In the studio with Matt James

Matt James

How did you first become interested in illustration?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started thinking about illustration, it was definitely part of my childhood, though, and it probably started with comic books. Someone bought me this little yellow light box that came with sheets of character designs from DC Comics — I would spend hours tracing Wonder Woman and Shazam. That light table made me look more closely: it drew me in — made me look intently at the quality of lines and think about how to make mine look the same way. I also remember that the “Y” in Woodstock offered a cartooning course, which I took. I was in grade four or five, and the guy who taught it was really impressive: he had made a comic strip that he was trying to get syndicated in the newspapers. The amount of work he’d put into it left me awestruck — I think he had three or four months’ worth of daily comic strips all ready to go, hundreds of perfect pages all hand drawn and inked, neatly collected in these beautiful presentation boxes with tissue paper between each of the pages.

studio

Why did you decide to get into picture books as opposed to another art form?

My high school had a really cool art department with printing presses, an enormous process camera, a darkroom, pottery wheels — basically every kind of art equipment you could think of.  When you got to grade eleven, you could drop gym class and take “double art”, spending an entire morning or afternoon trying your hand at printmaking, photography, pottery, etc. A lot of the teachers there had been commercial artists in the 50s and 60s. They sorta guided us towards graphic design and illustration and that was fine by me. There was less fluidity between “fine art” and “commercial art” back then, which was a drag for everyone and made it tricky to figure out how to move forward on a path towards making a living as an artist.

I still do a lot of painting outside of the world of book illustration, and I take a lot of photographs. Picture books have always excited me though, I love puzzling out the pacing and the storytelling and I love being able to slowly expand upon ideas over the course of 32 (or however many) pages. I really love the experience of holding a book in my hands. I like the smell of the ink on the paper and the feel of turning the pages. I guess I really like print in general.

art from The Funeral

What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?

I’m not really what you would call a creature of habit — I probably should pay more attention to what works and what doesn’t, but truthfully it’s a different ballgame every time I sit down. It’s more of a feeling out process — just keep drawing, painting, writing or whatever until this feeling takes over. Sometimes it happens when my studio is a crazy mess, other times I feel overwhelmed and need everything to be orderly and neat. I think I thrive on change. Though I will say that I spend an awful lot of time at work. I should probably get up and go for a walk more often!

Matt James painting

You work out of a studio in Parkdale that you share with two other artists. Tell us about the space.

That’s right! Greg Smith, Glen Halsey and I have been here for the past ten years or so.

We love this place. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but it is a window into/onto Parkdale with all of its funky Parkdale sights, sounds and smells: it’s a bit of a feast for the senses around here. The studio is pretty scrappy and doesn’t really offer a tonne of space, but it is a bit of a miracle that we have a place where we can create music and art affordably in this city and we thank our lucky stars daily.

Matt James working

Your new book The Funeral is very special and unique. What was your inspiration for the story?

Hmm, that’s kind of tough to pinpoint. Is there one specific inspirational spark? Basically, the story came from life: I followed my kids around at a few funerals. This book was a way for me to sort through my own feelings about the death of some loved ones, initially it was the loss of Uncle Frank, and then later when I was making the final art my dad got terribly sick and passed away. In other ways, it was a documentation; me watching my kids and writing down some of the great things that they say.

This was the first time you wrote and illustrated a book, as opposed to just illustrating, what did you find to be the biggest difference between the two?

This was more like making a story out of words and pictures — working the words and illustrations at the same time — pushing and pulling and kinda molding them into a story.

Just illustrating a book is maybe a bit more cut and dry: a text exists and then pictures are created to complement it.

paints

Your artistic process for the book was quite varied. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Yeah, I did take some things a bit farther than I have in my other books. I had a nice balance happening in my studio where I was working on two very different books more or less at the same time, sometimes leap frogging one another. One book was When the Moon Comes, written by Paul Harbridge, which is set in the depths of winter on a cold moonlit night. That book was really planned out in advance, the pallet is very cold and dark (mostly blue and black) and is straight up painting all the way through. It was a nice contrast to this book, which takes place in springtime with lively pinks and much chlorophyll in the greens. It has painting as well as collage, and little models made out of whatever materials I had laying around (twine, cardboard, masking tape, flowers).  The Funeral was much more of an exploration where you see the results of experimentation right on the page. If it were a record, it would be mostly first takes or demos — I tend to like the look of rawness over refined.

