Showing posts with label Caribbean Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caribbean Books. Show all posts

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese fine artist embraced by the children's book industry (Interview: Part 2)

I'm back again for the second half of my interview with Benrali, Guyanese author of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: A World Beyond Stars! If you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In this second half, I picked Benrali's brain about his work and the influences behind it.

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S: Tell us a little bit about the folkloric elements in your books. Also, what does it mean to you to use folklore as a base, or perhaps a, sort of organizing principle for your stories?

Art by Benrali
Guyana's folklore has always been of interest to me since it is a unique blend between what the indentured Indian servants and African immigrants brought and what the native Amerindians believed already. But with Manni I felt the folklore just blended well for this project. I may or may not keep using folklore for my projects since one of the things we are taught as an illustrator is that each project is different. Folklore, fantasy, ghazals, moongazers and magical sea turtles just seemed to blend well for Manni. I do hope another project comes along that asks for that same blend but who can say? Each book is sort of like a fingerprint; unique in its own way. 

S: Another thing that interests me about your work relates to the illustrations.  On your website and other places your picture books are described as "finely created artist books." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. What are some of the artistic techniques or influences behind your work as an illustrator?

B: I tend to think of my work as a weaving of multiple periods, styles and schools of thought. I am grateful to Parsons School Of Design and their excellent faculty for broadening my horizons as to all the artists, periods and styles that came before. I am merely scratching at the surface of the training you get as an undergraduate but I wanted to mention it. I can't say my current books have all of these elements but some schools of thought and artists which I have gravitated towards are Balinese rainforest paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Indian and Moghul miniature paintings, Henri Rousseau, as well as some fantasy artists. The list goes on but these are a few.

Detail from Manni: A World Beyond Stars

S: Of major, major interest to me is the relationship between identity and culture and how Caribbean children's authors and illustrators work out those things in and perhaps through their work. You have spoken elsewhere about going through a process of searching for or developing an artistic style for your illustrations. You suggest that the process was really one of searching for an identity within the multiple influences of your Caribbean heritage. Can you speak to us a little about what a Caribbean heritage means to you in terms of your work and the ambitions you have set as a children's author/illustrator?

B: What does Caribbean or Guyanese heritage mean for me? Since I grew up in the States there were no Caribbean artists to look up to as role models. Everyone knows that to be an artist you have to look at art or to be a writer you must read. It wasn't until college that I began the "un-brainwashing" process and started learning about Indian & African art, art from other cultures, periods, styles etc. The saddest part is that most Guyanese & Trinidadian children don't realize they have been brainwashed until after they hit college.

For me it was too late because so many images of American heros from movies and cartoons were already were implanted in my mind and it was impossible for me to undo all the mental damage that was done. How can you turn back time and give back to kids role models, heros or a foundation of their own background when time cannot be turned back? Also, to be honest, I can't think of any Guyanese children's book authors or artists which my parents shared with me. My parents didn't even make an effort so like most kids from Guyanese parents I was left to just deal with it and figure things out as I grew older. 

In regards to your question as to what about Caribbean heritage spurs on my ambitions as an author/illustrator. I can say  our blend of music Calypso, Soca, Reggae and Indian Chutney music makes me proud but I am honest when I say there is nothing within Caribbean or Guyanese books/art that spurs on my work because there are so few examples. Of course there are artists and writers but again, they were not made available to me and they are probably few to begin with. Why is there so little material in Caribbean and Guyanese visual and literary arts to act as a foundation? I believe art and writing novels or picture books were not of high priority for our parents or our grandparents so I am very understanding to that.

One of the most important books which all Caribbeans and Guyanese should read is Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean. Never have I found a book that answered so many questions  as to why so many things are as they are in Guyana and Trinidad. In regards to the arts, England didn't bring slaves and indentured laborers to Guiana and Trinidad to educate, polish and give a good education; they were brought to the plantations for one thing and that thing was certainly not to create books of poetry with fine detailed art work. 

S: You have two books published under your belt. What have you learned so far about the business of picture books and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

B: I never considered myself a children's book author but I am grateful that the children's book industry has embraced my work. There will always be children so its a market that is there even though it is changing. Whether you are speaking of children's books, nonfiction, or any other genre, the whole industry is changing. I will still write but I probably will start getting into e-books since they are so inexpensive to produce and readers are reading more and more of them. I would really like to get into film and animation and I have a few books which lend themselves well to the screen. At the moment though my third book is due to come out late this winter or maybe in the spring. It is a collection of short stories and poems.

S: Well, thanks so much for chatting with us Benrali!

B: You're welcome Summer and thank you for the opportunity!


Friday, August 26, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese artist mastering the fine art of illustrated books (Interview: Part 1)

Well, I warned you that I would be having some interesting folks on the blog soon and I must say, it has been very interesting indeed probing the creative mind of Benrali, author and illustrator of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: From A World Beyond Stars. Benrali is the pen name of Aman Waseem Ben Ali, an emerging Guyanese author, artist, poet and screenwriter. 

