Falling leaves, cooler weather and Halloween — This is one of my favorite times of year, when finally it starts to cool off in the Lowcountry. Here I am as a dead hemlock tree in the mountains of North Carolina in 2008, the year I discovered my inner ghost.
Recently I’ve been looking at children’s Halloween books and reflecting on the nature of book illustration. I love making narrative art, but it’s not quite the same thing as illustration. On one hand, my narrative art is colorful and childlike and would lend itself well to illustrating children’s books. On the other hand, my narrative interests lean toward ambiguity, mystery, and enigma. Ambiguity is not desirable in illustration because the intent is usually to clarify or supplement the text.
Here’s an example of the dilemma I face when I think about illustration. “Otherworldy Alice” is a collage I submitted to a children’s illustration competition in 2012 for a “creative reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland.”
My version of Alice (sitting with her sister when she first notices the white rabbit) is pretty ambiguous: Are these figures Siamese twins? Are the sisters symbolically “bonded at the hip,” and do they get along or are they competitors? Is this some kind of alien Alice with two heads? Any of these are potential interpretations, and I like them all. I welcome the unexplained, and I probably have a high tolerance for confusion. But the design committee found the figures too confusing; instead, they liked the stylized background with the tree and the flower. I decided children’s book illustration was probably not for me.
But I love graphic novels and medieval illuminated manuscripts. I reflected on my problem and realized that I might still have potential as an illustrator if the subject matter held enough creepy allure: Halloween, I decided, could be my ticket. Plenty of room to experiment. So here are some examples that may go into my portfolio for publishers who favor scary books for kids.
These four cut-paper collages belong to a new series, “Witches and Wild Things: Appalachian Heritage and Beyond.” The imagery refers to mountain demons, shape shifters and talking animals, witches, snake charmers, and zombies (or religious charismatics). I wrote short stories to help me understand “Appalachian heritage” from the perspective of someone living in the globalized 21st century. I researched the complicated geneology of Melungeon mountain people, the development of the mountain moonshine industry, and what scholars say about bloodshed and violence in the Old Mountain South. In the process, I came to an understanding through legend and lore of how Appalachian women of years gone by handled social confrontation. These were not passive, gentile ladies on pedestals, and neither are my characters. Hopefully they are slightly scary, but not too scary for kids.
Finally, here are two favorite inspirations: Lynn Ward’s illustration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (from the early 1930s) and a link to Peter Krups’ animated introduction to his graphic novel version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.