Firstly - thank you. When I was initially asked whether I’d accept honorary membership my first reaction was, honestly, utter bewilderment - why me? Especially when I look at other recipients before me - Mem, Phil, Janeen - I just don’t see myself in the same shelf at all …
But it did get me thinking about my writing/illustrating journey, although really, I feel like I’m still just starting out …
I also started thinking about that journey in terms of this year’s book week theme - Old Worlds, New Worlds, Other Worlds - in the sense that place has played a very big part in the directions I’ve taken - in particular travelling and living in Asia - and the way that I’ve transformed the places/worlds that I’ve spent time into the other worlds which appear in my illustrations.
So I’m just going to give you a brief rundown.
Let’s start at the beginning. As you can see from the picture I was a very melancholy and underfed baby.
I grew up in a household of books and bedtime stories. Reading or being read to was always part of my life.
As an ‘afterthought’, coming along fourteen years after my three siblings, I grew up much like an only child. I spent a lot of my time alone transforming, in my imagination, my world into new and other worlds.
When I was young I used to make little books and give them to my friends at school. The only one I have left is possibly the first. A story that I wrote and illustrated when I was five. The story isn’t very long, because I didn’t know how to write many words at that stage. I typed it on Dad’s old typewriter. The ‘O’ key didn’t work, so I had to go over it and draw in all the ‘Os’ by hand. It was heavily influenced by the Dick and Dora readers we had at school, so much of it is about how much fun it is to play with Dick … but there was also part of the story where I fell over in the mud …
… because I was being chased by a big fat pig.
So - starting with somewhere I knew, my own back yard, and something I’d experienced, falling over in the mud, I had added some imagination and turned it into a story. And that’s largely what I have continued to do in both my stories and illustrations. My Mum and sister also appear in the illustrations, and I still sneak people I know into my illustrations from time to time.
My first published book was a maths book I illustrated for Rigbys when I was still at college (now Uni SA) (not counting the 100% plagiarised recipe I had published in Possums’ Pages many years before - copied word for word out of my copy of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)
After I graduated (Bachelor of Design (Illustration)) I accidentally got myself a job as a Graphic Designer at the University in Darwin. I also started freelancing for Design Studios and Advertising agencies, which became my bread and butter income for many years. Books were always my first love though, so I began pursuing publishing work, by sending my portfolio around and visiting editors in person. I had illustrated a number of readers for educational publishers, when I had the idea for Edgar’s Eggs. It was based on an old wive’s tale which says that you must crush your eggshells before throwing them in the bin, else witches might steal them and sail out to sea and stir up storms. I had drawn all the pictures but, as I was an illustrator not a writer, thought I needed to get someone else to write it for me. My partner was an advertising copywriter, so was the obvious choice, but as time passed and he never seemed to get around to it, I figured the energy I was expending nagging him to do it could be more profitably spent actually writing it myself, and so that’s what I did. I ended up dedicating the book to him in gratitude for his slackness, as it started me out writing as well as illustrating.
Two more books followed in quick succession. What Sort of Day? a book about colours and emotions, and Cherrystones, a book of numbers.
Just after I completed the artwork for Cherrystones, we moved to Singapore and that was when
other worlds began to have a bigger and more direct impact on my work. My first Asian themed books grew out of not being able to find any books to explain to my young children the many diverse festivals and celebrations we were seeing around us. This series of three books, Come to the Party! Chinese Festivals, Indian Hindu Festivals and Malay Muslim Festivals, were created in collaboration with another Adelaide expat in Singapore, Suzanne Lauridsen.
They were published in Singapore, and it was while I was seeking an Australian distributor, I was commissioned to write the first of a series of information and activity books, Key into Indonesia. Key into Japan and Key into China followed, as well as India Kaleidoscope.
The Most Beautiful Lantern also had its beginnings in that period. At age four, my son wanted to have the most beautiful lantern in our neighbourhood lantern parade for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. We spent a very long time looking at literally thousands of lanterns in every imaginable shape and colour before he settled on a beautiful sun lantern. It was a paper lantern, and on the night of the parade, I lit the candle inside, hung it from a stick and impressed on him the need to be careful. However, he was wildly excited, and only four after all, and began running around, the lantern began swinging on the end of the stick and … I’m sure you can guess what happened … This isn’t the ending I chose for the story, and in subsequent years, we always bought plastic, battery operated lanterns …
While working on the illustrations for this book that I was fortunate to be granted an Asialink residency in Malaysia, at Rimbun Dahan, close to Kuala Lumpur. The house I lived in with my children for four months found its way into the book as the Moon Palace, home of the Moon Goddess Chang-O.
While I was there I also worked on the finale draft of the novel, Hungry Ghosts. This began, again in Singapore, with seeing offerings for the ghosts left outside homes during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. The idea is that while ghosts, the unsettled spirits, are free to walk the earth for a month, people must make sure they are kept well fed and entertained, otherwise they might hang around and haunt you for the whole year. Offerings are left out to dissuade ghosts from coming inside and rummaging through pantries and fridges. My story incorporates the legends and traditions around the festival, and also draws in part on my own experiences of living in ‘another world’, Singapore, but in reverse, with the protagonist Sarah coming from Singapore to live in Adelaide.