What is one thing you learned while writing and illustrating The Funeral?

I learned a lot of things. I learned how to press flowers in a microwave! I had the idea to use real flowers, and I would (don’t tell anyone) steal little spring flowers off people’s lawns on my walk to work every day and dry them at the studio. I also saved flowers from my dad’s funeral and incorporated them into the artwork.

glasses

Interview by Meaghen Seagrave and Laura Chapnick. Photography by Laura Chapnick.

THE FUNERAL BY MATT JAMES 

 

 

Jessica Scott Kerrin on the inspiration for The Better Tree Fort

Author Jessica Scott Kerrin hugging a tree

I’m often asked about the inspiration for the stories I write. Mostly, I’m inspired by observing and listening to people around me. Russell was inspired by a little boy I once sat across from on a bus in Halifax. He was maybe four years old, and he was with his grandfather. I was with my son, then five years old, and my husband. We were all heading from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to the film set in the north end of Halifax for a tour of Elliott’s favorite children’s television show, Theodore Tugboat.

Theodore Tugboat was about various boats that worked in the Big Harbour, a harbor that looked identical to Halifax Harbour, so children in the Maritimes felt especially connected to the characters. The star of the show was Theodore, a good-hearted and hard-working young tugboat. His cast of friends included more seasoned tugboats, a ferry, barges and even a cabin cruiser, who never had to work. Such is life.

Anyway, the show had donated their beautiful models of all the boats to the museum, and as part of the exhibit opening, visitors were ferried from the museum to the water-filled stage set built in the gymnasium of a decommissioned school. The models were much larger than the ones you’d find in a kit to build, and they were a bit comical. For example, Theodore wore a red knit cap on top of his smokestack. His giant eyes, located beneath the cap on the stack, could move and express his feelings.

There we sat in the bus, each of us thrilled at the prospect of meeting Theodore and his friends in real life. Imagine! And across from us sat that little boy and his grandfather. The little boy was happily swinging his legs, which didn’t reach the floor of the bus, and he was cradling something on his lap. From our vantage point, it looked like several pieces of wood crudely fastened together. Seeing us eyeballing the lumpy object, the boy held it up proudly.

“My granddad made me this!”

Confused silence from us.

“It’s Theodore!” he boasted.

The little boy beamed. And when we looked again, sure enough, it was. The grandfather had hand-carved two-by-fours and glued them together to more or less resemble the shape of a tugboat. He had hammered in nails for a crooked railing. The port and starboard lights were made from wooden thread spools that had been painted red and green. He had also drawn the eyes on the smokestack in shaky penmanship, giving the model a permanent look of surprise.

Clearly, woodworking was not his forte. But his love for his grandson was all over that model, and I could tell that the little boy wouldn’t have traded his Theodore for anything in the world, certainly not the Theodore we had purchased for our son from the museum gift store at some expense.

I was worried that my son, a budding scientist who preferred to see the world in black and white, would say something harsh such as, “That doesn’t look anything like Theodore!”

But he didn’t. He kept quiet. Like me, he could see that the model was the result of many hours the two had spent together.

Indeed, everyone agreed: the little boy’s model was perfect.

The seeds for The Better Tree Fort were planted long ago. After much watering and pruning, all I needed to do was substitute that little boy and his grandfather for Russell and his dad. Then I swapped the boat model for a tree fort, which Qin Leng so beautifully drew.

Russell and his dad begin building the tree fort

Russell and his dad build a tree fort

 

“Let’s build a tree fort,” Russell says to his dad when they move into a house with a big maple tree in the backyard. His dad doesn’t know much about building, but he gamely follows Russell’s plan. Several trips to the lumber store later, the tree fort is done. There is no slide, balcony or skylight like Russell imagined, but it is perfect — right up until he notices another tree fort going up three houses over.

When Russell goes over to investigate, he meets Warren, whose bigger tree fort has castle turrets and working lights. Russell is in awe until it dawns on him that it’s not worth worrying about who has the better tree fort when he has a loving dad there to build one with him.

In this subtle, humorous story, Jessica Scott Kerrin explores the idea of keeping up with the Joneses — and what that means when you’re a kid with a tree fort. Qin Leng’s lighthearted watercolor illustrations show the unshakeable bond between a father and son, as well as the delightful details of two tree forts.

 

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