Coming up for air – briefly… (Bologna, Part I)

The more astute among (OK, all of) you will no doubt have clocked the 15-day lapse between my pre-Bologna Book Fair post and this, and also have noted that such delay runs somewhat contrary (i.e. one whole week overdue) to the follow-up offering advertised therein. Happily, this errant additional week of delay was almost entirely attributable to a scheduled (albeit hastily…) diversion Lancashire-ward to foist 90th-birthday celebrations and general enforced jollity upon one perplexed and not-wholely-receptive grandfather, and to chauffeur my aged mother ‘hither and thither’ (v. popular destinations of the put-upon parent, it would seem) following a recent cataract operation. That is ‘happily’ as opposed to the alternative offered by my previous post, i.e. the malign spectre of navigational malfunction and associated potential for rather hideous – and doubtless messy – catastrophic injury and/or death (possibly, but not exclusively, on a motorway slip road).

In retrospect, the '90' sparklers may have been a step too far: 'Indoor pyrotechnics? For a CAKE?!' Plus, they left a film of, um, expired-sparkler-soot over the snow-white icing...

So, to Bologna, and the feverishly anticipated Children’s Book Fair!

The journey to Italy, commencing at 03:15 hours (being v. careful to observe the start of British Summer time, contrived to fall exactly where it might cause most knuckle-gnawing disruption) on Sunday 27 March was not without incident: the airport taxi was late (and overpriced); Air France/KLM’s self-service ticketing and baggage check-in ‘area’ was in the grip of a special kind of infuriating chaos – that governed by surly (but, to be fair, probably acutely sleep-deprived), waspish staff and involving an inordinate amount of – what transpired to be – spurious queueing to achieve precisely nothing; a self-service ticket machine which demanded, and ingested, my e-ticket reference number and then dismissed me, sans ticket, having declined to print my boarding card before mockingly wishing me a pleasant flight; a 40-minute thumb-twiddling wait on the ground, precipitating a less-than relaxing flight as I fantasised extrapolating minutes from the ether en route to Charles de Gaulle in order to magically extend my transfer time (by now, a laughable 10 minutes) sufficiently to clear passport control – and all the other miscellaneous pattings-down and checkings – and board my connecting flight to Bologna; predictably missing my connecting flight, but not before a nightmarish, wild-eyed sprint through the circuitous (and bereft of helpful way-pointing signs, or staff) innards of Charles de Gaulle airport, attracting the amused but wholly unhelpful attention of laconic French passengers and stony-faced security, and the (I suppose) necessary but maddening removal of shoes, watch etc. and time-frittering body search; after a bit of a pathetic sob into a now-horribly-sweaty sleeve, discovering vestiges of GCSE French lurking in the ’emergency scenarios only’ crevice of my brain with which to unnecessarily augment an impassioned entreaty to Air France customer services to get me to Bologna – only to discover the next flight was full to capacity and that I would have to be diverted via Lyon if I wasn’t to spend the entire day and night becoming agonisingly familiar with Paris’ chief airport (I did receive a coupon for a free sandwich and non-specific non-alcoholic drink, though, so at least I wasn’t reduced to venting my spleen – or rather, being embarrassingly English, fuming inwardly – on an empty stomach…); all was looking comparatively rosy as we glided into Bologna on the papier mache plane from Lyon, and several of my fellow passengers and Book Fair-goers were chatting companionably about their respective journeys, lulling me into that old, familiar ‘false sense of security’ that from here on in, all would run peachily – obviously, my suitcase hadn’t a hope of keeping pace with my convoluted flight pattern, so the first half hour on the ground was spent filling in a succession of forms and establishing when I might be reunited with my non-sweaty clothes. Answer: 10p.m. – back at the airport… Well, it certainly proved a fantastically effective method of rapidly orienting myself around the city centre and environs, and 18 euros and several shots of almost indigestibly-strong coffee later, I was trundling my dear, be-ribboned (stroke of unintended genius, that, deciding to attach a purple ribbon to the case before leaving the house, if I do say so myself…) back to the B&B, fixated upon a mantra of “hot-shower-and-bed”…

