I love children's books for their stories, of course, but it's possible that I love them even more for their illustrations. I have even trained my children to identify illustrators, and they are pretty good at it, ha. Tomorrow I'll share some of my most favorite illustrated picture books, but today I am excited to share an interview I did for a workshop I taught at Big Picture Classes a few years ago with my favorite illustrator of all, Melissa Sweet!
Melissa Sweet is an award-winning illustrator and children’s book author whose work can be seen in nearly 100 children’s books, commercial art, posters, games, notecards, journals, and one-of-a-kind handmade books. She uses watercolor and collage to create her bright, cheery, and colorful illustrations. Her love of paper and craft extends to three-dimensional work as well; in 2007 she contributed her talents to an altered book project named Out of Bounds sponsored by her local library in Rockport, Maine, and is always on the lookout for interesting ephemera to incorporate into 3-D art projects. Her most recent illustrations can be found in Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul Janeczko and Little Red Writing by Joan Holub.
Q. Who would you name as your greatest influences in the development of your own style and artwork?
A. In our house growing up we had a big book of New Yorker cartoons. My brothers and I poured over those cartoons for years. When I began illustrating I looked at Arthur Rackham, Maurice Sendak, Helen Oxenbury and others. I look at art all the time.
Q. I'm a big believer in choosing materials and products when I scrapbook that support the theme or message of the layout I create--for example, I often use old maps as a foundation for scrapbook pages that have a geographic component. Do you follow a similar process when choosing materials in your collage-style illustrations?
A. It's essential that the materials I choose for the subjects of my books are a good marriage. We don't want any bickering...I spend quite of bit of time with each project getting the right size paper, the right kind of paper, I'll even have handmade paper made to my specifications if i think it's important. For instance in a book I illustrated, Chicken Joy on Redbean Road, I had paper made so I would have large deckle edge on four sides. I use Twinrocker Handmade papers exclusively for watercolors. When I was illustrating The Boy Who Drew Birds, (about John James Audubon) I had everything I needed in my studio—but that's after years of collecting. I used a dried frog, nests, bones, feathers—and it was fun to finally have a use for these things that seemed so important when I saved them.
Other times, I have to go searching, and I go with my hunches—I just declare: this is the perfect thing and go with it. There is an element of serendipity with collage that's part of its history.
Q. As an artist, I assume you must constantly be on the lookout for new ideas, color combinations, and design elements. Do you have favorite sources of inspiration? (i.e. nature, contemporary illustrators, music, the clothing aisles at Target, what have you)
A. Yes, Target, the Museum of Modern Art , or an old toy at a yard sale. I keep my eyes on the periphery, and stay curious. It's almost as if anywhere and anything can spur me on. There's a great painter here in Maine, Harold Garde, and he says, "art comes from art," and I agree with him. When I see something an artist has done, an interesting color palette, the way they make marks, use of materials, or a subject that inspires me, I want to go back to the studio.
Q. You state on your website that you collect things that might spark an idea for an illustration project. Scrapbookers can definitely relate to this practice! What are the most recent pieces of ephemera that have made it into your collection? What types of things are you compelled to save?
A. The last thing I brought in was an old wooden box I want to make into a kinetic toy, like a whirligig. I'm getting ready to attend a course at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where I'll be making stuff out of old tin cans with Bobby Hanssen who wrote: The Fine Art of the Tin Can. My collecting is erratic. I buy a ton of stuff somewhere and nothing for a long time. Space can limit my decisions. I love ribbon, fabrics, buttons, old wooden boxes. Recently I've been buying Kaffe Fassett fabric and looking at Denise Schmidt quilts. I made a quilt this past winter and wish had time to made a dozen more.
Q. You've illustrated so many books and written a few, too--do you have favorites? Why or why not?
A. I'm partial to the ones I've written, Carmine: A Little More Red and Tupelo Rides the Rails. It's a very different process to work with my own writing. Both these books took a long time to write and I feel like they're a big part of me. They're probably more autobiographical than I want to admit.
Q. You state on your site that you have a quote by poet Mary Oliver in your studio: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” This could very well be a scrapbooker's motto. In what ways do you preserve the small and big stories in your own family? Photo albums? Scrapbooks? Original artwork?
A. The closest we've come to keeping records is when we take a trip I grab a blank book and a glue stick and everything goes in it. It's a running tally of where we've been, what we've eaten or bought. Tickets, receipts, menus, Polaroids, matchbooks—they're thick with stuff. It's really fun to have those books and I wish I could say we take pictures, but we don't. I have all my sketches from each book and most of the art, so that's the record.
That quote has another twist for me, too. It gives me permission to just take a walk with my dogs, be in a cafe with the paper, time to take in, and not be actively making something. That time is essential for filling the well, so to speak—and I could practice it more. Mark Twain spoke of that, so if he did it, that's good enough for me.
Q. Do you have a favorite non-traditional celebration that comes around every year?
Good question. I love so many holidays for lots of reasons. Here is Maine we are really aware of the waxing and waning light and winter can seem so long. Our unique quirk comes at the winter solstice when we have a barbeque of marshmallows and s'mores, usually in the snow. It's our way of celebrating the beginning of more light and knowing summer is only six months away.