At the lowest point in her life, Dar Hosta was 40 pounds overweight, feeling depressed and isolated, and living in a rural area outside Cleveland, Ohio. She had two small boys in diapers and her husband, Lou, was dealing with chronic illness. He was in end-stage kidney failure, on a donor list waiting for a transplant. He turned out to be one of the lucky ones. A successful match was found and he underwent the life-saving procedure when their son, Ethan, was two and their son, Caleb, was nine months old.
But Hosta still found herself desperately unhappy. "I would tell myself this is married life; this is what is supposed to happen. I had wanted to stay home with my kids. I loved them and they were healthy, but I was asking what has happened to my life?
Then one day she broke her leg while carrying the baby. "I was so heavy, I lost my balance. Later I was at a family picnic and people were snapping pictures. I saw pictures of myself with my leg up on the table, cast on, with this expression on my face. I didn't recognize myself on so many different levels - physically, spiritually, psychologically. And that's when I said, that's it!"
That pivotal day she made a giant red "X" on her calendar with one of her kid's Magic Markers. "I said this is the day I'm going to stop feeling sorry for myself. I'm going to lose weight, do something with my life, go back to who I was. I used to be a cool person; I worked in the city, had artsy friends, and read good books. I felt like I had turned into this depressed housewife. I was the epitome of everything I didn't want to be."
Today Hosta, 36, is an award-winning writer and illustrator of children's books with her third book, "Mavis and Her Marvelous Mooncakes," scheduled for release next year. She lives in Flemington with her husband and sons, now 7 and almost 9, as well as two big dogs and two old cats. Her whimsical collages and cut paper illustrations are on view at the Gallery at the Chapin School in Princeton. The public is invited to meet the artist at an opening reception for the show, titled "Earthly Delights," on Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 7
p.m. Hosta will also appear at the Arts Council of Princeton's Communiversity event on Saturday, April 23.
The tale of Hosta's remarkable turnaround is an inspiring story of determination and putting in the time and sweat to turn one's dreams into reality. Hosta turned adversity into opportunity and in the process found a new way of expressing herself that also spoke to an audience of adoring fans.
Born in Milwaukee, Hosta grew up in Columbia, Missouri, graduating from Hickman High School in 1986. Her mother was a psychologist. Her father was a commercial artist who did advertising work for department stores. She earned a B.A. in creating writing from the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1992 and a post-graduate teaching certificate in language arts from Cleveland State University in 1992. While her heart was set on teaching preschool and elementary school, she chose her certification in middle and high school English because it was the quickest way to do it while paying back a pile of student loans.
She ended up teaching at-risk high school seniors. "These were the kids who were pretty certain to not graduate. I was the last ditch. These kids had been failing for four years and they threw them to me and said see if you can work a miracle. People say things like, well, if you can change the life of just one kid. But I found that it's not enough to change the life of one kid. It can be disenchanting if you can't do more."
She quit that job after two years. She managed a Thai restaurant in Cleveland Heights and discovered what many young people discover: "This is not what I want to do." She is now philosophical about that period of her life. "All of these weird things always lead you to something else. I had a friend tell me, if you had been with younger grades you would have been happy and you may have never left teaching to write children's books."
Hosta married her husband, Lou, around that same time. They moved from metropolitan Cleveland to the countryside where a drugstore, a supermarket, and a Dairy Queen defined a community. They had two babies. "Everything started to close in on me. My city friends didn't want to come out there. I was isolated. I was doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I did a 180. I started baking, canning. I had a beautiful garden, and I was really happy doing that but it wasn't enough. Women feel guilty for saying that, but when you've been involved in
academics, being left in a purely domestic life can be stifling."
On the day she marked her calendar with the red "X" she started walking for exercise. "I was walking with the cast. I would put my kids in a double stroller. Part of our road was gravel. I would push my kids on this gravel road, and I couldn't walk a mile without losing my breath. I was quiet about it, I didn't tell anyone, not even my husband or my mother. It was a stealth operation, an ambush on myself."
Hosta says she never went a day without walking. She quit eating desserts cold turkey. "I lost 25 pounds in a year, and I was able to run five miles. I said, this feels good, and kept on going." She ended up losing 40 pounds and even started running 5K races.
While she was losing weight and rediscovering her old self, she was also discovering a new form of creative release. "When you grow up in an artistic home there are always art supplies; it's hard-wired. I filled my house with supplies for my children and encouraged them to do artwork. I was also intense about my garden. I had 200 different perennials. I started doing collages and most of my early ones were all of flowers." She started creating handmade cards that she sold to friends and her husband's colleagues. "When you make something and somebody buys it, it's a sign."
In 1999 her husband, who worked in pharmaceuticals, received a transfer to work for a biotech company in Piscataway. At that time the family fell in love with New Hope, Pennsylvania, and started going there on weekends to enjoy the town's fun, artsy atmosphere.
"One day we saw a sign for the New Hope fall fine arts festival and my husband said, 'You should sell your cards there.' I called the phone number and asked how to apply. I borrowed an antique writing desk, made a pretty display, and ended up making $900 in cash sales. At the time it was more money than anybody had ever given me for something I did. People were wonderfully positive. They said, 'We want to come to your studio.' They didn't know I didn't have a studio."
Hosta says that festival got everything rolling. She credits her husband for always pushing her to the next level. "My husband is the driving force behind this whole adventure that is my life. For a lot of spouses, when their spouse has an idea that causes them to leave the mainstream of their professional life, it's threatening, it can feel risky to support that kind of interest. You have to put in more money than you might get back, and that's never a sure thing. We went through a few years of not showing a profit, and he never once said, 'I can't believe you're doing this.' I'm very grateful for that."