Benrali
Born in America to Guyanese parents, Ali graduated from Parsons School Of Design in New York and went on to attend and graduate from Hendriks Graphic Design Institute in Long Island, USA. The scope of his artistic training is evident in his gorgeously illustrated books, which weave together many styles, schools of thought and periods and which Benrali himself has said, are "proof that the Caribbean has no limits in regards to 'style'".

Well, without further ado, I'm pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation with Benrali. (Click here to read Part 2 of the interview).

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S: Benrali, your work is very interesting to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that your books, thus far, have been self-published. What made you decide to self-publish?

B: Well, slight correction: I actually didn't self-publish. Looking at the current health of the publishing industry, I decided not to go with a traditional publisher, but rather, to embrace the new cooperative approach to publishing that is fast becoming a viable option. I didn't pay out of my pocket for anything. I had financial backers and partners who helped me create the Dreamworlds Beyond Time corporation which prints and sells my books. Books are only a small portion of our current product line. I created books where the art could be easily used for fine art prints, greeting cards and yes, the bestseller t-shirts!

Greeting Card featuring art from The Tutle's
The cooperative approach has worked quite well for me, in fact, I would say it’s the best type of publishing for myself since I didn't have to pay anything except minor expenses that go into shipping. Having financial backing is sort of like having a grant and this gave me flexibility that I would never have received with traditional publishing.  I really like this co-operative method because it gives artists freedom they would never have received otherwise.  

S: It appears that your books weren't explicitly written for children, nevertheless, I think they would appeal strongly to children, which is why I chose to review them here on the blog. In terms of audience and genre, how do you view your books?

B: For the record, I do not label my books as "children's books" but "artist's books".  You may feel that it’s splitting hairs but it’s a very important facet. Children's books are usually carefully watched over from start to finish by editors and art directors and sales reps.  Throughout the project editors, art directors and marketing/sales/distribution rep have a lot to say about what goes where and what should be omitted. A children's book is truly a joint venture. When a traditional book is produced it is a product of many minds. 

An artist's book is VERY different.  An artist book, no matter what the art or genre doesn't have more than one person involved.  It is more like a fine art painting printed in multiples and is guaranteed to be only "artist’s voice" which may or may not appeal to the audience.  Think about an oil painting you are about to buy, how would you feel if you found out there were 3 or 4 other people picking out the colors and changing things around?  My point of view is not that an artist's book is better or worse than a traditional children's book or adult picture book; it’s just different.

S: On the front flap The Turtle's Dream And Keys, it says that you got the idea for the book from a dream you had. In truth, I was taken aback by the dream-like quality of the illustrations in the book. There certainly is a visionary quality to them. The story itself and the language in which it is told, is also dreamy, even a bit esoteric. In your experience, how do children respond to your dream world, and the images in particular?

B: I have to be honest when I say that mostly adults have bought my books.  I have received some feedback from children who love the art and I have heard of one kid who tried to count all the circles and sand in some of the drawings which was flattering but most of the people I get responses from are adults and lovers of art books.

S: You say that Manni: From a World Beyond Stars is the first book of this kind written using the ghazal, an Arabic and Indo-Persian form of rhyming couplets associated with 12th century Eastern mystics. I am fascinated by this marriage of poetry, mysticism and the picturebook form. Can you explain the ghazal to us. Also, what do you think it lends to your story?

B: My father used to produce records with ghazals when I was a baby in the 80's.  One of his records was title "Anjani Anjani" and the singer he used was Veena Ahuja. I mention this because this is where I first heard about ghazals and yes they are mostly used in songs.  When I started high-school I learned about an author and teacher, Agha Shahid Ali who was an authority on ghazals and ghazals written in English. After reading up on some of the rules for ghazals I decided since Manni was a sea turtle from beyond the stars why not give the narrator for the book, Ooni, a truly unique platform.  

I have never heard of a ghazal ever being used in a picture book but I loved the rhyme scheme. I'm almost sure that ghazal pros will object but they have to admit I did stick to the rules calling for exact syllable counts in each line and the second line rhymes throughout the book and the ghazal is sung by the orator which in this case is Ooni. It's his ghazal after all. The story is set in the hours of night when most sea turtles are born so I thought the lullaby quality of the rhyme would be ideal for this work.

S: Yes, I was in fact struck by the song-like quality of the rhyming scheme. Then, when I did my research, I found out that ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. Are there any plans to turn Manni: From A World Beyond Stars into a sing-along book perhaps? 

B: The thought did cross my partners' minds and I thought it was interesting too since I was at one time an aspiring singer songwriter. I even produced the infamous "demo cd" which went nowhere! Songwriting comes to me a lot easier than entire books so converting it into music shouldn't be that hard. I believe the book has found a more "artbook" and giftbook audience so I would have to think whether or not it would be marketable for children.

More: Read Part 2 of this interview.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Caribbean YA Books: Why I Wrote One – Guest Post by Joy Campbell-Chambers

I wish I could say I started writing children’s fiction out of some strong motivation, but I can’t. The first YA novel I wrote came out of challenging myself. At the time I started writing the book, I was a member at an online writing network and had already produced some short stories. One of my peers suggested that I try my hand at a novel, and after thinking about it for a while, I decided to get moving on that project.

