Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Winner Interview Series: Salley Mavor, 2011 Golden Kite Award for Illustrations

Salley Mavor at work
For this installment of my Winner Interview Series I talked with Salley Mavor who received the Golden Kite Award for Illustration for her book POCKETFUL OF POSIES: A TREASURY OF NURSERY RHYMES.

Salley works in a medium she refers to as Fabric Relief Sculpture. She spent months and months (and months) working on the illustrations for POCKETFUL OF POSIES, creating three-dimensional fabric artwork using wool, thread and found objects. And as someone who is thrilled whenever I sew a button on correctly, I marvel at her beautifully detailed and meticulous art. (See several details from Salley's illustrations at the end of the interview.)

Here she talks about how her work has evolved over several decades, explains her technique, and offers advice to illustrators who work in three dimensions.

Please tell my readers a little about POCKETFUL OF POSIES. What drew you to the project? (And how many books have you done with Houghton Mifflin)?

POCKETFUL OF POSIES grew out of a series of four nursery rhyme board books I did for Houghton Mifflin. The board books were so much fun that my editor, Margaret Raymo, and I decided to expand the concept into a broad anthology of nursery rhymes. Knowing that there are a plethora of such books on the market, we thought that my unique style and technique would set it apart.

I had been gradually introducing wool felt to my fabric relief pictures before this, but these were the first illustrations made primarily with wool felt that was naturally dyed by a family business I found through my association with Waldorf Education.

From the start, I was attracted by the idea of making one illustration per rhyme, of squeezing the action into a series of very different pictures, without having to repeat characters and environments throughout the book, as illustrators usually have to do in a story book. This would be an opportunity to include one-of-a-kind found objects that I wouldn’t normally be able to use because I couldn’t replicate or change the scale of the object throughout the book. I also thought that the variety of rhymes could hold my attention through the years-long duration of the project. Every page was completely different and fresh, making it possible to start over again and again, meeting a new cast of characters every few weeks.

My first picture book, THE WAY HOME, came out 20 years ago and I’ve since worked with several publishers--MacMillan, Orchard, Candlewick, Harper Collins, C&T, and Houghton Mifflin. I consider myself to be an artist who sometimes illustrates picture books. I spent 10 years designing, making and selling fairy kits for my business, Wee Folk Studio and wrote the craft how-to book for adults, FELT WEE FOLK: ENCHANTING PROJECTS. 5 years ago, I gave up the kit business in order to have time to sew the illustrations for POCKETFUL OF POSIES.

Salley's POCKETFUL OF POSIES won the Golden Kite for Illustration

You’ve been creating three-dimensional art professionally since the '70s. How did your early work evolve into a picture-book worthy technique? When and how did you come into the world of children’s book illustration?

I majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design 30+ years ago, but wasn’t sure that the dolls and assemblages I presented for critique would ever be a viable working method. I studied illustration because I liked narrative work and wanted the freedom to tell stories with a variety of mediums. I’ve had a life long fascination with textiles and miniatures, and have sewed little things since my earliest memories. So, what I do today is just a continuation of what I’ve always done. When it comes to embroidery, I’ve taught myself everything through books and years of practice. But stitchery itself is not dynamic enough for me, I like to decorate felt pieces and parts with embroidery and then combine them with other dimensional materials.

My 3-D work started as a kind of soft sculpture, which I would set up in scenes. Creating a way to photograph the scenes effectively was a challenge, so I started to incorporate backgrounds into my work. I essentially removed the back half of my dolls, sets and props, and sewed them to an embellished fabric backdrop, creating a shallow mini stage set. People asked me what it was called, so I made up the term Fabric Relief Sculpture. My husband, Rob Goldsborough started making wooden shadow box frames for the pieces and I found that my work was respected as “art” now that it could be hung on the wall.

It took several years to develop this technique to a point where I thought it could be used as illustration. I visited several editors in New York, who liked what I was doing, but didn’t see how they could use it. One suggested I write or find a story and make some samples. Looking back, I can understand that my work was too unusual and idiosyncratic for the publishing world right then and that I wasn’t ready to take on a book project. I’d been making stand alone pictures and I wasn’t yet capable of visualizing a 32-page book. Also, during this time, I was busy taking care of my two young children, but I kept working at my craft, mostly in the evenings.

My neighbor, Molly Bang, a children’s book writer and illustrator, showed me a wonderful elephant story written by another Woods Hole resident, Judy Richardson. After a few years of planning and gearing up, Judy and I felt prepared enough to present THE WAY HOME to a handful of editors in New York. We brought everything we could think of, a story board, a sample illustration, and a 4 x 5 transparency of the illustration. After that trip, we were offered the great opportunity to work with editor Phyllis Larkin and art director Cecilia Yung at MacMillan. Somehow, I found the time to stitch the illustrations in a year and half, even with all of my other responsibilities.

In the early '90s, my friend and past illustration teacher, Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges, started the design agency Studio Goodwin-Sturges. She started representing me and showing my work to the children’s book publishing world. Since we first met at RISD, 35 years ago, she has encouraged me to follow my urge to sew and stitch and supported my efforts to grow as an artist.

Creating your amazing fabric illustrations for books seems to be a slow and meticulous process. Can you describe the time, techniques, and materials involved to give my readers an idea of how you work?

