Eric Velasquez: The art contest that changed my life

Award-winning author and illustrator Eric Velasquez tells the story of an art contest that launched his career as an illustrator -- and the steps his grandmother take to make sure he entered. You can see the full interview with Eric in our Meet the Author section.


Every year there was a book, and it was the work of illustrators, and this is how illustrators would get jobs as an illustrator. The book was sent to every publishing house, advertising agency, graphic design studio in America, basically. And they would have access to your phone number and address, and they would contact you and offer you work. And [LB1] so they came to S V A, Parsons, Pratt, FIT, all the major art schools, particularly here in New York.

And the entry fee was like, it was $20. And I remember my grandmother asking me if I was going to be entering the contest. I saw the work of my fellow students, it really kind of messed up my confidence. So when my grandmother asked me, did you enter the contest yet? I said, “Yeah, Grandma, I'm not going to do that. I going to just pass on it. And she said, really? But why?”

I'm like, “I don't think I'm going to win. So this is such great talent out there, and I'm not really part of that.” And I remember then she's kind of went, “Oh, okay.” And it was a Sunday and you had to have your slides and the money, and I had already shot the slides of my work. And so she calls me and she says, “Are you busy?” I'm like, “No, Grandma, what's the matter? Is everything okay?” She goes, “Yeah, but I kind of ran out of milk and my foot sort of hurts, and I was one hoping that you can come by and just get some milk because I want to make some coffee.” I'm like, “Okay, I'll be right over there.” It was about a five block walk.

And I ran over there and got her the milk, and I, I'll never forget this, she had a folded $20 bill, and she placed it in my jacket pocket. And I said, “Grandma, what is this? She says, “For the contest, because I know it's tomorrow.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I told you.” She says, “You're going to, you are going to join that. You're going to be part of that. I want you to enter the contest.”

And so I said, “Okay, hey, you want to throw your money away? I'll help you do it,” basically was my attitude. So I entered the contest and about a month or two later, I got a phone call and it was from the publisher Richard Levinson. And he said, “Congratulations, you've won second place.”

And I was shocked. And I remember, so that call came in on a Friday morning, and I know because my mom would be off on Friday, so my mom's standing right next to me when I took the phone call, and the first thing my mother says is, “You better call your grandma.” And I said, “Okay.” And I call her up, I said, “Grandma, I want second place in the contest that you gave me the money for.” And there was no reaction. I'm like, “Grandma, did you hear what I just said?” She said, “Yeah, I heard you.” I said, “Did you get a phone call? Did you get a phone call earlier?” I'm thinking. And she says, “You're not telling me anything I didn't know the day that I gave you the money.”

I said, “Okay.” And I, it's even telling the story again, it kind of feels odd for me because it's like kind of like, wow, it, it's a testament to me. When you have people that love you and support you in your life, the difference that they make it, it's just tremendous. They can shift the course of history. If my grandmother had just gone along with my saying that they were talent, really talented kids that were better than me and all that, yeah, I would not have won that prize, and I would not have started my career so soon after graduating. So yeah, that was a pivotal moment in my life