There's no denying that computers are increasingly becoming a bigger part of everyday life. It's no surprise then, that a new generation of talented artists has adopted these machines as a medium for creative expression.
Kristen Balouch is one such modern graphics wizard. Witness her picture-book debut, the strikingly illustrated Listen to the Storyteller: A Trio of Musical Tales from Around the World (Viking). In Balouch's compositions, a Caribbean witch with wild dreadlocks swirls on an olive-green page; an evil king Winter is depicted with an icicle-spiked head and blue snowflake cloak. The artwork, which looks amazingly like cut-paper collage, was in fact created digitally. "My approach to shapes has a cut-paper feel," Balouch explains. "I do lots of sketches with paper and pencil before I work on the computer with Adobe Illustrator."
If readers sense a distinct rhythm between Balouch's artwork and the folklore in the book, it's no accident. Storyteller was conceived as a joint music/book project between Viking and Sony Classical. A companion audio recording, released simultaneously, contains interpretations of the tales by three accomplished composers and narration by Wynton Marsalis, Graham Greene and Kate Winslet.
This unique component of the project was particularly appealing to Balouch. "I loved the idea of stories told through music and illustration," she said. "I started working right away, even before the text was final. It was important for me to let the feel of each culture come through and I also wanted to keep in mind the feel the music might have with the illustrations. The idea of music telling a story had a much more emotional quality than a rational quality; I used that as an inspiration for the patterns and colors in the book."
Though illustrating a children's book had been a long-held dream, Balouch was pleasantly surprised by her first assignment. "My portfolio was at Viking with assistant editor Cathy Hennessy, for a Persian folktale manuscript I did called The King and the Three Thieves," she said. "Cathy asked me to come in for a meeting and I remember sitting down with Cathy, [art director] Denise Cronin, [editor] Melanie Cecka and [president and publisher] Regina Hayes. I thought we were going to talk about The King and the Three Thieves when they said they had another project in mind for me." She happily accepted the detour and now Three Thieves is scheduled for publication by Viking in fall 2000.
Balouch's road to Viking was a relatively lengthy -- but always art-filled -- one. "My interest in children's books began when I was a student at Pratt. I was drawn in by the illustration," she recalled. Balouch graduated in 1991 with a B.F.A. in computer graphics and a few years later taught classes on that subject at Pratt. Shortly after graduation, Balouch and her husband formed Zubi Design, a company specializing in designs for children. Viking was Balouch's first choice when submitting her children's book work; "I've always liked the books Viking produced with illustrators like Lane Smith, Maira Kalman and J.otto Seibold," she said. "Everyone there is really friendly and easy to work with."
These days Balouch juggles her blossoming book illustration career with caring for her children in the Greenpoint/ Willamsburg section of Brooklyn, an area known for its concentration of artists. "I have a son who's four and a baby girl who's eight months," Balouch says. "My husband takes my son to school and as soon as they're out the door, I start working. I've found that I need absolute quiet to write, but when it comes to illustrating, I love to go outdoors and do my thinking and sketching. During the warm months I wander around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or Central Park, and do my best sketching in crowded public places. At home I cover the walls with sketches."
Having "an actual bound book" to show for her efforts has been "wonderful," Balouch says. "I had an informal neighborhood signing at a local bookstore and did a reading at my son's school, which was really fun." Her work got a more formal unveiling at the Society of Illustrators' annual Original Art Show this fall. Though Balouch d s not know what lies beyond The King and the Three Thieves, readers can rest assured that her future projects will continue to be on the cutting edge of computer technology.