This article was written by BirdNote guest blogger, Dara Wilson. It encompasses a recent interview Dara conducted with Casey Girard, an autistic birder, illustrator and artist best known for Animals in Alphabet, illustrations of the letters A to Z in the form of bright and colorful animals. Casey is also the author of two self-published books. Their work helps other bird enthusiasts learn more about birds and gain an even greater appreciation for them through their art. You can view Casey’s work, including their bird illustrations, at caseyg.com.
In 2018, shortly after Casey Girard began birding, they were diagnosed with autism. Though, according to Casey, they knew their behavior wasn’t always in alignment with other people’s behavior. Going along with what others asked is how Casey navigated the world, but things changed when Casey leaned further into birding as a hobby and began to draw one bird every day.
Casey has always been an artist, though it took them some time to figure out their artistic style and purpose. As early as eight years old, Casey felt the frustration of not being able to visually translate what they wanted into their drawings. In spite of their feelings, Casey was determined to figure it out. “To be really successful as an illustrator,” Casey reflected, “you almost have to know who you are and what it is you really want to share - and I definitely haven't always had that in hand.”
Continue to read a curated version of Casey Girard’s interview. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dara Wilson: Hi Casey, can you tell me a little about yourself?
Casey Girard: I am a storyteller, a birder and a mom. I’m also an illustrator; I've always been an illustrator. I realized when I became a mom that I liked how my illustrations could be used for a lot of different things, not just educating people about birds and drawing pretty things. I could share joy, teach people and bring bird awareness to groups who are seeking help.
Dara: You’ve been drawing for a long time and have gained a degree of success with your bird illustrations. But what challenges have you faced as a creative person?
Casey: I've recently found out that I'm autistic, and given that, I knew how I was behaving wasn't what other people wanted. So I tried to mimic and copy others. Or I’d follow what other people would do. I did this for a really long time. So once I finally accepted who I am, I told myself, ‘I’m just going to kind of do what I want,’ and I feel like my illustrations grew from there.
A lot of [my personal growth] started in 2018, which is before I was diagnosed with autism. But 2018 was the year I decided I would draw one bird every single day. And it also happened to be when I finally saw my Spark Bird and started really birding. So they both kind of grew together randomly, where I really found my voice and also really got into birding.
It's really hard to have a neurodivergence that's not diagnosed and not acknowledged nor worked with. There are just ways that you are not functioning the way everybody else is. And if you try to apply neurotypical people's helpful tips to neurodivergent people, it just doesn't work. And it just makes the neurodivergent person probably have more troubles. That doesn't make it better. I need a different set of tools to go through and use.
Dara: As a neurodivergent individual myself, I deeply empathize with those feelings of helplessness and frustration. Could you tell me more about what drawing one bird a day has meant to you?
Casey: In 2018, I started drawing a bird a day; then I started birding. I ended up spending so much time learning how to be a birder and learning how to identify birds for my illustrations.
The drawing of the birds really helped because each time I would draw a bird, I would look at all the details to make the images look correct. I feel like it was a perfect combination to actually become good at identifying birds because it really helped.
With my illustrations, I’ve tried to not make them very realistic. Instead, they’re almost like caricatures, with special attention to the parts of the bird you should focus on when you look at and identify them. I want to do this with more birds, so I ended up making a gull poster.
Dara: What was your goal in illustrating a page with gull species?
Casey: People have a lot of problems with gulls, so I illustrated something specific to them. A lot of them are basically all white with gray backs - until you look at specific traits. There actually are little differences you can recognize if you look at those specific things. They'll tell you which gull you're looking at. So I tried to draw something where I put them side-by-side. And it worked because I don't draw very realistically. Everything is anatomically correct, but it's still ever-so-slightly exaggerated in sections. I use exaggeration to help other people see this is the part they should be paying attention to, to help draw the eye there.
Dara: How did your journey into becoming a children’s illustrator unfold?
Casey: I've illustrated a couple of self-published books. I've never illustrated anything that's been traditionally published yet.
Years ago I worked as a marketing designer for Houghton Mifflin and Co. It wasn't for very long, but I stayed involved in children's books by trying to help lead conferences. In 2017, I actually started working with Storyteller Academy and helped out there. I took a class with Arree Chung, then I started working with him to build Storyteller Academy up as an institution. After that, I realized that if I really want to make children's books work for me and succeed with my voice, I'm gonna have to find what is me. I’m going to have to find the passion and my voice.
Before, I may have understood all of the processes, but my art did not have that spark of someone who really knew themself. I resisted that, I just love creating art and illustrations. But you really have to have a voice behind it - your voice. It was kind of backwards for me, but that was my journey.
Dara: Now that you’ve discovered it, how would you describe your artistic identity, and how does it appear in your bird illustrations?
Casey: I feel like part of [my art] is understanding that I'm an autistic person and my brain is very logical. I really enjoy identifying things. But I just love really learning about birds and nature, and people in nature too, and working out how to clarify these social norms that we’ve set up that aren't necessarily functioning for anybody. That's where I'm going and that's what I'm gonna focus on.
Dara: It sounds like you started drawing for yourself, and then began drawing to help educate others. Is that fair to say?
Casey: I think there's a weird thing in art where it's like you are first drawing for yourself, but the ultimate goal is that I want it to be shared. I want my illustrations to help explain birds when people see my art.
I've definitely had friends who would tell me that they never heard or saw the birds, but now they do. They weren’t looking for them before, but now they see that birds are everywhere. That’s really exciting for me to hear from them that they’re learning. And I like that feeling.
So others benefiting is an amazing side effect. But then it was like, well, let's expand upon this. Now that I understand what will happen, I’m happy to keep going. For example, I make a poster that shows common backyard birds. I know people will like that because they like field guides, so a poster that goes on the wall that you can use to identify birds while they observe from inside can be really cool for people.
So I didn't necessarily start drawing birds to learn them, but it wound up working out.
Dara: How did you maintain your level of admiration for nature and enthusiasm in attracting people to the outdoors?
Casey: Whenever possible, bring awareness to birds.
I was organizing field trips for the local Audubon for a bit before COVID hit and everything got messed up. A librarian had approached me about bird programs, so we started talking to other librarians and set up programs for people to learn about birds. And the library I chose was pretty special. It was right on the bay, so you could literally walk outside and there were shorebirds everywhere. I'm like, there are avocets and black neck stilts and like four species of duck right outside your windows!
But just always being excited and sharing that excitement is what I’d do. Excitement is infectious and other people pick it up. A lot of people text me, ‘Hey, what's this one?’ And I answer, “that’s this, or this.” Or, if the picture is something I’m not certain about, I ask if they have more details and what it was doing. So just always being open to answer questions helps.
If you're interested in viewing more of Casey's work, visit their website, caseyg.com, or their storefront.
Dara Miles Wilson is a multidisciplinary magician, whose work in conservation communications extends across science media via special events and collaborative projects on a global scale. Using education and humor the vessel to deliver neatly themed messages to an unsuspecting public (gotcha!), Dara unapologetically spreads the gospel of the Black outdoor enthusiasm. Most days, when she’s not being an environmental do-gooder or enjoying local parks, she’s most likely reading up on effective power building, looking for wildlife, or reading about fuzzy insects.
All illustrations by Casey Girard
Headshot photo credit: Casey Girard
Photo of Casey Girard at a table by Freya McGregor