Today, I’m thrilled to welcome award winning artist, author, illustrator, and teacher, Carla Golembe, to alphabet soup!
I first learned about Carla’s beautiful work back in the 90’s, when she signed on to illustrate my third picture book, The Woman in the Moon. Back then, it was frowned upon for authors and illustrators to communicate about book projects, so we never met or even wrote to each other in those pre-email days. Instead, I oohed and ahhed over some of the books she had illustrated for Mary-Joan Gerson, like People of Corn, How Night Came from the Sea, and Why the Sky is Far Away, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.
Carla’s art is eminently suited for multicultural stories. She is especially adept at capturing the essence, rhythms, and natural beauty of places like Central America, Brazil, Nigeria, and Hawai’i through her sensual, color-saturated, vibrant and exotic paintings, which bring to mind Frida Kahlo, Matisse, Gauguin, and some of the whimsical and mystical elements of traditional folk art. On her website, she says her intention is “to create a visual haven that encourages viewers to enter my personal vision.”
I’ve since learned that Carla has an affinity for warm, tropical climates, and likes to immerse herself as completely as she can in her subject when working on a project. In addition to the many books she’s illustrated for others, she has self-illustrated six picture books and an early reader series about her cats, Zippy and Zoe. Two of her self-illustrated titles just happen to be about Hawai’i: The Story of Hula (which I reviewed here), and A Story of Surfing (both are picture book/CD sets from Bess Press).
But children’s book illustration is only one facet of Carla’s creative output. She’s a brilliant visual artist whose work is collected and exhibited throughout the United States and internationally. She also does magazine, website, and advertising work, as well as greeting cards. These days, she lives in Delray Beach, Florida, where she teaches at the Art School of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, and continues to paint strongly emotive, radiant pieces in her distinctive, life-affirming style.
Welcome to alphabet soup, Carla! I love your companion books, The Story of Hula, and A Story of Surfing, and know that you actually studied hula and practiced boogie boarding as part of your research. What gave you the greatest joy in creating these books, and what were the biggest challenges?
My greatest joy was creating books about a place and culture that has touched my heart and soul. I loved creating the pictures, and having the opportunity to visit Hawai’i during the time I was working on each book. I love the whole process. The biggest challenge with The Story of Hula was learning about hula. First, I did book research but that was too dry. I needed to understand it from the inside. I was living in the DC area at the time and realized I needed to take hula classes. I was fortunate to connect with Kumu Hula Manu Ikaika and Halau Ho’omau I ka Wai Ola ‘O Hawai’i. They were extremely welcoming and supportive and I learned a lot about hula and Hawaiian culture and aloha spirit from them.
As far as Story of Surfing goes, I was very torn about trying to learn to surf. I wanted to experience it, but in reality had too many previous injuries to risk it. Boogie boarding was a good compromise. Learning about both these topics was a wonderful experience because now, when I see hula or watch surfers, I see them with a deeper understanding and empathy. When you write about something, that topic becomes part of you.
What is it about Hawai’i that you find most inspiring as an artist and writer?
I’m inspired by the beauty of nature there and grace of the culture, the fact
that the culture has a reverence for nature and that it’s all part of life. The concepts of aloha spirit and ohana (family) are wonderful and so necessary in our world.
Your art lends itself well to multicultural children’s books. Did you grow up in an ethnically diverse environment? Who or what shaped your earliest attempts at expressing yourself through art?
Actually, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of Boston, but I was always intrigued by tropical places and cultures, by folk art and bright colors. From the time I was about 4 or 5, I wanted to go to Mexico and Hawai’i, though I didn’t get to Mexico until I was in my 20’s and to Hawai’i until I was 40. I was always drawing and painting when I was a child and my parents sent me to art lessons, but it was pretty much what came naturally to me.
You have said that being an artist is not just something you do, but the core of who you are as a human being. Please elaborate on this.
