see the animals in their natural habitat. After that, the group visited Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa, Florida, and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, where Pfaff got to interact with manatees in captivity and talk to people who work with them every day. While looking at photos and videos of the animals is helpful, Pfaff said, it doesn’t do the animals justice. In Florida, Pfaff became more familiar with the subjects of her drawings.

“We got to get up close and observe them,” Pfaff said. “It was really helpful.”

Manatees aren’t the only animals Pfaff has traveled to see during her work on “Conservation Tales.” For the cerulean warblers book, the team hiked state parks around Ball State in search of the birds. For the bats book, the team traveled to a bats festival in Detroit.

So far, Pfaff said, the bats book has been her favorite. As a child growing up in Jasper, she remembers sitting outside in the evenings bat watching with her dad. For that reason, the little flying animals have a special place in heart.

Working on “Conservation Tales” helped Pfaff figure out that she wants to pursue a career in illustrating. She’s always been interested in art, and at Jasper High School, Pfaff said, she took all the art classes offered.

“I always knew I wanted to go into art,” she said.

Pfaff said she’s also always been interested in illustrations and children’s books, but Ball State — also the alma mater of Pfaff’s sister, Jasper High School art teacher Andrea Fleck — doesn’t have an illustration program. Animation seemed like the next best thing.

By sophomore year, Pfaff had become disenchanted with animation and its reliance on technology. She talked to her adviser, art professor Barbara Giorgio-Booher, who suggested Pfaff team up with McConnell on “Conservation Tales.” It was the perfect fit.

Pfaff plans to pursue a career in illustrating after she graduates in May, possibly even at Mote Marine. During the trip, staff at the lab told Pfaff about their need for illustrators to document the bones of deceased animals. Pfaff plans to look into that. She also wants to illustrate children’s books when possible as a freelance illustrator.

“Conservation Tales” has "definitely been an awesome project,” Pfaff said. “It’s led me to a lot of places and to meeting a lot of people.”

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