My production slowed a bit as I spent the next many years as a single mum. When my daughter was five, she drew a picture of me sitting at my high desk with my back turned to her, a small forlorn figure at the very edge of the frame. The caption is ‘I was hungry and asked my mum for something to eat, but she said, ‘Not now, Molly. I’m busy working.’ I kept this on my pinboard for years, as a reminder to attend to (and feed) the children now and then.
I continued (and continue) to do commercial work. The largest commission I’ve ever had was an illustration for the Singapore Zoo. It was used as a mural in the Zoo shop, on buses and all manner of merchandising. My most unusual commission to date has been painting a life-size baby elephant sculpture as part of Melbourne Zoo’s 150th birthday celebrations.
I also make lino prints, cards and other bits and pieces (the most recent is dove and magpie earrings) which I sell through various outlets including Om Meet the Makers cooperative, Urban Cow and the Fleurieu Arthouse. My lino prints and artwork have been finalists in art prizes including the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize and the Adelaide Parklands Prize.
The most recent group exhibition I was involved in was ‘Weird Adelaide’, a tribute to Barbara Hanrahan. My contribution was a print of Don Dunstan in his famous pink shorts. Next year I’ll be giving him another outing as part of a solo exhibition of ‘South Australian Icons’. I have also facilitated many community and collaborative art pieces, such as murals and mosaics at schools and kindergartens, and footpath/playground art. I especially love personal commissioned artworks for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations.
This is one of what I call my ‘procrastination drawings’ when I really should be working on other things. This large ink drawing incorporates something that represents each of the one hundred varieties of eucalyptus native to South Australia.
I said to someone recently how I tend to lead my life by following my nose. It really has been the case. It’s funny how one thing often leads to another in quite unexpected ways.
For example, I’ve done many jungle illustrations over the years. The first was a season poster for Territory North Theatre Company, then a full page magazine ad, ‘Surround Yourself with Life’s Rich Tapestry’ which was a jungle dotted with semi-hidden animals and birds. There is a jungle scene in The Most Beautiful Lantern, which was used by the agency pitching (and winning) the Singapore Zoo commission. Applied to Zoo buses, it was spotted by a local publisher, who wanted a similar image for the cover of a book she was about to publish. After chasing buses through Singaporean traffic for days, she managed to track me down. Following the initial novel cover, I illustrated a few picture books for her, and then the ten books in the Diary of … series. This was followed by the Susie K series, and we are currently collaborating on a new series, as well as a graphic novel adaptation of the original Seeds of Time novel which began our relationship. There is a jungle in One Step at a Time, (written by Jane Jolly) also in Papa Sky (also by Jane, in this case cloud forest) and in my most recent project, The Rainbow Thief.
So I thought I’d finish off with a sneak preview of what I’ve been working on for the last year and a half. As you may be aware, in 2020 I received the Max Fatchen Fellowship, to work on The Rainbow Thief.
It actually began much, much longer ago. 28 years in fact, when I wrote the first draft sitting on a beach in Goa. The initial idea was purely visual. The protagonist wakes to a day that is devoid of colour. She convinces her grandfather to take her to the beach, but it’s grey and gloomy there as well. She then embarks on a journey, travelling through a series of landscapes - across the ocean, through a jungle, over the mountains etc. After finding the colour (in the form of stolen and imprisoned rainbows) she retraces her steps through the same landscapes which are now vibrant with colour.
The concept went through many, many iterations over the years. From a long myth-like epic, to a short picture book and many variations in between. I could never quite work out just how to do it, but my belief in the core idea remained solid. One day I was walking the dog along the river near home, and it all leapt fully formed into my head. As an eighty page wordless picture book.
It then took another couple of years before I had the time and headspace to actually get it down on paper, which I was able to do during a May Gibbs creative time fellowship in Brisbane.
As I developed the dummy I realised how many layers the story had acquired over the years. It now had a much greater and richer emotional depth, and had acquired layers of meaning and varying interpretations which it hadn’t had initially.
And so many of the places I’d travelled to had found their way into the images. Nepal and India, in particular Ladakh (probably my favourite place in the world) and the deserts and desert cities of Rajasthan. Also Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, walking the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia and the Overland Track in Tasmania to name just a few. The Grandfather character is based on my own lovely Dad.
It then sat in a drawer for another couple of years. I managed a couple of the finished drawings but making a living continued to get in the way. Until the fellowship essentially bought me the time to devote to it. Despite the COVID disruption lack of distractions, in the form of many cancelled workshops and exhibitions, instead of the six months I’d cited in my application, it has taken me closer to eighteen.
Whether it will ever get published I don’t know. To be honest, for the time being at least, I’m not too concerned, I’m just happy that it’s out of my head and more or less complete. It’s not as perfect as I’d like it to be, but you could go on fiddling forever. I remember Shaun Tan being asked how you know when something’s finished, and he said that you should always stop before you think it’s done.
So that’s what I think I’ll do with this talk.