Monday morning, and the challenge of navigating my way to the Fair by untested means, seemed to arrive horribly soon after Sunday night. However, kitted out in my new I-am-a-professional-illustrator suit (I was going to include photographic evidence, but the questionable reflectivity of the dressing mirror and general gloom of my bedroom [energy-efficient light bulbs are to be applauded, but for the purposes of dressing in haste and being able to discern whether one is socially acceptable before leaving the house, not so good…] resulted in a self-portrait of almost uniform brown) and ignoring the drizzly aspect, I managed to board the correct bus and arrived at the Fair entrance – via a distinctly unassuming (i.e. ostensibly an industrial estate car park) side access – smugly clutching my pre-printed ticket before 10a.m. Strolling up the rather regal red carpet – a sort of Yellow Brick Road marking pathways around the (multiple) Fair buildings, only red – performing amateurish origami on the vast map I had been provided with, while attempting to avoid a group of man-sized velour-suited dancing frogs, I glimpsed the starting edge of the ‘wailing wall’ (see previous post, ‘Fair frenzy’), for which my low-tech business card dispenser was destined:

 

The 'Wailing Wall' - or, more precisely, three 'walls' of plasterboard enclosing the central space of the entrance hall (which housed the Illustrators' Exhibition and Illustrators' Cafe)

With the application of copious strands of extra-sticky double-sided tape, and a nifty sideways shuffle between two other illustrators posting up their promotional materials, I managed to shoehorn my rather modestly-proportioned business card dispenser in beside one of the more eye-catching installations (a highly-decorated papier mache fish, into whose gaping maw you had to insert a hand to  retrieve the artist’s business cards!). Alas, the only remaining photos I have of the Wall date from Tuesday 29 March, by which time several of the more eye-catching articles had gone missing (including aforementioned pisciform card holder) – mine, too, finally went astray on Wednesday when I discovered a plastic wallet with flyers for Bolognese illustration courses in its place (I’m hoping this wasn’t a pointed comment on the quality of my artwork, but still was rather disappointed to have to consider the possibility that a fellow illustrator/illustrators had, somewhat callously, sabotaged mine and others’ work):

‘Illustrated by Amanda’ (something of an oversight that I neglected to include my full professional name in prominent position…), but lost in a veritable blizzard of flyers, leaflets, business cards and other promotional paraphernalia. In hindsight, I should probably have attempted to jump above the high-tide mark of most of the installations, thus achieving exposure closer to common eye-level and beyond the easy reach of prospective saboteurs…

 

In situ, and closer up (I did spot someone photographing my card dispenser, which was [briefly] quite gratifying, although probably motivated by the fact that someone had already helpfully ‘removed’ all my business cards by that point…).

Before meeting up with the Italian contingent – with whom I would be spending, at least, the next three evenings – I did a quick recce of the Fair layout (I think there were five ‘halls’, or prettified aircraft hangars, in total), inwardly bemoaning my lack of path-marking breadcrumbs, and explored the Illustrators Exhibition and that assembled by the Guest of Honour Country, Lithuania – finding the latter infinitely more appealing and inspiring, if I’m perfectly honest: although there was indisputably some fairly intimidating talent on display among the selected illustrators (constituting the former), I found the overall flavour a little too introspective and self-aware… I would be the first to accept that my inexperience and, comparatively, pedestrian perception of an illustrative style that might be appealing, stimulating and exciting to a child may daub my metaphorical lintel with the mark of the Philistine, but there was something unsettling and contrivedly ‘artsy’ about a significant proportion of the works exhibited which lent the show an ambience altogether more suited to a rather self-important contemporary art gallery than a forum celebrating the best in children’s book illustration. Par example:

 

This was, I think, third in the required sequence of five themed works - all followed the same format, cameo portraits of a particular species of creature (e.g. goat, chicken...) arranged in slightly different formations

Pardon me, but I’m afraid I just didn’t ‘get’ it…

A reasonably broad spectrum of nationalities was represented among the selected illustrators, although Japan undeniably claimed the greatest proportion of these, while Great Britain – according to my investigations – was responsible for just one of the exhibits: Oscar Bolton Green (alumnus of Camberwell College of Arts), author-illustrator of Bird Beak Book – a radically different style of illustration to my own, and not one that appeals to me personally (neither the meticulously formed shapes and uniformity of colour – which I found somewhat stifling and flat – nor the palette of colours), although I do admire his use of typography in conjunction with image – a technique increasingly in evidence over the last few years, possibly with no small credit due to Lauren Childs, whom I believe was one of the first to successfully argue for a drastic re-imagining of the relationship between text and image, and their relative position on a picture book page… If you’re interested in further examples of his work, his website has a fairly extensive gallery, which includes his submission for the Bologna Exhibition http://www.oscarboltongreen.com. A full list of the illustrators selected for the Exhibition is still available to view at http://www.bolognachildrensbookfair.com/en/mostraillustratori/selezionati