I paint or illustrate just about every day. If I go on vacation, after a week or so I need to start painting. It’s the thing I love doing most in the world and I can’t imagine spending my time any other way. When I’m making art I feel most in touch with myself and most connected to both the physical and spiritual world. I guess being an artist is my essence. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle creatively! I do, which is part of creative growth.
Your first two self-illustrated titles, Dog Magic and Annabelle’s Big Move, are both about dogs. Did you fear dogs as a child? What pets do you live with now, and are you writing any new stories about them?
Yes, I was afraid of dogs. Dog Magic is based on a true story (how I got over my fear of dogs by means of magical shoes).
Now we have Zippy and Zoe who are the most loving and amazing cats. I wrote and illustrated a series of books for beginning readers about them (the Zippy series) for San Min Publishing Company of Taiwan and they make guest appearances in many of my paintings and illustrations. It’s fun painting them in various situations (like painting, reading, baking, surfing, playing tennis) and the book characters take into account their personalities. I would love to do a series about them for a US publisher if one were interested.
Describe your studio or workplace for us.
My studio is the master bedroom, bathroom and walk-in closet. I have a painting area with an easel and table for paints, an illustration work table, my flat file, computer/fax/print area, etc. It’s crowded and not ideal, but I need a studio in my home. I like to be able to work whenever I want and have a load of laundry going if I need to. It’s the biggest room in the house with a door (cats are not allowed in the studio – too mischievous). There’s a big window, and outside it is a huge pink hibiscus tree and beyond that are arika palms. Lots of birds out there, too.
Do you have a favorite medium? (Could you explain why you prefer acrylics for paintings, and gouache or monotypes for your illustrations?)
I love both acrylic and gouache. Gouache is great for illustration because it’s vibrant and versatile and lends itself well to small details and I do my illustrations to size. For me, working with acrylic has more surprises. I like to work with it in layers and with more monumental forms and less intricate detail. So I choose the mediums based on the imagery I want to create.
Please outline your process when illustrating a children’s book.
I start with very rough sketches, basically just shapes to work out the composition. Then, through a series of sketches, often using a light table to help me refine the sketches and design, I create the dummy sketch. Usually I can visualize the color ahead of time without needing to do color sketches, but sometimes I make notes about the color for editors or art directors. For the final art, I transfer the sketch to 140 lb Fabriano Artistico soft press paper. Then I paint. I paint the major areas of color first and add the details later.
You were formally trained in painting/printmaking, but are largely self taught in illustration. Name something about book illustration you had to learn the hard way, that has become an important lesson or bit of advice you now pass on to your students.
The process of illustration is very important. By that, I mean planning out composition, imagery, color, etc., through a step by step process. It’s important so that the illustrator has control and, while working on final art, doesn’t paint herself into a corner. It allows the illustrator to work out the best possible image for an illustration. It’s also important for working with art directors and clients in order for them to approve the work. They don’t want you to wing it and for good reason.
What are the most notable changes you’ve seen in children’s publishing (positive and negative) over the past decade?
I debated whether to answer this because I don’t think the changes have been positive. Small publishers have merged with big corporations, marketing people rather than editors are often deciding what should be published, there is more concern about “bottom line profit” rather than quality literature and artwork.
Then there is the whole thing with celebrities writing children’s books. It seems the focus is more about what is trendy and fashionable rather than excellence. And that really upsets me, both for working authors and illustrators and for the children because they are being viewed pretty much as a target market rather than young minds that should be exposed to quality and originality. I’ve had editors hold on to manuscripts for a year and then say they wanted it but the marketing people didn’t think it was right for the current trend. I’ve had rejections from editors saying they love my work but the story might not have “blockbuster potential”. I probably sound somewhat angry and I guess I am.
What inspires you?