During my childhood, my reading staples consisted of books written by American and British authors. At high school level, I was introduced to Caribbean novelists in English Literature classes. My school library had a collection of West Indian novels and that’s how I expanded my reading; however the subject matters in these novels were not specific to children. These were stories about West Indians trying to survive in Britain, but I didn’t enjoy reading them any less.

I wasn’t sure what reception my novel would receive once it was finished, but I decided to worry about that later and focus on producing a salable manuscript.

Inspiration came when a friend of mine told me about a situation her teenage niece was facing. She had lost her father suddenly and that provided a starting point for my novel, which I took in a different direction. Though I had the plot worked out in my mind, getting the mechanics right felt like a gargantuan task. I had put the cart before the horse, wanting to write the story before I had the requisite skills. Sure, I had always gotten good grades in English and English Literature, but fiction writing demanded a different set of skills.

I realized that I needed some basic knowledge if I was serious about writing YA fiction. At this point, I also decided to move on from the writing site I was on. Up to that point, I was blogging, which doesn’t compare with story telling. I migrated to thenextbigwriter and with the help of a group of patient and talented writers, combined with time spent reading innumerable articles on fiction writing, I learned the craft of writing. Call it on-the-job training.

That first novel dealt with issues that are common to the Jamaican situation, such as a home with too many children and not enough resources to go around. However, there were also not-so-common situations, such as the protagonist witnessing her father’s murder. In my opinion, that special something which sets the book apart is the main character and the way in which she handles the challenges that confront her.

For someone who had no ambitions of writing a young adult novel, I have moved to a place where I am happy that I wrote the book. After having read the book five years ago, my beta-readers still ask after that eleven-year-old girl as though she were a real person. Since then, I’ve continued the family’s saga through her brother’s story, and my readers were happy to see how that first character had developed over the two-year period that had elapsed in the storyline.

The story’s reception was good enough reason for me to have written the book. It’s not everyday that a writer creates a story that resonates with readers so that they laugh, cry and experience triumph alongside the characters.


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Joy Campbell-Chambers (who also writes under the pen name Jayda McTyson) is an author from Jamaica. Her short stories and articles have been published in Bookends, the literary pages of the Sunday Observer. In 2008 and 2009, she participated in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's Creative Writing Competition and won several medals for her short stories and Young Adult novels. Her awards include Outstanding Writer in the novel category. When she isn’t plotting and researching new projects, she enjoys cake decorating, gardening, and reading. Her first novel, Contraband, was published in April 2010 and her second, Dissolution in October 2010, while the publication date for the third, Hardware, is yet to be set.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Donna Marie Seim, Cross-Cultural Children's Writer (Part II of Interview)





We're back for day two of a two-part interview with Donna Marie Seim, author of Simon, Where is Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure. When I learned about Donna and her books, one of the things that really interested me was Donna's strong connection to and love for the Turks and Caicos islands and its people, and what seemed to be her dual sense of belonging as an American writer of Caribbean children's books. Here is Donna again, answering my questions.

You dedicated Where is Simon, Sandy? to the children of The Turks and Caicos Islands and all proceeds from Hurricane Mia! are being donated to the Children’s Programme of the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The T&C National Museum was also instrumental in helping you publish your book. How did your connection to the Museum and to the children of the Turks and Caicos come about?

First I have to make a correction. Hurricane Mia is not donating all profits to the Children’s Programme. We will be donating the proceeds from the launch at the museum and special fund raising events for the museum but it is not in the same category as Where is Simon, Sandy?. WISS, as we affectionately call the book, is owned by the museum. All proceeds from any sales go directly to the museum for the Children’s Programme. The book is the major supporter of the summer camp and the special programs for the children through out the year.

Donna and her friends at a school in Salt Cay, T&C
My husband and I have always been supporters and members of the T&C National Museum. I sent the story to them because I liked their children’s programme, and felt that they in some way would help to preserve this sweet folk tale that belonged to the island. The museum responded within hours of my sending the story to them and they expressed their wish to make it into a real book!  But it is more than a book, it is a project with many people working hard to make it become the award-winning book that it is. I deeded all my royalties to the Children’s Programme because I felt it would do a great good. The museum needed the money to keep the programme going and the children would only benefit. As a former, teacher, childcare worker and toy storeowner, I have always loved children and the children on these islands are most dear to me.

It has been my pleasure to work with Mr. David Bowen, Cultural Director of the Turks and Caicos Islands. We visited all schools and libraries on each of the six islands with primary schools to read and donate the book, Where is Simon, Sandy?

Have you marketed your books to children in America? How would you like American children to view your books?

Yes, both books, Hurricane Mia! and Where is Simon, Sandy? have been marketed in the United States. And they have both have been received very well. When I visit classrooms with Where is Simon, Sandy?, the children have great interest both in the story and that it is from the Caribbean. We then discuss where these islands are located geographically. Some children have been to different islands and we talk about where they have been and what it was like, how it was different than a vacation in, Florida. I bring along a slide show and the children love to hear about donkeys roaming free and wild horses that trot past your gate.  They are very interested in the children in the photos. We talk about different kinds of food they eat and what the children wear to school and how they wear their hair.

