For the month of December, we’ve had the pleasure of working with the magical Pamela Zagarenski.
Pamela’s love for words is obvious to anyone who has seen the ethereal illustrations that grace the pages of everything from storybooks to dictionaries. She took the time to talk to us about her creative process, her devotion to her work, and the secrets she’s learned from her conversations with stories.
What got you interested in illustrating books for children?
I feel very fortunate to have known for my entire life what I wanted to do. I have never had a different answer to that famous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be Beatrix Potter. Dr. Seuss. Maurice Sendak. Shel Silverstein. Charles Schultz. They were my inspiration. I never questioned my answer: I would be an illustrator of children’s books.
From poetry to dictionaries, you’ve illustrated so many different types of books for children. Is there a story you’ve always wanted to get a chance to draw?
I just love words! All kinds of words. The format does not matter. When words inspire me, I instantly see pictures and images. I would love to illustrate The Little Prince.
The first book you both authored and illustrated, The Whisper, came out in 2015. Did the story and words for the book come to you first, or an image, or some combination?
My books and I talk with each other, they become good friends. I can honestly say I literally fall in love with them. They tell me secrets, I listen. As my contribution to the conversation, in turn, I give them color and life. They tell me more and more and I listen, quietly… and then I draw the secrets out with paint and with words. We need each other equally for the conversation. The book is done when the conversation ends. With The Whisper, words and images happened simultaneously. I had an idea, I had an outline, and like putting a puzzle together, it all just had to fit in the end.
What’s your favorite interaction with a child you’ve had about your work?
I do not have a specific example, but for me, the real magic happens when the illustrations and stories can speak to a child or an adult and a new story begins between that person and the books, and so on and so on. A dialogue might get started between an adult and child. I could wish for nothing more.
When going through a trying time in your life, you turned to art and found a new freedom there. How did this experience, and the gift of time, change your approach to your work?
Painting and creating is as much a part of my life as breathing. In good times and in hard times, art is there. The hardest times are those in which I can not create. I’ve come to understand that I paint as a kind of Quest, to better see and understand hidden and closed parts of myself: the mysteries of life, loves and fears. Perhaps, even unlocking the mystery of the soul. Every painting leads me into a story and has a meaning. Sometimes it is not even discovered until many years after it is finished.
What advice would you give to the young aspiring artist?
Practice and do not ever give up. Love the process itself, and always remember the creating is what we really love – not the end result.
Which picture books captured your imagination as a child? As an adult, which books stuck with you?
The Little Prince, all of Beatrix Potter’s books, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio… I love picture books just as much today, and even more, than I did as a child.
Your striking mixed media style is like a world unto itself, real enough to step into yet fantastical enough to be a dream. How did you land on this particular style? Do you have influences you could share with us who you look to for inspiration?
Creating is intuitive for me. It is an organic process and it is impossible to know how someone really happens upon a style. I have been drawing and painting for my entire life. A style happens like a child grows. When you are too close to it, and on a daily basis, you don’t really see how it happens. You can just see the marks on the wall each year, higher and higher.
Where are you and your work going next?
Super excited about Zola’s Elephant, written by Randall de Sève. 2018!
What’s your favorite bit of magic you’ve come across recently?