Friday, May 13, 2011

Interview with Claudia McGehee: Part 2

What were the particular challenges of creating both art and text for this book, and not just captions but a narrative text?
I know many writers of picture books who feel the illustrations are there to augment and support the written story. As a writer and an illustrator, I feel the emphasis the other way! When I view a picture book, I take in the pictures first and the words later. For me, the words augment the illustrations. It’s a subtle perspective difference to perhaps only a few of us. In Where Do Birds Live? the illustrations drove the narrative, as much as a nonfiction, informational book can be driven. The illustrations were completed first and gave me a structure to write from.

There are always space challenges. I wanted to include so many fascinating details. But in the end, the old adage “less is more” turns out to work for nonfiction picture books on birds as well!

Although one would think sitting at a drawing board would not be tiring, it is. The mental focus of such work takes its own unique physical toll. After a big illustration project is completed, I need to crawl away for a while and rejuvenate! But Where Do Birds Live? was like an extended marathon, as the text still needed attention after my illustration work was complete. I have a perfectionist’s drive to see projects through to the end, but I would say the biggest challenge here was keeping my energies balanced. Both writing and illustrating are equally daunting, creative tasks. It took lots of planning and time-management to make sure that both sides of the project were top quality. It helped tremendously to have a supportive editor.

This isn’t a fair question, but what is your favorite among all fourteen habitats in Where Do Birds Live?
I love each featured habitat and have an authentic personal connection to each. I’d have to say, going “home” to create a spread for the Pacific rainforest (I was raised in Washington state) was pure pleasure. Researching the birds living there was like a walk down memory lane. The heady smell of a cedar forest, the feel of a spongy pathway underfoot, and the call of a raven make up one singular experience for me. I would pick this habitat for sentimental reasons.

Your readers are particularly fond of your bird illustrations, and it’s easy to see that you have a special affinity for these winged creatures. What other animals do you especially enjoy illustrating?
I love cats. We have two in the house that are constant studio companions. I draw them frequently. My mom also tells me it is the first animal I ever drew! I also love our own native animals—foxes, squirrels, bears, bobcats, possums. All have such lovely forms and textures!

—Claudia McGehee, Where Do Birds Live?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Plant of the Week

Heliopsis helianthoides (L.) Sweet
other common names: false sunflower
Heliopsis: from Greek helios for “sun” and opsis for “appearance”
Helianthoides: from Greek, meaning “like Helianthus,” the sunflower
Daisy family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

Photograph by Thomas Rosburg, Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest, Second Edition

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interview with Claudia McGehee: Part 1

Where Do Birds Live? introduces your fans to fourteen representative habitats across the United States. One side of each full-color double-page spread depicts a featured bird in its home habitat with other animal companions; the other side describes and illustrates its nesting, feeding, soaring, and paddling lifeways. How in the world did you choose only fourteen habitats and birds?
When UI Press and I started talking about Where Do Birds Live? the scope started reaching beyond tallgrass Midwest prairies. I was excited about the challenge. So many distinct ecosystems and over 500 bird species are represented within our country! But when the reality of the space limitations of a 32-page picture book set in, it was time to make some hard choices. There were ecosystems I was more familiar with and knew I could illustrate with heart, so they were decided upon early on. We knew we wanted to cover the map as evenly as possible, so a child from any state would have a chance of being familiar with at least one of the habitats in the book. So geographical location was very important. We also wanted each profiled bird to be realistically one that a child might see. So we said no to rarities. We also stayed away from too generalist a bird, birds that have adapted to many places. Plus, the species all had to breed and summer over where I depicted them. With the help of several bird experts and Holly Carver, the former director of UI Press, we decided upon the 14 featured sections. The bobolink is a signature bird for the tallgrass prairie; I liked that the male and female had different appearances. I also wanted to include a typical backyard habitat, like I have here in Iowa City, so the little ruby-throated hummer came to mind. Those two were easy to decide on. I wanted to start and end in the Midwest, in homage to my adopted roots here in Iowa and also to UI Press’s core mission of showcasing regional interests. The other habitats took longer to decide on, but in the end, a nice variety of environments and their birds made the cut.