Donna at the Providenciales Primary School in Providenciales, T&C
We have a pen pal program set up with a school in Providenciales, T&C Islands, and a classroom in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The children write about their pets, draw pictures of themselves, talk about what sports they play and what their favorite foods are. It is a fabulous way for the children in the States to learn about another culture, and a place in the world that is different from where they live, widening their horizons. I think both sides benefit from the letters making their life richer and gaining more understanding of this amazing world we live in.

It is still early to answer directly about Hurricane Mia, except the reviews coming in from Stateside readers are very strong. Many have written that they feel as if the story has carried them to the islands of the Caribbean, and it makes them long to go there. It has been said that if you can transport your reader to another place you have achieved a great accomplishment. My favorite part of reading as a child and now as an adult, is to be completely swept away to another place and time and be totally caught up in a really great story.

Currently, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! A Caribbean Adventure are available online and in select bookstores in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I’m sure children in other Caribbean islands would enjoy reading the books as well. Are there any plans to make the books more widely available throughout the Caribbean?

Another good question! Distribution is the hardest part of selling to the islands. My publisher is a small publisher and does not have sales reps that far reaching. I have been the major sales force and have worked hard to establish the accounts that we do have. I am currently working on a wider distribution plan, and hopefully we will make more progress in expanding to more islands soon.

Donna marketing her books at the Salt Museum, Grand Turk, T&C

Donna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best with your exciting projects and adventures!

Thanks so much Summer, your questions were great, and it was my pleasure!

Detail from Simon, Where is Sandy? illustrated by Susan Spellman

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meet Donna Marie Seim!


Donna Marie Seim

In the past when I've interviewed authors, the posts have tended to be a bit long (I ask a lot of questions!) so this time around, I'm changing it up. We're going to spend not one, but two days getting to know Donna Marie Seim and her work. She is the author of two children’s books: a picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? and a chapter book, Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure, both set in the Caribbean and both illustrated by Susan Spellman. She has also written a memoir, short stories, and Charley!, a soon-to-be-released chapter book. Where is Simon, Sandy? was a recipient of the 2009 Mom's Gold Choice Award (USA) and was also a finalist in the Children's Picture Book category of the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards (USA.) Seim is a graduate of Ohio State University, and holds a Master's degree in Special Education from Lesley University. When she is not in the Caribbean, she lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, USA with her husband, Martin, and her dog, Rags.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Donna Seim interesting?

Hi, Summer, I guess it is easier to talk about my writing than to talk about myself. My work with children, from being a childcare worker at a residential treatment home, to a teacher of children with special needs, have allowed me a special insight into the hearts of young readers. My years as an owner of a retail toy and book store have also given me the opportunity to see what children like to read and what is out there for them. And my daughter, Kristin, gets the credit for getting me to write down my family stories in my first book, Fifty Cents An Hour: My Life According To Me, which consists of humorous tales from my childhood having grown up in a large Irish Catholic Family on West 158th St. in Cleveland, Ohio. Once I started to write down my stories I was smitten, I had to write! P.S. I have a great sense of humor and I listen really well.

Please tell us about your children’s books. What are they about? Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip - or insights - about Mia or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

Neisha, character in Hurricane Mia!
I have written another picture book, which is currently looking for a publisher. This is again an island-based story of a little girl who tries to catch and tame a wild horse. The main character is Satchi, who learns a hard lesson about what true friendship really is. My second novel, Charley, a biographical fiction, middle grade reader, is set in the early 1900’s. It is a story of a city boy from Boston who finds himself orphaned and placed in a dairy farming family in rural Maine. It is a tender story of a young boy’s quest to find a family.

Mia, illustrated by Susan Spellman
Yes, Summer, you are right on target about an author’s personal relationship with their characters. When you write about a character in a story you carry them around with you, in your head and in your heart. You give them obstacles to overcome and trials to endure, but in the end you want them to win as if they were your own children. The funny thing about Mia is that she is a composite of different complex feelings and emotions. Some of my readers, who know me well, think of Mia as me. But, Mia is very much her own person. It is I, the author, that made up her characteristics and gave her  foibles, but she is not me. Well, maybe a little bit…but not completely. I like to give my characters their own life, personal traits and feelings. The creation of your character to me, is one of the most delicate and yet creative parts of writing. If you have strong characters they help you tell the story!

Your children’s books are set in the Caribbean and everything about the books (the illustrations, language, characters etc.) strike me as being particularly “Caribbean.”  Yet you yourself are not from the Caribbean. Why write children’s books set in the Caribbean? What’s your connection to the region?

Yes Summer, you are correct! Both, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia, are absolutely set in the Caribbean. I have been traveling to Grand Turk, and the Turks and Caicos Islands for over 35 years! My husband’s parents had a home there for many years. I fell in love with the Island of Grand Turk from my earliest visits. I have met and made treasured friendships with locals, ‘belongers’, as well as people from all over the world. It is a special place, and I have yearned to write about it. My husband and I now own a home on Grand Turk and travel back and forth to our island home. They say that travel inspires a writer and my islands speak to me.

