‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ illustrator lectures during Homecoming Week

Bret Helquist, illustrator and artist, signs 9-year-old Natalie Baker's book in the Madsen Recital Hall of the HFAC. Helquist was one of many Alumni guests in the Homecoming Lecture Series. (Bret Mortimer)
Bret Helquist, illustrator and artist, signs 9-year-old Natalie Parker’s book in the Madsen Recital Hall of the HFAC. Helquist was invited to speak as part of the Alumni Achievement lecture series for Homecoming Week. (Bret Mortimer)

The illustrator responsible for the art in every ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ novel, Brett Helquist, gave a lecture in the Madsen Recital Hall in the HFAC.

The BYU alumnus spoke about his creative process and his personal journey. Helquist was one of many speakers invited to join the Alumni Achievement lecture series for Homecoming Week.

Helquist, who has been living and illustrating in New York for 20 years, has received the E.B. White Read Aloud Honor Award, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for children’s literature and Book Sense Book of the Year Award for children’s literature.

Helquist’s other illustrative work includes “Odd” and “The Frost Giants,” “Chasing Vermeer,” the Macy’s Parade, the New York Times and more.

He also wrote and illustrated three of his own books: “Roger, the Jolly Pirate,” “Bedtime for Bear” and “Grumpy Goat.”

Writing his own books was a feat for Helquist, as he failed his freshman composition class at BYU and never thought of himself as a writer.

Natalie Parker, a 9-year-old girl who attended the lecture with her father, asked Helquist to sign her copy of “Grumpy Goat.”

“I like art, and I wanted to hear from him. I learned that if you keep trying, you can make lots of good drawings and paintings,” Parker said.

Helquist said he was never very serious about art growing up and only dabbled in it. On his mission in Hong Kong, while everyone else was writing multiple letters, he practiced calligraphy.

Natalie and her father attended the lecture Thursday, Oct. 16 in the HFAC. (Bret Mortimer)
Natalie Parker and her father (left) attend Brett Helquist’s lecture Thursday, Oct. 16, in the HFAC. (Bret Mortimer)

As a mechanical engineering student, he took an art class for non-art majors. His professor noticed some of his artwork and told him that if he took it seriously, he could create something great.

What his professor said stuck with him. Helquist was having a hard time finding happiness as a mechanical engineering major, so he decided to take more art classes over the spring and summer terms.

He then decided to switch his major to illustration.

“It was magical to me that an artist with just a few dots or just a few lines could really bring a character to life,” Helquist said.

In the beginning, his figures weren’t coming out as well as he would have liked.

“There was a point where I got a little discouraged and wondered how I was going to get there,” he said.

He then realized that there was a process to all of it.

“It all starts with a scribble, just one idea. It’s a series of steps. I just had to learn the steps, and that’s what I devoted myself to,” Helquist said.

He also emphasized the importance of practicing in order to improve, which was also the key theme of his lecture.

“One thing I want you to learn from today is that whatever level you’re at right now — you can get better. With hard work, you can improve,” he said.

Helquist concluded the lecture with what he considered the more personal side of things. He said that he usually doesn’t get the chance to share his spiritual side, but since he was at BYU, he decided to open up.

He referenced a book called “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield and described it not as a touchy-feely, creative book but a “creating is hard and you’ve got to sit down and muscle down and do it,” book instead.

The book explains that real writers or artists know a secret that wannabe writers don’t, and Helquist related that excerpt to the gospel and creativity.

“The secret is this: it’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. And I think we’ve all felt that,” Helquist said. “There’s often times where we feel blocked, but how do we get beyond that the way that we need to? It made me think of a scripture in the book of Nephi, the part where we learn about free agency and about how there’s opposition in all things,” he explained.

Helquist said that the scriptures teach that people are free to act for themselves.

“If you pursue your creative life from here on out, you’re gonna have a lot of forces pulling you one way or the other,” Helquist said. “Sometimes it’ll be family, or work, and we all have to deal with those. But … there are quiet moments early in the morning or late at night where we should just sit down and write that poem we’ve been thinking about or paint that picture … I hope all of you will find a way in those moments, even with a half hour, (to) do some great creative work,” Helquist said.

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