You created more than 60 scratchboard illustrations for this book plus a front and a back cover and a map. How long did this take you, and how did you figure out what to illustrate?
Discussions on the book started in early 2008. I took that summer to research and build a scaffolding for the materials and, basically, organize how I would present the images and text. I researched for text and illustration at the same time. I made folders for each featured bird and habitat, filling them with notes and reference materials.

I knew the most laborious part of the book would be creating the illustrations. I preferred to finish them before beginning the text, although I wrote bits and pieces when I got a chance. After deciding that each habitat we had chosen got its own two-page spread, I started to rough out large, detailed illustrations of each particular habitat plus smaller illustrations of each featured bird from that habitat. I wanted kids to see the bird depicted where it lived but also get a close-up view of each species. The roughs take several months to draw; they have to be very accurate. I began scratchboarding and painting the final illustrations in spring 2009 and completed them in the summer. The text came next. I wanted the tone of the book to be friendly yet factual and not too laden with conservation issues. Again, space is always a concern for a picture book. Each habitat spread could afford space-wise only about 200 words, so thorough editing was essential. By the end of the summer of 2009, everything was at UI Press, ready to be designed and then sent to the printer. So all in all, the project was in my studio for a year and a half.

—Claudia McGehee, Where Do Birds Live?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Interview with George Olson Part 3

What advice would you give to younger nature artists? What are the particular challenges of being a botanical artist?

My advice to a younger nature artist (or any young artist) is to draw constantly and do your own work. That means working from a real specimen instead of someone else’s photograph or painting. Given the difficulty of finding and identifying real prairie plants (not to mention setting them up in your studio), it is always tempting to settle for secondary sources such as photos and reproductions that can be accessed more easily. The challenges of being a plant artist are similar to the challenges facing all artists, but with a few small variations: the challenge of working with live plants, which keep changing during long periods in the studio—blossoms close and re-open, leaves wilt or lose color, stamens and pistils go through their life cycle even as parts of cut flowers, etc.; finding good specimens in areas where road banks, cemeteries, and railroad beds are disappearing or are subject to mowing and spraying; sorting out the plant species that are native to the tallgrass prairie as opposed to those that are introduced or invasive; drawing a 10-foot plant on 30 inches of paper. This problem is shared by writers who try to express the vastness of the prairie. 

PLATE 36. SPOTTED HORSEMINT, Monarda punctata
Source of specimen: McCune Sand Prairie Reserve
The genus Monarda honors Dr. Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), who lived in Spain and wrote the first herbal that dealt with plants from America. Its English edition (ca. 1570) was called Joyful News out of the Newfound World. John Banister, the seventeenth-century English explorer, refers to horsemint and leaves us a record of the sweet fragrance of unspoiled Virginia: “In our way home ye rich low ground abounded with a kind of wild baulm, which being trampled on by our horses as we rode thro it mightily refreshed us with its fragrant scents.” Gardeners who have cleaned up a patch of bee balm in spring or fall will know how its spicy aroma can fill the entire yard. 

PLATE 37. CULVER’S ROOT, Veronicastrum virginicum
Source of specimen: Johnson Prairie
The common name honors a Dr. Culver, an early American physician who prescribed the root for a wide range or ailments. Veronicastrum honors St. Veronica. Virginicum honors Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. Culver’s root is a tall handsome plant with a spike of white flowers and whorls of bright green leaves with sharp teeth. Culver’s root can be a rather challenging subject for the artist because of the tiny white blossoms that have to be shown ascending rhythmically up the tall stems. The white blossoms on a white background can also be a problem.

—George Olson, The Elemental Prairie: Sixty Tallgrass Plants