Detail from Hurricane Mia
Illustration by Susan Spellman

It has often been debated whether or not authors can and should write books depicting cultures other than their own. Did you consider this when writing Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia? and what kind of research (if any) did you and your illustrator Susan Spellman do to be able to write and illustrate these books?

This is a very good question! But if I were to follow that rule, I could only write about Irish Catholics living in Cleveland Ohio! Hurricane Mia, is actually a multiplicity of cultures. Mia and her brother are from suburban Boston, they bring along with them their background and cultural traits. The Grandparents are from another generation, with their own values and unbending ways. When writing the story I was especially interested in the two girls interacting, learning and sharing their outlooks and “cultures”. It is Neisha who shares her knowledge of Bush Medicine that turns the tide and gives Mia a focus, to find the tea that cures everything. Mia and Neisha’s cultural differences intertwine throughout the story. They both are strong characters and yet in the end they both rely on each other. They aren’t blended but rather, learn from each other as they each grow to become true friends.

Donna during a sing-along at the Museum
In preparation for Hurricane Mia I did extensive research, some of which is listed under references at the back of the book, and interestingly enough from part of that research came the kernel for Where is Simon, Sandy?. Bryan Naqqi Manco, at that time an environmental officer of the Turks and Caicos Islands, took my husband and I on an eco tour of North and Middle Caicos. My hopes were to meet a true bush doctor and a granny, (midwife), for my research for Hurricane Mia, and we accomplished that, much to my delight. It was during that trip that Bryan told me the story of a little donkey who wouldn’t quit, and that was the beginning of Where is Simon, Sandy? I wrote it as a short story and sent it to the Turks and Caicos National Museum to put in their newsletter, or to simply read to the children in their Children’s Programme. Interested in preserving any of the oral culture passed down for generations the museum asked me if we could make it into a book. They were thrilled to have an actual folktale from their own island and the project of making the story into Where is Simon, Sandy? began!

The Turks and Caicos National Museum
Susan and I worked closely together on the artwork. She did some research, but mostly we used my photos taken on these islands. All the gates are actual gates found on Grand Turk and the antique building, which houses the Turks and Caicos National Museum, is depicted with a red tin roof in the last scene. The donkey cart is a true representation of the carts used for generations. The children in their school uniforms are actual children from my photos and some historic photos from the museum. The architecture, Bermudian in design from the days of the salt trade, is accurate down to the tin roofs and limestone walls giving the true timeless character of the island of Grand Turk.

Your first picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? is about a donkey that wouldn’t quit and is a retelling of a well-known folktale from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reviewers have claimed that before your book, the folk tale had never been written down before. Is this true? How did you come to learn about the folk tale and what inspired you to put it down on paper?

Oops, I guess I put the cart before the donkey on this question, since I have already told you how it came to be a book! And yes, to my knowledge, it has never been written down in a printed version or book of any kind. Some of the older folks remember it, but with the younger generation it was really beginning to slip away. I was told the donkey’s name was Buster, and someone else told me it was Joe, but there was a donkey who did deliver the water from the well with his master to the townspeople of Cockburn Town. When his master was no longer able to make the route, the donkey did it every day on his own, faithfully stopping at each and every gate at the same time every day. He became a pet or mascot for the town and the children loved to follow after him. I wrote this story because I felt that it was a true island treasure and should be saved and shared with the generations to come. The children on Grand Turk identify with the story and claim it as their own, which it truly is. They are proud of it!

Illustration from Where is Simon, Sandy?

Click here to read part 2 of my interview with Donna Marie Seim.



Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Interview with Costa Rican Illustrator, Wen Hsu


Ever since I came across Costa Rican illustrtor, Wen Hsu's work, I have been totally enchanted. Because of her, I have fallen in love with molas, the Kuna artform that inspires a lot of her work. In a previous post on Caribbean children's illustration, I made the point that Caribbean children's illustrators need to be more inventive with their work. Well, Ms. Hsu is certainly surpassing my expectations of inventiveness! Her stunning work brings together the intricate dimensionality of traditional Chinese paper cuts and the brightly colored geometrical patterns of molas, to produce indigenous visuals that retain the mythical quality of storytelling. The luminous quality of some of her illustrations gives them a glowing poignancy that somehow reminds me of sand animation, while the geometric designs evoke the studied spirituality of Buddhist sand mandalas. Interviewing Wen Hsu on the blog today, I feel like I am in the company of greatness. It is an honor indeed to present her to my readers. Without further ado, here's what she had to say.



***

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Wen, I really appreciate it.

Thank you for your wonderful work with both your blog and ezine. I feel very honoured and am very thankful as well.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Wen Hsu interesting?

I hope that my work is interesting, most especially to children. And I think that if I had to choose one trait that made my work what it is today, it is my mixed/hybrid heritage. Like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, I am fortunate enough to be part of cultural symbiosis. I am myself specifically born in Taiwan, but raised in Costa Rica since I was two years old. This allowed me to grow up in the cultural (and natural) richness of our continent, absorbing all sorts of cultural influences naturally as a child, adolescent and adult. All this background permeates onto my work at all levels, conscious and subconscious.

