#CLEative Groove: Meet Karly West, creative mind behind the Scholarly Banana book series

Our #CLEative Groove series features Q&A profiles on our city’s creative makers and shakers! Read on for our next installment with Karly West, Claymation artist extraordinaire and creative mind behind the Scholarly Banana graphic novel series.

Karly, Ben, and their Boston Terrier LunaHow long have you lived in Cleveland, and where do you currently live? I've lived in the Cleveland area for my whole life—almost 40 years! I grew up in Rocky River and lived in Lakewood before moving to Lorain County in 2009. Currently, my husband Ben and I live in Grafton (about 30 minutes southwest of Cleveland).

Name something local that helped to shape your creativity as a kid: Growing up, I was fascinated with Bay Crafters (BAYarts). In the early 90s, they used to hold an annual Renaissance Faire where they transformed the fields and woods at the Cleveland Metroparks Huntington Reservation to look like a magical, medieval world. It was so exciting!

What do you do for work? I'm the author, artist, publisher, and chief executive fruit of The Scholarly Banana, a claymation-style graphic novel series for teens and adults that retells old, gruesome fairy tales and tricks you into learning fun facts about them.

One of Karly's cakes at Wild Flour BakeryShare a bit about your professional path to date and how the Scholarly Banana came to be. Professionally, I'm self-taught in art, writing, and publishing. I have a bachelor's degree in Spanish Education from Cleveland State. I never became a teacher, though.

Wanting a more creative career path, I got a job at Wild Flour Bakery in Rocky River in 2007. My experience with cake decorating helped me develop confidence as an artist and led me to rediscover my love of sculpture. In 2010, I began making quirky polymer clay characters in my free time. I opened a sculpture shop on Etsy to finance my new hobby, and by 2012, that hobby grew into a full-time character sculpture business called "The Republic of Cute."

Republic of Cute won a "Best of CLE" nod from Cleveland Magazine in 2015.In 2015, I created an illustrated comic series for The Republic of Cute to add more humor and narrative to the brand. I became obsessed with writing comedy and was determined to incorporate more written humor into my work. I wasn't sure how I was going to do that, though. Initially, I did not plan on becoming an author. I didn't even think that was possible.

Meanwhile, I've been a folktale nerd since 2002. But around 2014, after years of collecting books on fairy tale history, I was beginning to get tired of the selection available to me. The problem was that academic fairy tale texts may be fascinating, but they can be too dense for the average reader (myself included, sometimes). All other fairy tale books are geared toward very young children. But what about the rest of us who aren't scholars and aren't babies?

I designed The Scholarly Banana to be the book I wanted as a reader, and to bring the wonderful world of fairy tale history to general audiences and young adults. The Banana celebrates the craziest uncensored stories, sophisticated research, and college-level analysis in a hilarious, artistic way that even a 12-year-old could read and enjoy.

On a personal front, the series is also everything I love. It's art, sculpture, photography, design, humor, education, and folktale history combined into one zany, Banana-flavored treat. There are currently three books in the Scholarly Banana series: Fitcher's Bird (2019), The Juniper Tree (2020), and Little Red Riding Hood (2022). I'm working on the fourth book, Rapunzel, which will be out later this year.

How do you choose the stories you feature in the series? I have to love them and believe that others will love them, too. The tales must also have lots of surprising and exciting history and analysis—this is a SCHOLARLY Banana, after all! Finally, the stories have to be the right length—not too long and not too short.

Share a bit about your creative process: After choosing a story, I bounce between research, sketching, writing, sculpture, photography, Photoshop, and lots of editing to create the books. Many people think I spend all my time sculpting, but making the physical props is the most straightforward and fastest part of my process! Most of my work is designing, redesigning, editing, and editing some more.

In your opinion, what are Cleveland's best-kept cultural and creative secrets?  Oberlin is a beautiful college town full of culture, music, creativity, neat little indie businesses, and tons of history. It's just a short drive from Cleveland and definitely worth a visit. We love walking around Tappan Square, dining at The Feve, visiting FAVA Gallery, and checking out all the quirky stuff at Ratsy’s Boutique.
What are some of your other creative passions and how do you indulge them locally? Ben and I love to cook together. In the summertime, we enjoy hopping around Cleveland-area farmer's markets. Our regular market visits include the weekly farmer’s market at Crocker Park, the Westside Flea, Medina Square Farmer’s Market, and the Frostville Market in North Olmsted.

Any quirky Cleveland stuff people need to check out? Fear's Confections is a fantastic sweet shop in Lakewood specializing in delicious quirkiness!

Any favorite local artists/galleries? The Cleveland Museum of Art, particularly the Modern and Eastern art galleries!   
Share a fun fact about you that might surprise other people. Today I'm known mainly as a visual artist, but growing up, I was all about music. I played alto saxophone in the All- Ohio State Fair Band and the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. I was in a ska band in high school and was voted "Most Musical" in my graduating class (Rocky River High School, 2000). I did a year of college marching band at The University of Toledo and joined Kappa Kappa Psi: The National Honorary (co-ed) Fraternity for College Bandsmen. So technically, I used to be a frat brother—albeit a nerdy, musical one.

If you were a Cleveland landmark, which one would you be and why? I'd be the Free Stamp. I like that generous spirit.

Favorite Cleveland mural/piece of art? My favorite mural is Joe Lanzilotta's purple and
yellow faces in Hingetown. It reminds me of a Whack-a-Mole game and makes me smile.

A typical day in your life might include...Walking up and down my driveway (we have a long driveway!) or through the Lorain County Metroparks; spending time with my husband, Ben; tending to my Boston Terrier, Luna; editing text and images ad nauseam; and trying not to go nuts from rewriting the same sentences over and over!

Learn more about Karly and The Scholarly Banana graphic novel series here, and for behind-the-scenes art pics, check out her Instagram @thekarlywest. Also, stay tuned for more #CLEative Groove profiles! You can also follow @CLEativeGroove on Instagram here, or send suggestions for people to profile here.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.