Our Favourite Inspiring Women from Blazing a Trail

Lauren O’Neill and Sarah Webb accepting their Irish Book Award
Shona Shirley Macdonald (author and illustrator of The Pooka Party), Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill at the Irish Book Awards 2018

This week Blazing a Trail won the Children’s Book of the Year (senior) Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. This is a wonderful award and we, at the O’Brien Press, are very proud of this book and the remarkable women who created it. Blazing a Trail – Irish Women Who Changed the World was written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill. Sarah and Lauren have chosen their favourite woman from Blazing a Trail with a disclaimer that this is very difficult to choose because they are all amazing in their own right!

 

 

Sarah Webb

I’ve spent the last two years in the company of some of Ireland’s most remarkable women and it’s hard to select one as my ‘favourite’. As I read about the women in turn, I discovered the truth about each individual journey – the obstacles they had to overcome, their tenacity, their determination, their hope that Ireland might be a different place for women in the future – and my admiration for all of them grew and grew.

However I discovered that one woman in particular had direct links to my family and also changed the course of my own education and that is Sarah Purser.

Sarah was an artist, patron and businesswoman who was born in Dún Laoghaire in 1848, the town where I live. She studied art in Paris as women were not allowed to study at the Royal Irish Academy (RHA) in Dublin at the time. Later, Sarah became the first woman to be given full membership of the organisation at the age of seventy-five.

She became well known for her portraits and painted some of the most famous Irish people of the time from Maud Gonne to Douglas Hyde.

In 1903, she set up An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) and, thanks to her excellent business skills, it became a world-wide success, exporting glass to churches around the globe. It makes me smile to think that the stained glass windows in churches in Canada and New York and many other places were shipped over (and in many cases created) by Irish women at a time when women’s art was not widely appreciated or celebrated. Stained-glass artists Evie Hone and Wilhelmina Geddes and Harry Clarke all made glass for Sarah’s company.

Every Tuesday, Sarah held salons in her house for artists, writers and academics. My grandfather, WB Stanford, was a classics professor at TCD and wrote widely on the Greek language. He attended these salons with my grandmother.

Sarah also helped establish History of Art courses in both Trinity College Dublin and UCD. I studied History of Art in TCD; a course I loved. It is responsible for my abiding love of art, illustration and picturebooks.

And finally we share a first name.

Sarah Purser, I salute you!

Lauren O’Neill

It’s obviously very tough to choose a favourite among the Blazing a Trail women – they’re all very unique individuals. In terms of the artwork, Eileen Grey was probably my favourite to draw, or the aviators, Lilian Bland and Lady Heath. I love how those images turned out! I think the woman who made the biggest impression on me though was Margaret Bulkley, who lived her whole adult life as a man, Dr. James Barry. Her, or I should say his, academic achievements alone were amazing. But he was also the one who made the biggest leap in terms of how he wanted to present himself to the world. You have to admire that level of self conviction! Also he was a big animal lover, which deserves a big thumbs up. He was a very interesting character both to research and to draw.

The artwork for Blazing a Trail was actually a bit of a departure from my usual style in kids’ books. Generally I’m more focused on linework but for Blazing a Trail I combined line drawings with figures that felt a bit more painterly, which seemed to work well with some of the more historical subject matter. I mostly work digitally but I always use scanned textures in my work on some level. For Blazing a Trail I sketched out lots of small composition thumbnails in pencil for each image, and chose the one that I felt would work best full size. I would then take a photo of it on my phone, send it to my computer and paint over it in photoshop. At the end, I added in scanned paint textures to give everything a more organic and traditional feel.

Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill, November 2018

Blazing a Trail is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

 

We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie

Happy 2018 to everyone! To start of the New Year we at OBP chatted to author and illustrator Sarah Bowie about her upcoming picture book We’re Going to the Zoo!

What inspired you to write We’re Going to the Zoo?

I have very clear memories of going to the zoo myself when I was a little girl and I wanted to remember what it was like when you’re seeing these wild and exotic creatures for the first time in real life

What was your process for creating this book?