You have been involved in a lot of different types of projects including museum exhibits, architectural projects, book design, and your own Mareas Couture Headpieces company, yet you repeatedly state on your blog that illustrating children’s books is what you love best. What is it about children’s illustration that speaks so strongly to you?

Ever since my first childhood memories I have loved stories: Reading them, listening to them or making characters and their stories up in my imagination. Since I started playing with stories at such a young age, I started drawing them before I could write. This is how my lifelong love for illustration simply happened, just like that. Stories are still part of my favorite playtime with my niece and other children, and many illustration ideas come from it.

I know next to nothing about Costa Rican children’s illustrators (or children’s writers for that matter.) Here in the islands, children’s illustration is still a very underdeveloped field. What is the status of children’s illustration in Costa Rica right now? Is it a recognized artform/ profession? I have heard of the GAMA Forum of Costa Rican Illustrators. Are children’s illustrators well-represented in GAMA?

Illustration in general is still a rather undeveloped professional field here in Costa Rica as well, even though there are very high quality children's illustrators like Vicky Ramos, Alvaro Borrasé and Feliz Arburola. I believe that the reason for this is that Costa Rica is still a small emerging market, where most creative professions suffer from a lack of standard fees and working processes, as well as the general misconception in the country that it is a sort of "hobby", instead of a profession. Fortunately some disciplines are gradually paving the road, such as Graphic Design, Interior Design and Architecture.

GAMA is a group of Costa Rican illustrators and Illustration fans. It serves mainly as a communication and discussion forum, where we can share experiencies, ideas and career opportunities. In fact, this is where I learned of the NOMA Concourse back in 2008. We have also learned that a first step into evolving the illustration market in Costa Rica is to have some sort of pricing and process standardization. We hope to "educate" our clients and potential team with this and move towards more sustainable professional relationship one step at a time. I believe there are similar situations in a lot of emerging markets and countries around the world. and in a way,we are all pioneers. So it is important to share our experiences and learn together.

Let talk about your work. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations? What is your process for creating an illustration?


From a few years back and up to today, I am most interested in experimenting with cutting paper and coloring it with different media, mostly watercolors and a little bit of gouache. This works great for children's books as it combines the simple, clean edges and dimensional feel of cut paper with the wondrous variety of textures and color combinations yielded by watercolors and other types of brushwork. This also allows for different styles that can adapt to all age ranges as well, as cultural influences. In Nadi & Xiao Lan for example, I combined the traditional Chinese papercut aesthetics with that of Molas made by the Kuna women in the Caribbean coast of Panama. Although these are very different cultures with extremely strong aesthetic languages, they merged seamlessly when worked together with the same paper cut technique.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (often called the “Caribbean side”) has evolved differently from the rest of the country. I know that in the coastal province of Limón for example, almost half of the inhabitants are Afro-Caribbean or of Afro-Caribbean decent (mainly of Jamaican ancestry), something that is evident in the cuisine, architecture, language and music of that region. How do you view the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and have Caribbean cultures had any influence on your work?

I live in a small city on the Costa Rican Caribbean called Turrialba. It is not in the coast, but the Afro-Caribbean (as well as Asian and Native Costa Rican) influence is very strong and much more evident than in the rest of the country. Although Turrialba officially belongs to the province of Cartago, Turrialbeños (Turrialba locals) consider themselves much more akin to Limón. It was one of the important stops on the old railroad, that started on the port of Limón and transported goods and people to the capital city, thus a big vat of cultural mixes.

I go to the coast all the time and draw much of my inspiration from it. The weather is unmistakeably Caribbean and it definitely has a specific environment that is not found in the rest of Costa Rica and a very important jewel in our country's culture. As you mentioned, everything from architecture to cuisine, music, dance and language has a completely different and unique. In fact, I daresay it is one of the Costa Rican richest cultural "hotspots".

Towards the South of the Caribbean coast, there is also a strong Bribri (Native Costa Rican) influence, which makes for a very evident and unique mix in towns like Manzanillo, Punta Uva, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. You can find Costa Rican Caribbean food all around the province (and in Turrialba of course), such as Panbón, Rice and Beans, Rondón and Agua de Sapo. In Limón you can see the main Caribbean historical buildings in the province, such as the Black Star Line and the Post Office among many others.

One of Costa Rica's best loved song writers of all time is the calypsonian Walter Ferguson from Cahuita.

You recently finished illustrating and writing a children’s book about the rain forest animals of Costa Rica which you are now pitching to publishers. This is the first book that you have written and submitted for publication. Can you tell us more about this project? What was it like to go from illustrating children’s books to writing one?

It was actually a pretty fun endeavor. This is a rather simple book for younger children, which does not mean it was any easier to conceptualize, write and illustrate. I chose a topic that I know very well from my daily life and personal interests: our local natural world. It feel like it is always better to work with stories and themes that come from my own experience. It feels more intimate and therefore has a truer voice.

What was it like winning the prestigious Noma Concours Prize for Picture Book Illustration and presenting at the ACCU-NOMA Symposium in Tokyo, Japan? What major thing, if any, did you take away from that experience?

