Imagine you’re an illustrator and you design the cover of a book by some Midwest law professor. You draw a little tree and a little house, arrange two photos underneath, and get paid about $2,000.
Then years later the author starts getting really famous. Not just really famous, he becomes the president of the United States. He gets a Nobel Prize, even. The book sells about a hundred bazillion copies all around the world. You see your drawing everywhere you look, even in Korea when you take a trip there: The little tree and the little house.
That’s what happened to Steven Dana, who lives in White Plains and runs a pottery-painting shop in Rye. He did the cover of “Dreams From My Father” in 1995.
Dana read parts of the draft before the book was published. He didn’t think a whole lot about it, and forgot about Barack Obama until 2003 or so.
“Obama,” he remembers thinking. “I did his cover.”
“Things are snowballing here,” he thought, “and I didn’t get paid very much.”
For the cover he received a standard flat fee for his work, not royalties that would be in the zillions by now. But Dana does not come across as a bitter man. He happened to show me the design when I stopped in to inquire about his colorful business, Polka Dot Penguin Pottery on Purchase Street. He started flipping through to other works of art.
About that tree, I asked him. Did he research Kenya’s trees? No, he said, he just thought that one looked about right. He was given just two photos to place on the cover, the one of Obama’s father and paternal grandmother, and the one of his maternal grandparents. The cover now includes a third photo of Obama.
Dana is a friendly, unpretentious artist who seems to absolutely love his work. His wife, Yumi Heo, is also an artist and children’s book author. Their shop is painted in bright orange and polka dots.
As part of the decor, Dana painted a television bright orange, which is a big hit with kids. “I tell them we only get orange-juice commercials on it now,” he said.
There’s also a kind of mission statement, handwritten in orange and posted on the wall:
“Polka Dot Penguin Pottery is about moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas strengthening their bonds with their children and grandchildren.
“We’re about best friends sharing their happiest and saddest moments and new friendships beginning and growing. We’re about smiles and pleases and thank yous. We’re about no problem being too big to solve.
“We’re about leaving the world outside our door and really taking the time inside here to listen to each other.”
(And in tiny letters at the end:)
“We’re lastly about the pottery.”