I talked to illustrator, author, concert presenter and storyteller James Mayhew about his art. James has created books introducing children to great artworks and illustrated stories by Philippa Pearce, Elisabeth Beresford, Jackie Morris, Clara Vulliamy, Joyce Dunbar, Zeb Soanes and others. He accompanies famous orchestras by painting to music and is involved with charities that support refugees as well children’s access to the arts. James has won the New York Times book illustration award and been long listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal.
Leslie: Can you sum up how you use your illustration skills, in books and in performance, to promote an appreciation of art & literature with children, please?
James: This is a complex thing to answer. I think most illustrators are encouraged to have a fixed ‘style’, and become a ‘brand’. This is something I’ve always avoided. I didn’t feel especially ‘complete’ or ready when I graduated from art school. I’ve continued to learn and evolve, and allowed my work to change and grow. As a result, my work is, I think, very varied. What *does* hold it together, I hope, are recurring themes, like art and music.
I use different materials and different techniques according to the situation, the text, the project. Many of my books are illustrated with pen and ink, and paint -very traditionally. But even the Katie books have a lot of different materials woven in, including household emulsion paint, pastels, gouache, as I try to recreate famous works of art. Ella Bella is illustrated with art in three layers to give a lithographic ‘classic’ feel; recently, the Mrs Noah books have been created using collage.
When painting live, with orchestras, I use coloured inks and gouache – I need to use fluid, silent materials. No-one wants to hear scraping and scratching at the easel during quiet music!
So, in short, I try to find the right approach for each project, and to make these topics, with a strong cultural base, attractive and accessible to children. This is especially true with the concerts, where I paint very fast. I don’t necessarily create my best art, so I have to forget my ego. What I think I DO achieve is to inspire a new and enlightened audience for classical music.
Leslie: Which authors and musicians have you worked with on major projects? How have they inspired other sides to your work as an artist?
James: There are several wonderful authors I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I especially cherish the Gaspard the Fox series with Zeb Soanes, a fantastic colleague and friend. And Jackie Morris and I go back a long way. We are both author/illustrators and enjoy collaborating. I’ve written for Jackie to illustrate, now she’s written for me (Mrs Noah’s Garden). It’s a very intuitive, symbiotic relationship.
Leslie: How did your upbringing prepare you for what you do today?
James: I don’t think it did, very well! I’m no business man, and I’m sure I’ve made some terrible decisions. I do have a strange sense of justice, what is right and wrong, though. I think one of the biggest gifts from my childhood is a quiet resilience. A determination. I get frustrated and weary like everyone else. But I rarely give up, and fight for what I believe in. I suppose one could call it integrity.
I have to be honest, I wasn’t happy at school. I was bullied, I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, I was gay, but didn’t really know it, or understand it. I retreated into my own world and just drew. So many people told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t be an artist. That it wasn’t a proper job. I’m proud to have succeeded as an artist for 30 years. My parents allowed me to go to art school, which is a bit of a surprise to me, even now. They always bought me art stuff for Christmas, which encouraged me. But I think my experiences, in general, prepared me for isolation. I enjoy my own company, and I am perfectly happy by myself, dreaming things up. I still live in my own little world, and I’m not at all ‘worldly’. Perhaps it’s that kind of innocence that feeds into my work for young children. I think part of me is always trying to make things happy and rounded off, because in real life, they were not. I think we often seek the things or feelings that we didn’t have as children.
Leslie: Could you give a few examples that illustrate this quote, please: ‘In all my books there is a little bit of me hidden away somewhere’.
James: I don’t believe in producing books for the sake of it. Of course, there are bills to pay, but I like to think I produce books with a purpose. I aim for themes that matter or excite me – Art, Music, Shakespeare, folk tales etc. Many characters reference real life: My sister is the real ‘Katie’ and we really DID go to London with Grandma. ‘Ella Bella’ is my niece Eloise. So there are many tiny glimpses. Illustratively too – it’s the gentle Suffolk landscape, where I grew up, that permeates much of my work. Favourite colours like blues and turquoises dominate. I’m definitely there, if you know where to look!
Leslie: Who and what are your formative influences – why them?
James: I found learning to read hard, and I spent far longer looking at book illustrations. So those illustrators of my youth were a huge influence: Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, John Burningham, Brian Wildsmith, Edward Ardizzone…
I became really interested in artists who use ink line in their work, after discovering pen and ink at school. I had a few good teachers along the way. My mother was creative and had a paint set, too, which was a positive influence. My parents also had a ‘coffee table’ book called Art Treasure of the World which fascinated me. It was a direct part of the inspiration for the ‘Katie’ series.
In terms of my general interests, I think there are many, scattered influences – but essentially they settled in my head because they suited my character. Art, music, ballet, opera, fairy tales… I was a quiet, sensitive, shy child, a dreamer who lived in his own world. Perhaps that is the biggest influence of all.
Leslie: What are the standout moments/stories from your charitable and teaching work?
James: Almost always, at the concerts with orchestras, the art created is raffled or auctioned for charity. It’s a lovely thing to be able to do, and different charities are chosen year by year. But I remember a few years ago, I chose a small charity I was connected to, called Side by Side with Refugees. I asked Katrina, who set it up, to come and speak. It was at a time when refugees were very much in the news, and not in a positive way. We were not sure how it would go down. She came on stage after the concert and spoke so sincerely and movingly, the audience were totally with her, and gave her a HUGE ovation! We raised so much money that day. It was truly memorable, because I saw a glimpse of the goodness in people, and I knew every penny would really go to help those who needed it most.
When teaching, it is always wonderful to see illustration students go off and find success, and I’m so proud to have taught book creators like Marta Altes and Birgitta Sif, who now enjoy wonderful careers.
But it’s my work in schools that is particularly special for me. Particularly when I offer painting to music workshops. The effect it has on children, their concentration and their expectations of themselves is wonderful. Often it is the unhappy, troubled children, the autistic, the mutes, the disadvantaged, who suddenly find a moment to shine. The freedom of the sessions, the power of the music, the context of the story, the liberation of doing art, gives them a chance to really express themselves. Hearing an elective mute start talking, or a disengaged child in care start painting, watching teachers in tears… that’s a standout.
Leslie: What are the personal quirks/routines/habits that help you to create your art?
James: My daily routine is framed by the #BookIllustrationOfTheDay strand on Twitter. So each morning I get up, select an illustration, and post it. It’s lovely to join in the conversations that ensue – sometimes it’s an illustration that’s unfamiliar, but more often it’s an old favourite, unlocking memories and nostalgia. I love that.
Real work sometimes starts even earlier. I’m an insomniac, so might get up at 4 or 5am and tinker with things in my studio. I like working at night too, when the world is asleep. In the day, there are phone calls and emails etc to distract.
As for habits, well I’m surprised to admit that I’m not very structured, perhaps because each book is different, unique. Towards a deadline I get more focussed. And when a book is finished I like to have a big ceremonial mucking out of the studio, and get everything ready for the next project. I’m quite a messy artist, but I can only bear so much chaos before I have to bring it back under control!
Next week I interview Ben Comeau about his innovative combinations of classical, jazz, pop and world music.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here