It was the biggest surprise. I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be awarded such a prize. The whole experience was might blowing and it was also surprising to realize that Japanese people genuinely appreciate children's book illustration and illustrators. My pieces for the competition were acquired by the Chihiro Foundation and Art Museum (http://www.chihiro.jp/english/top.html), which was also an amazing surprise and honor. This foundation is dedicated to preserving Illustration from all over the world, for today's children and new generations to come.

Thinking back, I think that the major event was to encounter the wide variety of wonderful styles and sensibilities that exist in the World. As I viewed the exhibition of the winning works, I found this incredible kaleidoscope of different values and points of views, as well as the realities and challenges we all encounter in life as individuals, families and communities.

You have worked with people from all over the world. Do you find that there are cultural barriers/language barriers and if so, how do you navigate them? 

Cultural and slight language barriers will always exist when you work in international teams, especially if you work remotely through email or phone, when everybody is in different countries. Luckily there is English as a common language, as well as translators. Usually everybody involved is very patient and understanding. So far, everybody I have worked with has been very kind and great team players. Details and feedback are carefully cross checked and there is definitely a lot of information and emails going back and forth. Fortunately, the projects I have worked on have been a lot of fun.

Having people from different cultures working in the same team can also be a big plus. I have had editors and art directors give me a completely unexpected point of view that I would have otherwise never thought of. All this "rubbing" of cultures and ideas goes into the process and results in a richer book. I think that as long as everybody in the team is open and honest, things will probably run very smoothly.

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. Would you be open to illustrating books by Caribbean children’s authors and if so, do you think you can bring anything fresh or unique to Caribbean children’s books?
 
Yes, I would definitely be interested in illustrating Caribbean children's books.. I love the tropics, my Costa Rican Caribbean home and all its stories, so it would be a dream come true to bring some of its beauty into books to share with others.

As for bringing something fresh and unique, I like to think that we can all bring some of it to the table, be it illustrators, art directors or writers. In my case, it is perhaps the fact that I live in a part of the Caribbean which is not as well known or labeled as "Caribbean", like some of the islands. The Costa Rican Caribbean, and I believe the Central American Caribbean in general is not very well known. Yet there are very unique elements in the Central American Caribbean that are found nowhere else, like the Garifuna in Honduras and the Bribri-Afro Caribbean zambos in Costa Rica. On the other hand, I also have Chinese/Taiwanese heritage in my background, which is not uncommon in Costa Rica, but is still a bit unknown and unexplored.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?


The best and most secure way to contact me is via email, to this address libelule@gmail.com
Also my phone number is (+506) 2556 2272 or (+506) 8384 2813, but email is definitely the surest way to find  me. My address is:

Wen Hsu
Casa 5-66, CATIE 7170
Turrialba, Cartago 30501
Costa Rica

Wen, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a real pleasure conversing with you. 

Thank you! The pleasure is all mine! It is always wonderful to share with people who love children's books as well as illustrations, so thank you very much for this opportunity.



***

Born to Chinese parents in Taiwan, Wen Hsu has lived in Costa Rica since she was two years old. She earned an Advanced Degree in Architecture from the University of Costa Rica and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in Rhode Island, USA. Hsu has illustrated several children’s books including Salina by Marianela Ortuño Pinto, Sebastian by Michael Stewart, Historia de un Árbol (History of a Tree) by Ricardo Cie, and For the Love of a Cat, a Buddhist story which she illustrated for Katha, a “profit for all” organization impacting social injustice and economic poverty in urban India. Hsu has received honors for her work as an illustrator, including the Adobe Scholarship for Excellence in Illustration and the 2008 Grand Prize in the prestigious Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustration contest organized by Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) for her own book, Nadi & Xiao Lan. Hsu makes her home in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Related Links


Wen Hsu’s website
Wen Hsu’s blog

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, Brianna Mccarthy


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?)...



It's versatile....



It's anecdoctal (Don't these illustrations already seem like part of a story?)...




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?

Definitely.

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 brianna.mccarthy@gmail.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 from Trinidad and Tobago is a 26 year old, people watching, wisdom seeking West Indian who paints, draws and makes girls. Her artwork has been featured on many Afrocentric blogs, including Woman of Color, Kiss My Black Ads, Black Girl with Long Hair, and most recently, Alice in Nappy Land. The beautiful fashion of Mccarthy's colored girls has also earned them the spotlight on fashionista websites like Shen Dove Style, Au Courant Daily and b.vikki vintage. Mccarthy's art has been featured online in Hiddenyou Ezine, Poema Jones and Khristian A. Howell Surface Design and Photography. She holds degrees in English Literature and Psychology from the University of the West Indies and is currently an intern with Trinidadian fashion house, The Cloth.


Related Links

Brianna Mccarthy's Online Portfolio

Brianna Mccarthy's Blog

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, James Hackett



If you have even the slightest interest in Caribbean illustrators, then James Hackett is a name you must have heard. I am absolutely taken aback by Hackett's work. He's a fellow-Trini and looking at the images in his portfolio I really do feel a sense of home, a satisfying sense of 'Caribbeanness'. I am perhaps most impressed by Mr. Hackett's versatility; his illustrations span a number of styles and working with both traditional and digital media, he is able to produce a wide range of effects. As a children's literature aficionado/scholar, I spend hours pouring over the talent in the international children's illustration market and I can easily compare Hackett's work to that of Ward Jenkins, Lou Simeone, Andrés Martínez Ricci, or Jeff Crowther. At the same time, I think Hackett's cartoonesque work, in combining vector art, urban aesthetics, batik designs and textures, magna comic elements and collage techniques, is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Check out these kid-friendly samples from his portfolio (click on images to enlarge):









I have been corresponding with Mr. Hackett and I recently had the chance to pick his brain about his work.

