If you read my last post, you know I'm a sucker for Caribbean illustrators and have made it my business to promote the work they do. It would be remiss of me if I didn't include Brianna Mccarthy in that campaign. Mccarthy is a young lady from Trinidad and Tobago whose talent can only be described as dazzling. In her insistent mastery of a single subject matter, Mccarthy reminds me of the great Impressionist painter Edward Degas, who obsessively depicted dancers (ballerinas) in his art. Only with Mccarthy, it's girls. Mccarthy repeatedly draws and paints girls. Beautiful, colored girls. In doing so she displays her mastery in the depiction of African, East Indian and creole physical features. Truly, in her art I see the working out of a Caribbean aesthetic which recognizes and affirms négritude (black consciousness), antillanité (West Indianness), and créolité (transcultural fusing.) Her art simply radiates color consciousness and métissage.
This is the first time Mccarthy's work is being featured on a children's literature blog. Indeed, when I contacted her to solicit an interview I could sense a sort of pleasant surprise in her response. I see great potential for children's illustration in Mccarthy's work and can easily compare her skill and style in watercolor to that of award-winning African-American children's illustrators, Sharda Strikland, E.B. Lewis and even Jerry Pinkney in some respects. There is such a need for illustrations like hers--unapologetic, eloquent images of beautiful, black people-- not only in the general universe of commercial images, but in children’s illustration in general and Caribbean children's illustration in particular.
I guess you can tell that there's just not enough good things I can say about her work :-)
It's painstakingly detailed....
It's highly conceptual...
It's protagonistic (Caribbean Cinderellas anyone?)...
I recently had the pleasure of picking Brianna's brain about her work. Here's what she had to say.
Brianna, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, I really appreciate it.
Thank you for the opportunity! It’s an honour.
So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Brianna Mccarthy interesting?
I’m a 26 year old, self taught artist. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago and I do my own thing.
Let’s talk about your art. Your drawings are highly recognizable not only for their signature style, but also for their subject matter. You repeatedly depict black/colored women and girls. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice?
Erte’s (Roman de Tirtoff) work had a huge impact on me. Realizing that there wasn’t much of that kind of art featuring black women was a turning point. I thought, “This is fantastic! But where can I find some where the women look like me?” I’m female, black and West Indian – those come with a host of dynamics. I’m certainly influenced by my ethnic make-up or cultural influences as I want to know them intimately – it’s all very beautiful. Someone asked me once why all my paintings were of Black women. I had to think about it. I knew the answer, but what was it? I happen to be Black, female and West Indian; it’s what I identify with and influences how I see myself – therefore, it comes out in my expression.
What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?
Watercolour – I love its fluidity. Graphite, acrylic, ink, cloth, paper, a metal ruler and a scapel. Can’t do much without them!
What is your process for creating an illustration?
Almost every mood I go through inspires me to create – I sketch when I’m bored, I sketch when I’m happy, sad, angry. It’s a quirk but I need to have clean hands and space to move around. I try to keep everything I could possibly need close by as stopping to get things that are missing breaks the vibe especially after 4 or 5 hours of concentrating.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Life. Beauty. My dreams and moments of apparent idleness. The inspiration for the set of layered paper collages I made recently came from attempting to makes the faces I drew into simple shapes – I drew long curving lines and incorporated the shapes and features I believed were staples in my faces – the eyes, cheekbones. It was a completely random exercise but it served t o give me a wealth of new ideas and ended up not being that simple at all.
What aspects of your own life or experiences have you brought to your illustrations?
I’d have to say my family – I have three sisters, all very creative, individual and strong. My mother and grandmother as well have influenced what I illustrate and how that comes across. For example, I think much of the jewelry I draw mind reconstructed out of my childhood of searching through my grandmother’s jewelry boxes. I think it’s still something I find enjoyment in; digging through women’s jewelry – it’s amazing fodder for me to create. I discovered that my great aunt’s name was Romancia La Roche and have a picture of her wearing a feathered cloche and jet beads around her neck - I thought it was fantastic! I think a little flair and drama is a wonderful thing – the women I grew up around certainly had and still have that.
On your blog you describe yourself as a “self-taught” artist. Do you really mean to say that you have never engaged in any formal art studies?
That’s exactly it. I have done CXC Visual Art which didn’t actually, in my case, involve much teaching of art. Art classes where mostly opportunities to the homework you failed to do the night before for all your other subjects! Like at many Caribbean Schools, Visual Art wasn’t really considered an important subject at my high school – so much so that Art wasn’t even offered at as an A Level subject. Since then it’s been a process of discovery and revelations. I didn’t even consider studying Visual Art at university; I opted for French at one point and English Literature at another.
You have been told before that your paintings are really illustrations and that you should get into the professional book illustration. The way I have always understood the difference between illustrative art and fine art is that with illustrative art, the illustration is always secondary or subsidiary to the product being illustrated, while with fine art, the painting itself is the critical object and holds first place in the range of values being considered. With illustration, the main concern is selling the product while we can think of fine art as, “art for the sake of art.” Also, the fine artist typically doesn’t have to answer to anybody in the making of the work, while the illustrator does. Given these distinctions, can you see yourself as an illustrator? Or are you more of a fine artist?
Fine artist…which is why the illustrator label always sounds great but never fit me. I don’t follow rules or have anyone to answer to; based on that alone I’d have to say fine artist!
I know you have a full-time job, but if an aspiring or established Caribbean children’s writer saw this interview and wanted you to illustrate their book would you be game? Would you do it?
One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Should you get into professional children’s illustration in the future, what do you think you can bring to the Caribbean picture book aesthetic?
It’s feels great to see local art that jumps out at you, that’s so different it makes you smile. I think traditionally there is a style and a feel to local work. You can tell sometimes because you’ve seen it before. When that tradition is broken and the new style is individual and fresh, I think it’s great. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring something different to that forum.
Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?
No I don’t currently. I never considered it and I can’t see that as an option for me at this point based on the kind of work I do.
How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?
My email address is email@example.com.
Brianna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in art and in life.
Thank you so much for the opportunity and the encouragement!
Brianna Mccarthy's Online Portfolio
Brianna Mccarthy's Blog
Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers and the School of the Free Mind's inaugural Way of the Book Honor Award given to artist-authors demonstrating long and sincere commitment to changing the world through children's books. Learn more about her here .