Hosta started spending more time on her cut paper collage. Her husband bought her the latest equipment to improve the quality of her art. They built a studio in the playroom and a digital studio in the kitchen. People started buying her work to hang in their children's rooms, saying her pictures reminded them of Eric Carle, creator of such beloved books as "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and "The Very Quiet Cricket."
Hosta says: "I got a website. It all started becoming a little more real. My clientele developed on its own and turned out to be exactly who we are - young parents with young children who are into education and culture. Since I didn't go to art school my work has an unschooled quality and they're drawn to it. People started telling me, 'You should do illustrations for children's books.'"
Hosta discovered that she could combine her love of words with her love of art. For someone who also loved gardening, the idea of doing a children's book not only took root in her head but quickly blossomed. At her shows over the next year she started telling the public that her first book was coming. "I hadn't written it yet. But I knew I was going to so I started talking it up. The people who had become my regular customers kept asking when it was coming out."
Through Internet research Hosta found a print broker and contracted out the printing in China, paying $6,000 to produce 1,500 copies of "I Love the Night," a children's picture book. She self-published under the label Brown Dog Books, named for their chocolate lab, Ezra.
"I didn't want to go through two years waiting for a publisher and getting rejection letters. I treated my book as a piece of artwork or a print. I knew I was successful in selling those, and I already had customers waiting. I learned what I had to do. I made all kinds of phone calls. I was honest. I said, 'I will write you a check if you can help me.' Nobody wants to do anything for free. I didn't spare any expense to produce the highest-quality book I could."
"I Love the Night" came out in 2003. That same year, Hosta's husband was laid off from his job in the first wave of the huge cutbacks in the pharmaceutical industry. He spent nearly a year out of work, but kept encouraging his wife in her new venture. In a major career change of his own, he ended up training with the FBI and is now a forensic scientist for the New Jersey State Police in Hamilton.
Meanwhile, Hosta's books were arriving in stacks and stacks at her house, and she started selling them at her shows. Her belief in her work and her husband's unwavering support were rewarded when "I Love the Night" won the prestigious 2004 Teachers' Choice Award for the Family.
Her husband suggested submitting the book to the major book chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Hosta followed submission procedures for the small press department and sent in a copy of the book along with a marketing plan. "So then I get the nicest E-mail from the head children's book buyer at Borders saying she's going to carry my book in all Borders stores across the country. I thought it was going to take me at least five years to sell all 1,500 copies. I ended up selling my entire print order with this one order."
In January, 2004, Borders nominated "I Love the Night" for its Original Voices award, given to promising talent in a given field, one nominee every month. "I now find myself on a list for that year with Caldecott winners," says Hosta. "I went back to press." "I Love the Night" is now in its fourth printing. Barnes & Noble also picked up her book.
Hosta says that with success came new pressures. "In the world of children's books you have to stay fresh, put out one book a year, so now I'm feeling the pressure of coming out with a second book." "I Love the Alphabet" was released in 2004 and received the 2005 Teachers' Choice Award for Children's Books.
Hosta finds it entirely appropriate that she found her first publishing success with a book that celebrated the night. "I had become a nocturnal animal myself. I did my work when my kids went to bed. I was a really tired woman. In the daytime I was the preschool mommy taking my children to gymnastics and playdates. Because I had built my studio in their playroom we did a lot of side-by-side playing and working. I would do artwork. My sons would work with their Legos. As a result they are very self-sufficient. They also know that their mom is happy. They say, 'My mom writes children's books, my mom's an
artist,' and they're proud of that."
One message she says she has gotten through her own experience is that many women feel frustrated with their lives and then feel guilty because they think they are not supposed to feel that way. She says that has got to change. "There are lots of women pouring orange juice, changing diapers, and watching Oprah, saying, 'I had a career but I wanted to be a mother, and now I don't know who I am. I didn't expect this.' They may want to re-enter the workforce but feel intimidated about competing with younger people and learning the new technology."
Hosta says you can't run away from who you are because that may come back to haunt you in the form of regret. Believe in yourself, she advises, and take one step at a time. "What's important is to be ready to take disappointment in stride. Sure, great things have happened to me but there were many things that didn't go right. I've had to work hard day and night. It's the kind of work that makes you really tired and makes it hard to focus on your family the way you should."
Find people to help you, says Hosta. You can't do it on your own. She credits her success in part to friends, a photographer who did the photo for the book jacket, and others who watch her kids when she does school visits. "Without the support of friends and family I could have been tempted to stop. It would have seemed too hard."
But now the opportunities keep coming her way. She is a faculty member at the Arts Council of Princeton and editorial director for the Bologna, Italy, Children's Book Fair Industry Newsletter. The book fair is the place to see and be seen in the world of children's publishing, where deals are cut in the lucrative areas of TV, film, games, and technology. Hosta will leave in a few days to spend a week at the book fair in Italy.
Hosta's father is retired from his career in commercial art but has evolved into a fine artist who appreciates his daughter's work. "There's nothing more pleasing to a parent who's an artist to see their child do what they did and be successful. We share that bond of having a profession in the arts. As a result, my father and I are very close, even closer than when I was growing up." Her sister, five years younger, works in the plant science department at the University of Missouri. Her mother now teaches nursing at St. Louis University.
Musing on her success, Hosta says, "I couldn't have predicted how our life would have turned out at all. Years ago, overweight, depressed and living in the middle of the country, I would have said, 'No way.'"
As she has discovered, yes way, big time, by staying true to herself and without compromising the happiness and well-being of the people depending on her. And perhaps even more than the accolades and awards, she has found one of her life's greatest rewards in that. "Earthly Delights," collages and cut paper illustrations of children's author and illustrator Dar Hosta. Reception Wednesday, March 30, 5 to 7 p.m., the Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike. 609-883-4809. After the reception, the exhibit will be on view by appointment by calling 609-924-7206.