Discussing impressions of the judging panel’s selection with other illustrators during the course of the Fair, the overriding verdict seemed to be one of disappointment, tempered with either bewilderment or irritation – a largely muted, if not monochrome, palette seemed to pervade (with a few notable exceptions), and there was a definite abstract, if not slightly unhinged, timbre to the illustrative voices showcased; descriptors such as ‘dark’, ‘sinister’, ‘off-key’ were pointedly recurrent in such conversations, and criticism re. a narrow style vista (i.e. the choices made did not demonstrate a true cross-section of the variety of merit-worthy styles in practice by contemporary illustrators) and inconsistent application of the submission criteria (i.e. five narrative pieces united by an overarching theme) was also raised. However, there were some truly stunning pieces and, although a bit bonkers, I found the overall winner Paulo Giordano’s work completely fascinating – ingeniously, a number of his roughs had been displayed alongside finished artwork to give a fleeting glimpse of the evolutionary process of concept to finished, text-ready picture book spread:

Rough version, with annotations

Finished artwork - spot the alterations...

There was also a video installation giving an interview with Giordano, but I’m afraid my brain was so beleaguered by the onslaught of international languages all competing for comprehension (often simultaneously) that I skipped this and snuck around the corner to the exhibition of prominent Lithuanian illustrators – an altogether (in my opinion) superior display, in terms of colour range, technical excellence and (most importantly) excitement: this more compact exhibition really engaged and succeeded in eliciting a fascinated response from me, where the other had left me a little cold. It was, in fact, the Lithuanian Annual of illustrators that I came away with as my memento of the Fair, as opposed to the Illustrators Exhibition publication (although I did cheekily read through the judging panel’s comments about the 2010/11 submissions in the introductory pages as reference for next year…), feeling that it would be a more inspiring and creatively invigorating reference tool:

Guest of Honour - Lithuania (v. much enjoyed the little doors opening to reveal artworks - such a child...)

Aside from gawping at others’ brilliance, then, I spent many hours circling the stands of publishers I was hopeful of exchanging a word or two with and beneath whose noses I might waft my portfolio, mustering the courage to step up and ask. In the main, and as I had tentatively hoped, I found those publishers I approached much more receptive to viewing illustrators work than on previous occasions at The London Book Fair (last year’s Fair being something of an exception, courtesy one unpronounceable Icelandic volcano and a resultant dearth in visitors leaving illustrator-interview-shaped gaps in schedules…). Bologna does, after all, foreground and celebrate the illustrated book, but it also comprises probably the most significant and comprehensive opportunity to trade in international rights and, as a consequence, there were a number of publishing houses represented by sales teams only. In such cases, a polite request for the name of the most appropriate person to direct enquiries and/or sample illustrations towards and – where offered – the gift of one of a fast-diminishing stock of business cards (unfortunate side-effect of wholesale card pilfering from the Wailing Wall), was really the best I could do. However, I did manage to speak to several publishers who were actively inviting illustrators to present their work at specific times during the course of the Fair, and benefited from both their advice about the suitability of my work for particular markets and intended readership, but also – indirectly – from the comments about particular elements in my portfolio that each found most appealing (there were some noticeable cross-overs!). Interestingly – and to the poorly-concealed, smug delight of Wonderful Dave – the vast majority of those I spoke to (including illustrators, incidentally) picked out the softer, pencil-worked images as the most appealing and, for them, commercially viable, observing that the freshness of a spontaneous line (i.e. one that hasn’t been drawn, re-drawn, light-boxed and then sealed in a rather dispassionate, staid fineliner-ed ‘cage’) communicates more energy and personality than some of the “very clean” and “hard” lines of some of my coloured character work. Looking at illustrators such as Emily Gravett, Renata Liwska (my new, absolute favourite illustrator – see The Quiet Book written by Deborah Underwood [publ. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2010] – brilliant), Freya Blackwood, Bruce Whatley (to name but a very few), I could certainly accept that this style has a greater currency in communicating emotion and vibrancy – both to enhance a story and as images in their own right – and could perhaps see why, for a number of the publishers, it occupies the ‘high end’ of their catalogue, denoting a quality and richness that is perhaps absent or diluted in some of the more typically ‘mass market’ publications. These valuable exchanges left me itching to return to the studio to take more of my work in this direction, beginning with the pieces I already have that are tending towards these qualities and which I had identified – as I was collating materials for my portfolio – as representing a style I wanted to develop…

Despondent Mouse - an example of where I intend to go next...

Bologna Part II, plus some photos of the city and its fabulous Public Art Gallery, to follow on my return from Day 1 of LBF!

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About illustratedbyamanda

Illustrator and time-fritterer extraordinaire
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