Polish-born illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska received the 2004 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for My Name Is Yoon (FSG) by Helen Recorvits. Her lush, textural artwork has appeared in more than a dozen books to date, and this spring marks her first solo endeavor, Queen on Wednesday (FSG/Foster), about a girl who finds that being queen is more than she bargained for. She spoke with PW from her home in the French village of Bourg de Visa, where she lives with her husband and 19-year-old daughter, about her childhood in Poland, the journey she embarks on with each manuscript she illustrates, and what it’s like to be in charge of both the words and the pictures.
Where in Poland did you grow up?
In Pszczyna, which is about one hour south of Krakow – it’s a very pretty, old town, unlike many Polish towns which were destroyed during the war and rebuilt as ugly gray towns.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Yes, I always was an artist. Since I was very, very little, growing up in Poland, I always got a lot of attention for my art, and my parents liked that. We would have national art contests and I would do my entry and then I would do a couple of others for my friends. Often we won several prizes.
Didn’t the teachers object to you doing the others’ entries?
Well, it was Poland in the 1970s and everybody was a little bit corrupt. I think they liked that we got so many prizes.
It sounds like art was a big part of your childhood.
Oh, yes. When I was 14, my parents insisted I go to art school, so I went to the Liceum of Art in Bielsko-Biala – about a 40-minute drive from home.
What was your medium?
I mostly studied oil painting. But much later, when I had my daughter, Żak, I found it was too smelly and took too long to dry. I had also studied printmaking – basically I had gotten to know a variety of media. Now I work in water-soluble materials: acrylics, latex paints, gouache. I like to experiment with different techniques or I get bored. When I get a manuscript to illustrate, I decide on a style for it and then I pick the techniques that work best with that style.How did you come to start illustrating children’s books?
Everybody was always telling me I should illustrate children’s books, but it never registered. It was like white noise – I didn’t hear it. When I was in college, at Cooper Union in New York, I was involved in photography, video, film, and that’s what I was going to do. But when I had a child, I started looking at books and thought I wanted to illustrate children’s books. I thought it was my own original idea!
Once you decided you wanted to pursue illustration, how did you break into the industry?
While my daughter was napping, I worked on creating my portfolio – that was the hardest part! I didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing, or any knowledge of the publishing business. I had no idea that “breaking into the industry” was actually very competitive and extremely difficult, so I had no rules to follow.
Once I had my portfolio and started sending it out, things happened pretty quickly. I heard from two editors almost simultaneously: Christy Ottaviano at Holt and Frances Foster at FSG. Christy signed me onto Hannah’s Bookmobile Christmas [by Sally Derby] and Frances signed me onto My Name Is Yoon. They had to teach me everything from scratch, in the manner of saints sent directly from editorial heaven.
And now you’ve worked with 10 authors, in about as many years. Is the experience different with each one, or do you approach all manuscripts in the same way?
I have a different experience with every story. Every manuscript has a certain ambiance. When I first read a manuscript, I get a pull to express what I’m feeling. I’m sort of cocky and think I can get away from that as I’m working, but in the end the first impression has such a strong hold on me that that’s what is expressed in the illustrations. That’s the theory of any creative process, I believe.
Can you explain that theory a little more?
I liken the reading of a manuscript with the goal of creating appropriate images to an architectural undertaking: the text representing the terrain on which to construct. There are certain restrictions that apply, obviously – can’t draw a rabbit where the text talks about a dog. Or, can I?
And that’s where the game begins. Some manuscripts offer a lot of creative space, whereas others require a strict interpretation. The one interesting limit I find is my emotional reaction to a manuscript, which, curiously, implies very little or no wiggle room at all. This is not to say that I leave it altogether unchallenged, with various results.
The beauty of being an artist is the permission for eccentricity. It’s a constant battle, as I see it, between the creative vision and the marketing side.
Do you have a favorite of the books you’ve illustrated?
With each book I illustrate, in my memory, it’s like I took a little journey. Summertime Waltz (FSG/Foster, 2005) was a poem that offered no limits at all, allowing complete freedom. It was a wonderful experience. And later I met [author] Nina Payne, and she was wonderful, too.
Then, I loved working on Waiting for Gregory [by Kimberly Willis Holt, Henry Holt, 2006] – I took a lot of liberties with that book!