I started very simply, with a sketchpad and pencil. I tried to bypass my ‘front brain’ by just doodling and writing as quickly as possible. After a while I started to hear a grumpy little voice saying ‘The zoo is BORING!’, which is not what I’d been aiming for at all. However, I just went with it, kept doodling and writing and listening to what she and the other characters were saying. The important thing at the early stage is not to judge, you can always go back and fix things later. So that was how I got the original proposal written. After that I focused on page layout and pacing. It’s usually at this stage that I finalise the writing too. Once that’s nailed down, I focus on the artwork. Continue reading “We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie”

Illustrating The Moon Spun Round – W.B. Yeats for Children

The Moon Spun Round – W.B. Yeats for Children Edited by Noreen Doody and Illustrated by Shona Shirley MacDonald

Shona Shirley MacDonald chats to us about her experience of illustrating this beautiful book. Emma Byrne, who designed the book, describes the commissioning process and the importance of illustration for a book like this.

 

Shona Shirley MacDonald

When I first heard about the project I was instantly keen to get started and already imagining how the finished book might look. Near the beginning I was lent a biography of W.B. Yeats and ended up reading it all in one sitting, which I think was quite useful and must have helped to inform the working-in-studioway I interpreted his poems. The introduction and background about Yeats as a child by Noreen Doody also added to that. Apart from learning a bit about his life, however, I didn’t search for any analyses of his text (with the exception of ‘Running to Paradise’), so for the most part I just illustrated it the way it made sense to me, taking into consideration that the anthology is aimed at children.

I was already familiar with some of the poems, including ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, but I hadn’t realised they were written by Yeats. Mostly the poems and stories were new to me, but they were not hugely difficult to conjure images for, as they are already rich in imagery. Each illustration had its own meandering and tricky journey, though. The most difficult poem to illustrate was ‘Running to Paradise’, it seemed quite obscure, and it took me some time to fully get to grips with it. Also I was initially worried about what to do with ‘The Man in His Boots’, but then I realised it was set in a haunted house, and if I couldn’t make that look interesting then I shouldn’t be an illustrator. Perhaps my favourite illustrations in the book are the ones I did for ‘The Wisdom of the King’, as they were some of the last ones I illustrated, and it was nice at that point to create a series that belonged together rather than individual images, as for many of the poems.

With all the detail that went into each illustration it was certainly a time-consuming project to work on, but it was enjoyable. However you always need another set of eyes. Emma, the designer, was great at guiding the project, allowing me space to interpret the poems, but also giving feedback and constructive criticism. My partner Ciarán who is also an artist was another huge help throughout the project.

There is still much I have to read of Yeats’s poetry, but working on this book has brought me an appreciation of his work. It was brilliant to have the chance to create strange and magical images for such beautiful poetry, and my hope is that children and adults alike will get enjoyment out of reading the book too.

fiddler-of-dooney-progression_higher-resto-a-squirrel_progression

Emma Byrne – Commissioning The Moon Spun Round 

As a fan of the work of our national poet, I was hugely excited when this book came across my desk. I also knew it would be an enormous challenge to find an illustrator who could interpret, embellish and visualise the work yet enhance it – without overpowering it. This takes discipline and sensitivity – where both the text and visuals combined take the reader on a road, a journey the reader needs to finish themselves.

The physical book was important to Yeats, and it seemed fitting to convey that in this exploration of his work for children . The packaging, which included the flaps, a secret poster, and different laminate cover all enhanced this, but the lynchpin, was always going to be the illustration.

I hadn’t worked with Shona before, but had asked her to do a sample for another project. It wasn’t right for that particular book, but I saw a magic in it, and kept her work in mind. I saw her work online, and saw these imagined worlds full of strange creatures at play and thought, this is perfect! I asked her to do a fully worked sample for ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ to see if she could do the whole project.

I told her to lose all inhibitions and immerse herself in the work – and interpret freely. I told her a little of the world of Yeats and some of his obsessions with fairies and the magic in nature, but really it was just all in the text. When the resulting sample came in, to say I was blown away was putting it mildly. I knew it was going to be very special.

The initial concept, which starts as the poet is standing ‘… on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,’ and the explosion of life and colour that works its way up the page, was in itself very strong. But it’s exceptional beauty came in the detail that revealed itself in creatures and unfolding colour as the poem progressed. All of this whilst creating an atmosphere and visual tension. This artwork, like the poem, would reward by revisiting again and again.

I showed it to the inhouse team, and they all agreed, this was the illustrator for the project. Also the author, Noreen Doody, was suitably impressed. So we set out a schedule and all got to work. Each illustration had a series of rough approaches before we went to colour – so hugely time consuming. Each poem brought a different interpretation, and a different approach in concept and visualisation.