Lately, I’ve been describing my work as part of a Slow Art Movement. Yes, it’s very time consuming and not very practical, but that is part of what attracts me to this way of working. I sew, wrap, embroider, carve and embellish in as many ways as I can think of—all by hand. I can’t really speed it up and machines are no help. Through the repetitive, tactile processes, I find a calm satisfaction that can help lead to effective problem solving. Each illustration requires figuring out something new, whether it is a way of constructing a driftwood house or making a tiny basket, so I need time to work things out.

It took five years for POCKETFUL OF POSIES to go from early sketches to the final production stage. For three of those years, I stitched and assembled the 51 nursery rhyme illustrations. What kept me going was the challenge and excitement of bringing so many stories and characters to life. I could concentrate a lot of energy into each picture and make bold design decisions. I was determined that every rhyme would have the love and attention it deserved.

Just like other illustrators who work in more traditional ways, I draw a layout of the book, making sketches of each page that show the general positioning of the subjects in the picture, leaving space for the type. I find the design phase to be the hardest and most cerebral part of the process. I’m glad when it’s done, because then I can get down to the more intuitive and enjoyable business of making. It’s thrilling to hold the materials and let my hands start forming the pictures.

I find that welcoming found objects into my work can become a trap. Some very interesting looking things can seduce me into thinking they belong in a picture. Later, if it doesn’t contribute to the story, I’ll have to make the painful decision to kick it out. That’s hard, especially when I really like the object. Writer friends tell me that they encounter something similar in their writing. They have to get rid of clever characters, witty dialog or funny situations that seemed perfect earlier. We agree that it’s all part of the creative process, but you have to be willing to see the impostor for what it is.

People often ask how long it takes to make an illustration, but I’m not really sure, because time disappears when I’m working. I know that it takes between two to four weeks per picture, but as to the hours, I don’t keep track. My husband, Rob says that when I’m not eating or sleeping, I’m working in my studio. Of course, this is not entirely accurate, but it’s close to the truth. I admit to being obsessed with making things, as I believe are most artists. Holding a threaded needle is my default position.

Adults comment on my detailed, labor intensive technique, but children are not impressed by how long it takes or how perfect my stitches are. No matter what technique I use, or how many days it takes, my goal is to stimulate the imagination and have children emotionally connect with my art.

I’ve worked with several editors over the years, each one with their own comfort level of control and have found that my way of working requires flexibility. I work best with trusting editors who leave me alone for long periods—sometimes a year at a time. I’ve never been very open to a micro-managed style of direction and this has caused problems in the past. I need freedom to experiment and I realize that editors take a chance with me. There will be surprises and changes in my finishes, but hopefully we can agree that the results are worth the uncertainty.

How did you feel when you learned you won the Golden Kite Award for Illustration?

I was totally surprised to find out that my book was chosen. I feel honored and recognized in a very special way by my peers. For 20 years I’ve felt outside of the mainstream of children’s books, that my style didn’t really fit and was more of a novelty. I hope that my book will encourage more illustrators, art directors, publishers AND children to see the creative possibilities in even the smallest things around us. I’m also grateful that the award may help give POCKETFUL OF POSIES a longer life in this competitive market.

Can you offer some advice to artists who work in “alternative” media in regards to approaching publishers?

To artists who work in a 3-dimensional medium, I would say that your portfolio should show how your work reproduces onto the printed page. Include good quality, well lit photographs that bring out the unique appeal of what you make. As in any medium, publishers want to see that you can create engaging, active characters in environments that children understand. If you are working with fabric and stitching, make sure that the photos bring out the details of your work. Don’t make your originals much bigger than the printed size, because the textural quality is lost in the reproduction. Have your photos show the raised texture and sculptural quality of you medium. Otherwise, you may as well be working in paper collage or paint.

Bringing characters to life in three dimensions can be a challenge in picture books, but it is key to successfully illustrating a story. Many sculpted heads I’ve seen tend to have exaggerated features that come across as grotesque and not appealing to young children. This style may be more appropriate for editorial illustration, adult books or advertising.

I would also say that your work cannot stand on originality alone, that you should aim to reach beyond the technique and concentrate on telling a story in a visual way, with as much feeling as possible. Just remember that it’s not the medium, it’s the message. After all, it is a great responsibility to reach out and connect with children.

Please tell us about upcoming book projects and exhibitions of your work. 

Right now, I’m taking a break from illustrating and will be spending the next few years making pieces for art shows. I’m not even sure what I’ll be making, but I feel like I have something to contribute outside of the children’s book world.

The original fabric relief illustrations from POCKETFUL OF POSIES are touring around the country through December 2013. The next location will be at the Muscatine Art Center, Muscatine, Iowa from April 23rd to June 18th, 2011. The schedule is frequently updated on my blog.


A Journey Illustrated said...

Truly amazing work. I enjoyed this interview a lot. Thanks!

Laura said...

Such BEAUTIFUL artwork!!! I'm so happy I found your blog!

Frances Tyrrell said...

I love Salley Mavor's work, she creates charmings worlds for children - and appreciative adults - to explore.

WoolPets said...

Thanks for sharing this interview! Salley's words of wisdom are a great inspiration for me.

Giselle Vidal McMenamin said...

Wonderful interview. Just love the artwork!!!

Cat Addams said...

..brilliant artwork...great interview..