A man standing next to a woman sitting at a table. In front of the woman is a tablet and behind the two people is a screen with text and an illustration of a bird monster holding a skull in one of its talons.
With guidance from professor Christopher Irving and support from a research fund for undergraduates, communication arts major Sethe Howell created 10 original monster illustrations for a horror novel that she and her co-creator were able to fund with a Kickstarter campaign. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

From concept to crowdfunding, a monster story comes to life for VCUarts student

Illustrator Sethe Howell found inspiration in Christopher Irving’s Kickstarter assignment and brings Virginia flair to an illustrated horror novel.

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About Dreamwork, Team Work: As part of Research Weeks 2023, this series showcases undergraduates and their faculty mentors as they talk about their research and what they've learned from each other along the way.

Sethe Howell found herself researching flora and fauna native to Virginia. But as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University, she wasn’t looking to discover bioactive compounds or broaden the foundations of biological science. She was gathering references and inspirations for her illustrated horror novel.

Howell has been drawing ever since she was old enough to pick up a pencil. In VCU’s School of the Arts, the communication arts major had narrowed down her interest to illustration and concept art for books, video games and tabletop games. But she never thought research would be a part of her trajectory until taking assistant professor Christopher Irving’s crowdfunding class, where she was required to develop a product for a Kickstarter campaign.

As she mulled over ideas, Howell thought of her high school friend McKennly McLain, a Bennington College student with whom she always wanted to collaborate. And with all the financing, mentoring and encouragement they needed, Howell and McLain developed “Red Cairn: A book of cryptic monsters!

The illustrated horror book features strange entities — ranging from sentient plant life to robots wearing roadkill — that are lurking about the titular town of Red Cairn in rural Virginia. It is presented in a field guide format, including background history, observation notes and follow-ups. Howell illustrated and designed the book, which McLain wrote.

“The ‘Red Cairn’ project was difficult with a capital D,” Howell said. “When one thinks of art projects, it’s easy to assume that the project is exclusively about creating the picture. That is not true. There are many, many more considerations one has to make, especially when trying to publish a project.”

These included social media outreach; researching real Virginia plants, animals and history; and gathering references and inspirations. In addition to making sure she and McLain were on the same page regarding their work, Howell had to reach out to editors and printing companies; make financial decisions regarding production, shipping and taxes; and update their Kickstarter page every week to keep their backers in the know.

“I can comfortably say that illustrating for ‘Red Cairn’ was only half of the work involved,” Howell said.

With guidance from her mentor Irving, who is no stranger to crowdfunding and all it takes from start to finish to publish a creation, Howell made her project come to life.

Here, student and mentor share thoughts on what they learned working together.

Sethe Howell

What attracted you to this project?

The idea for “Red Cairn” came about in Chris Irving's Kickstarter class, particularly for a final project in which we had to come up with a product we wanted to get crowdfunded. As I brainstormed ideas, McKennly came to mind. McKennly and I have been great friends since high school, and we have wanted to combine our talents to create an illustrated novel for years. With mentorship from a Kickstarter expert and the potential for funding at stake, this was the perfect opportunity to do so. Chris then brought the UROP opportunity to my attention, and soon what started as a small-scale class assignment became an independent effort over the summer.

A woman sitting at a table with a tablet in front of her. Behind her is a screen with text and an illustration of a monster that is an old fashion record player with six sets of arms sprouting from it.
Sethe Howell in front of one of her creations. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

What did you get out of the experience?

As an undergraduate, receiving mentorship for big projects such as this is key to my growth as an artist. Once I’m out there, opportunities like this are going to be few and far between. Of course, I already have and will make mistakes — that’s unavoidable. However, a hugely important part of this research is that it has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and do things I’ve never done before: applying for a grant, producing a book and being featured in news articles, to name a few.

Putting oneself out there is scary. So seeing so much support for our creature feature that we’ve been working on for over a year, I cannot express how much it means to us.

I’ve grown so much from the experience. First and foremost, my art became a lot better in a short time with how much I was drawing — 10 finished illustrations for “Red Cairn” in the span of a little under three months, plus an extra for our biggest backer’s commission. Secondly, I’ve gotten much better at presenting my work and am less scared about using platforms such as Kickstarter to receive support or speaking to individuals who are interested in my project.

What’s one lesson you learned from Irving?

Chris Irving has been instrumental in the work behind “Red Cairn.” He’s made over 50 Kickstarter projects and offered his advice in creating our own — do’s and don’ts, what to avoid, how to use links and social media to get more eyes on our project, and more. He’s seen every step of “Red Cairn’s” creation and gave critiques on my drawings, title and layout designs, and McKennly’s writing. He also has a well-established network in the publishing field, which gave us extra opportunities when reaching out for support and to printing companies.

Christopher Irving

Why does this research matter?

Our students are alive at a time when they can fund their personal and creative projects through a platform like Kickstarter, and even produce them at a relatively low cost and in small numbers. I discovered how possible it was, for the first time, about 10 years ago. Showing our students just how attainable, and manageable, the entire process is this early on will prepare them to have control and production of their own creations as they embark on their own careers in content creation.

By empowering our students while they’re here with us now, it’ll help give them an edge later, when they go out and make their own names as individual creators. The vast scope and flexibility of the UROP fellowship allows students the ability to pursue projects and lines of study they couldn’t always find room for in the regular classroom.

How did Sethe help advance the project?

A man wearing a black sports coat and black button up shirt standing against a white wall.
Christopher Irving. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Sethe was in my crowdfunding class in Communication Arts when she first presented “Red Cairn” as a project to fund and create. My hope has always been for every student to walk out with an extra spring in their step when it comes to sharing their vision with others — and not needing anyone else’s permission for it.

In the case of a self-motivated student like Sethe, it’s giving her more tools at her disposal. The skills Sethe honed and learned in the process of creating “Red Cairn” will help in crafting the next project, and the one after that, and the one after that.

What’s one lesson you learned from Sethe?

I was instantly blown away with not only her vision but the effectiveness of her designs, as well as the sense of world-building both of them had already started. The first monster design was the old Victrola record player with spider legs, and I found it delightfully and fantastically repulsive, scary and perfect.

I am incredibly proud of all the hard work that went into “Red Cairn.” I’ve only seen a digital copy so far, and I anxiously await having the printed physical copy when the print run comes in. It’s going on my bookshelf along with “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “Coraline!”