Relationships, my husband, travel, nature, animals, colors, ocean, dance, flowers, my home environment. I try to be open to everything that has the possibility of inspiring me because you never know where ideas are going to come from. My cats have inspired me a lot.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a series of 20 illustrations for ImageZoo.com. ImageZoo sells fine stock royalty free illustration. The series is of events and they can be purchased in 3 sizes by multiple buyers. It was a fun and challenging project that absorbed me for 5 months. It also helped me to stretch my abilities because of the topics.
So, while I did themes like “Latin American Street Festival” and “Children’s Festival,” I also did walkathons and black tie galas and dinners and sporting events. Now I’m working on paintings and have just started teaching acrylic painting in addition to drawing and illustration. And I’ll keep painting until the next illustration job comes along.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Creative, driven, kind, romantic, impatient.
5 highlights of your career thus far.
I think the highlights have been the growth and progression more than actual books or shows. One thing I’ve learned is that, at least for me, no one thing makes my career. I was thrilled with both Story of Hula and Story of Surfing; they are my favorite books to date. I feel that I’m continually evolving as a painter. The ImageZoo series is a highlight. And I’m doing the best teaching I’ve done. I teach at the Art School of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
For a long time I taught college and it was great. Now, teaching adults who are taking classes because they’ve always wanted to try making art, or they’ve been away from it and come back to it or they want to try a new medium is pure joy. These are people who, though they may be new to art, have been successful in other ways and I want to encourage them because I think it’s very brave to pick up a paintbrush for the first time when you’re 40 or 50 or 60 or any age.
5 favorite artists and/or writers living today.
For artists, Alison Saar, Marisol Escobar, Kirsti Alopeaus, Judy Wise. Two of my favorite authors are Alice Hoffman and Jody Picoult. Whoops…that’s 6.
Passions besides writing, painting, and illustrating.
My husband, my friends, my cats, swimming, walking in nature and seeing wildlife, being good to the environment, good affordable wine, travel.
3 fondest wishes.
Health, an abundance of paying work, a peaceful green planet.
Finally, do you like to cook? How has food or cooking inspired your art and/or writing ?
Actually, I’m not much of a cook. It’s something I do because my husband and I have to eat and we eat healthfully and organically. I cook fast and easy stuff and I don’t follow recipes. I’ve only done a few food related paintings, a series called “Kitchen Goddesses”. The women are very adorned and yet they are wearing aprons and arranging food. It’s about the duality of women’s roles, how women often embody the qualities of both “domestic” and “babe”.
Please describe a favorite childhood food-related memory, and share a favorite recipe.
Neither my mother nor my grandmother were enthused about cooking so I’ve been thinking about this question. What comes to mind is eating orange sherbet pushups at the beach when I was little. The ice cream truck would come by the beach in the afternoon and these pushups always tasting amazing under the hot sun in the salty ocean air. They were so refreshing and so luscious. However, during the winter, or in the city they never tasted like anything special. Maybe it was that little crunch of sand!
Even though I don’t cook much I have always wanted to illustrate a cook book.
I don’t use recipes, I just throw food together but here’s the basics of something I make, though it comes out differently each time.
I always use quality preservative free or organic ingredients.
Some jumbo shrimp (about ½ – 1 lb)
Fish (cod, haddock, salmon, mahi…whatever there is) 1 lb cut in chunks
Muir Glen tomato basil pasta sauce
clump of fresh basil
several cloves of garlic
a few carrots
wine (red or white, whatever is around, ¼ – ½ bottle depending on the wine)
Saute the pressed garlic, sliced onion, carrots, and celery and fresh basil in the olive oil.
Add the fish and shrimp.
Add the pasta sauce and a couple of cups of water.
Pour in about ¼ bottle of wine.
Get it cooking and then turn down and simmer. After about 20 minutes taste it and add lemon juice and more wine to taste. Cook for about 15 more minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over jasmine or basmati rice in soup bowls.
For more about Carla and her work, visit her official website, which is chock-a-block full of color-drenched, exquisite paintings and illustrations.
*All images posted by permission of the artist/illustrator, copyright © 2009 Carla Golembe. All rights reserved.