***

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview James, I really appreciate it.

No problem at all.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes James Hackett interesting?

I like telling stories. I have always tried to do that in my pieces and my work. There is always a story to tell. People like stories especially if they are good and I think I have been lucky enough to have interesting viewpoints that capture people’s imaginations.

On the web and in several print publications, you go by the alias “daaknite.” What’s the story behind the name?

I am a huge fan of Batman. I like what the character stands for: this ever vigilant human being in a world full of crazy people. He exists in this dark world but helps people as broken as he is amazing. I like to think of myself as a Dark Knight, playing on as many puns as you can think of with those references from the romantic to the obvious.

Let’s talk about your art. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?

I like experimenting. Every chance I get I play with things and tools and find stuff that works. With traditional media I tend to work with pastel, watercolours, pencil and ink but these days I prefer mostly to work on the computer. This is primarily because I do not have a lot of space to work as I would like to. The computer keeps it simple for me so I just sketch and scan my concepts and finish them on the computer or work with photographs.

What is your process for creating an illustration?

These days I typically start with a sketch. Because of my graphic design background I see compositions and ways to make them work effectively very quickly in my head. The sketch helps me nail down the vision and once this is scanned I finish the work in Adobe Illustrator ( I have a couple tutorials in my blog that shows this process.) On the computer it is faster for me to work my colours out and tighten up the composition and layer in the details etc.

Although your illustrations typically feature adult concepts and figures, when I look at some of your work, (like the illustrations above) I see the qualities of children’s illustration- bright colors, quirky perspectives, animals with human characteristics, humorous elements, and visuals that subtly but powerfully tell a story. Have you ever illustrated for children and if not, is this something that interests you?

I am quite interested in illustrating for children’s books but I have not had a good opportunity as yet. I would really love to go all out and enhance a well written tale.

What about graphic novels or comic books? Graphic novels are big right now in the young adult literature market. I think Caribbean youth would enjoy locally-flavored graphic novels. What say you?

The thing with graphic novels is they take a lot of time, I have been burned in the past by trying comics and what not. I was young, but now I would really need a lot of time to do one. My heart still would like to try but I will not be able to do it justice at the moment because my head just isn't there yet. It would be nice to visit it in the future however because so many possibilities for stories exist as you suggested.

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 children’s book aesthetic?

Well I have been trying to break into the illustration market for the last few years unsuccessfully. For me it has been an uphill battle of discovery. I become more and more professional after each disappointment. I think (I may be wrong) that generally it’s a matter of seeing Illustration as a high craft and approaching the whole matter with professionalism, something that is kind of glossed over here from my experience, so foreigners are leagues ahead of us after the talent factor goes out the window. It is has a lot to do with us here looking at the industry more seriously and being able to garner that respect.

You are in the process of designing Carnival costumes for a children’s band for Carnival 2011. Can you tell us a little bit about this project? The concept behind the band perhaps?

Carnival has given me so many wonderful experiences. I have been involved with it off and on for about 12 years or so. The children’s band will pretty much be like a story book that we expect to expand into costumes and play out into the streets. It is not a revolutionary concept but it is something that makes so much sense. The process starts with a story that features "kidcentric" ideas and themes and then we create designs based on those characters. We plan to release the story as part of the marketing for the children’s band in a few months.

Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?

I have thought about it before, just not recently. I may try again at a later date.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

My website has all the contact information. www.shizzies.com.

James, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a pleasure conversing with you.

Thanks a lot for seeking me out, it’s encouraging to know that there are a few people looking at what I do.


***

James Hackett from Trinidad and Tobago is a writer, documentary film-maker, and up-and-coming fashion designer who is perhaps more well-known in Caribbean circles for his work as an illustrator and animator. With over a decade of experience working in print, media and advertising houses in Trinidad and the Caribbean, Hackett’s work has been exhibited in the region and in the United States. His digital/graphic art has been featured in Draconian Switch, Outish Magazine, The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, The Trinidad and Tobago Express and regularly in Caribbean Beat. Hackett’s illustrations bring together his interest in magna comics, batik prints and Caribbean folklore to create upbeat Caribbean images that reflect the pizzazz and vitality of the region. Hackett was a resident illustrator and writer for VoX, the groundbreaking youth-focused magazine that was published in the Sunday Express in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 90’s. At VoX, Hackett was one of the writers behind Tales from Daaknite, the “urban-fiction-meets-folklore/fantasy” serialized stories that became popular among young people in Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett holds an Associates Degree in Design from John Donaldson Technical Institute (Trinidad) and is currently pursuing a degree in fashion design at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett is a member of Zigwa, the Trinbago-based arts collective.


Related Links

Hackett's Print Shop on Facebook