It is difficult to choose favourites, but if I had to, I think the second illustration for ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, where the swan becomes the lake is genius, as is the power in the illustration for ‘To A Child Dancing in the Wind. The cover art, which features characters from the whole book, is also very clever stuff.

These illuminations of Shona Shirley MacDonald, would, I have no doubt, have pleased W.B. Yeats very much. The combined work of Noreen Doody and Shona makes for an exceptional book that will bring young and old great enjoyment – for years to come.

Shona Shirley MacDonald and Emma Byrne, October 2016

The Moon Spun Round is available here and in all good bookshops!

 

The Root of Inspiration

Author and award-winning illustrator Matt Griffin talks about the inspiration behind his debut novel, A Cage of Roots.

The process of writing A Cage of Roots began with a walk. This is something I do whenever I’m faced with a big illustration project or anything that requires a high degree of creativity. I need the air, the motion, the colours, and most of all I need to start the walk with a blank slate. For the first kilometre or so, I probably resemble an extra from The Walking Dead. So effective is my ability to turn off any distractions, such as thinking, that I am often in danger of forgetting that thinking is the reason I went for a walk in the first place. And so it was that I shuffled zombie-like along the paths of Lees Road Park in Ennis with a mission to create my own dark version of ancient Ireland.

As ever, when I pick up the pace, my brain follows suit and the cogs grind into action. I start to see things. Not like a movie, as such – more like the visions you have when you’re reading a book and you forget that you are actually reading. Random scenes flash before my eyes, and as I walk, they coalesce into a narrative. It may sound cheesy, but the story presents itself to me and I just watch. Then I rewind and replay, not just to refine it but to make sure I don’t forget. It’s probably quite a frightening sight for my fellow walkers. I’m sure joggers go off-piste into the undergrowth to avoid me. But in those moments I am completely and utterly lost in the story, and nothing less than a nuclear explosion would distract me. It is a happy time.

Emma Byrne, the brilliant Art Director at The O’Brien Press, was the first person to suggest that I might try writing a story of my own. She could tell from my illustration work at the time that I had a penchant for both Irish myth and the darker side of fairy tales. I had written in a journalistic capacity in my twenties, but I hadn’t written fiction since school. I did, however, keep stacks of notebooks filled with concepts for stories. I never had a shortage of ideas – but this was a real chance to show that I could bring a book from concept to finish. It was a challenge I gratefully accepted, suffered panic at the hands of, and eventually relished in. I went for my walk, dreamt up the bones of the story, and got to work.

It needed some refining.

As a first-time writer, I needed guidance. I could put nice words in the right order, but building a story, with arcs and strands and consequences, was next-level. It took hard work and the wisdom of people who know better. I had learned a lot from a friend of mine, the director/animator/puppeteer Damian Farrell, with whom I had worked on a feature film concept. But I was still wet behind the ears. Thankfully, once again, The O’Brien Press had faith, and my editor, Susan Houlden, helped me develop from a potential writer to (I hope!) a writer. Without that guidance I couldn’t have done it; it’s that simple.

Being an illustrator first, it was imperative that I have art in my book. These kind of books don’t often have illustrations, it was argued, but my dream from early childhood was to make my own world in words and then to be allowed to show glimpses of it with drawings. (As an impossibly cute young scamp, I obsessed over Tolkien’s artwork in The Hobbit as much as the story.) As it happened, I heaped incredible pressure on myself to produce my best work, and as your best work is always ahead of you (lesson there, folks!), I am already dissatisfied with it. That is my lot as an artist, though – I am never happy with my work for longer than a day.

I was also allowed to design the cover, and I would probably be dissatisfied with that too if it wasn’t for the embossing. That saves it. (Thanks, Emma!)

So now it’s on to the next story in Ayla’s adventure. I’m already knee-deep in it, having walked and dreamt on a clear day halfway up Mullaghmore in the Burren. This time, the drawings will be my best work ever. For a day at least.

Matt Griffin was born in DMattGriffinublin in 1979 and grew up in Kells, Co. Meath. After a brief attempt at third level education he spent eight years in London working in the media, before moving home to Ireland in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a fulltime illustrator. Since then he has garnered a reputation as one of the most eclectic graphic artists in contemporary illustration, collecting awards and accolades for his work in publishing, advertising and, in particular, the field of poster art. His passion for visual design was always married to one for writing. He lives in Ennis, Co. Clare, with his wife Orla and daughters Holly & Chloe.