What do you mean?
I guess I mean I took it outside the realm of the immediately offered possibilities. There was a girl who wondered about her future cousin. Her environment was left completely unspecified, leaving one to assume she was approximately eight years old, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, hair done in a ponytail, etc. But did she have to be a pony-tailed, T-shirted little girl? When I read the manuscript, a different girl came into my imagination.
I like the hidden spaces, things that don’t immediately come to view. Imagine living in a house for years and still, every now and then, discovering a new door, just because you moved a towel or a commode or something, and a whole new room behind it. This is how exciting it is to find a new direction in a project, discover the new, hidden ideas in the murky spaces of your brain.
Then, I remember Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda, 2012) as a crazy ride. Kate Hosford is, and was at the time, an amazing friend of mine. We had the dummy in place before we approached publishers. Working with a friend is a whole different ballgame in many respects, all of which I greatly appreciate. And it was a surprise to find that I had some diva lurking in the recesses of my personality! Working with Kate turned out to be the most exciting of my illustrating experiences: for all the drama, the push and pull and the letting go, and the welcoming of the final result together, and the shared experience of seeing its success.
Then there was Arrowhawk [by Lola M. Schaeffer, Square Fish, 2014], which nearly killed me. I avoid any kind of animal pain or torture – I can’t even watch a Disney film without breaking down in tears if an animal gets hurt. And this was a serious story based on the real experience of a bird, so I had to be very realistic. I couldn’t go into fantasy.
So, there are some projects that hold promise right off the start, like Summertime Waltz. Then there are those like Arrowhawk, where the illustrations had to follow the text exactly. And Waiting for Gregory was a manuscript that fell between those two.
The excitement is always about finding a new direction in a project, discovering the new, hidden ideas in the murky spaces of my brain.
Let’s talk about Queen on Wednesday. What made you decide to write a book at this stage in your career?
I’d been wanting to do it for a while. I have lots of ideas written down. This one wasn’t my first and I hope it’s not the last! My first solo project was, actually, signed on by Christy Ottaviano. It happened at an inopportune moment – I was on a downward spiral of the roller coaster, which Christy waited out. After my life got together into a new puzzle, with the shiny addition of my agent Emily Van Beek, the then-outstanding contract was rewritten and assigned to a manuscript by Barbara Herkert, about Mary Cassatt. So Queen on Wednesday is now officially my first published solo project! I have an armoire full of other unpublished ones.
Is your main character, Thelma, inspired by anybody in particular?
I’m sure my daughter had something to do with it.
When she was little, or now?
Both! It’s funny but whenever I look at a book after it’s published, I recognize the characters I drew as people in my life. But that comes after the fact. While I’m working, I often use actors’ photos as references – then I change them a little. I redesign the faces but they end up being people in my life.
I remember being struck by how the faces in Hannah’s Bookmobile Christmas looked so Polish.
I never thought about that, but yes, my family modeled for that book!
How was the process of being both author and illustrator different from illustrating somebody else’s story?
I felt like I was more in charge. Even though I’ve worked with amazing editors who have given me lots of space, I felt more at ease working on Thelma. I imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to send your manuscript to an illustrator who creates their own world with it. I have compassion for the writers.
Would you talk a little bit about inspirations and influences on your style?
I am very loyal to my original schooling. I’m in love with early Renaissance and Dutch paintings. Sometimes this influence shows, sometimes not. I go through a lot of imagery online and create folders of images—some come with names and some don’t, so sometimes I don’t discover the name for an image that inspires me until later. Among contemporary illustrators, Maira Kalman is my hero, and Peter Sís, as well. I’m also very impressed with Shaun Tan and Sara Fanelli.
I also really like combinations of images with text. For example, I collect envelopes because of the ways the stamps and text interact. I think many artists are aware of this nowadays, because I see these combinations in many artists’ work. For example, Maira Kalman’s Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, or Simms Taback’s There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. For me, these combinations happen more in the posters, CD covers and other work I do than in the children’s books.
You’ve lived in Poland, Brooklyn, and now France. What precipitated these international moves?
My parents moved to New York about 10 years before I did, and then I followed them. I lived in Brooklyn and then the house I lived in there was sold, and I also got divorced. I loved that house. It had a gorgeous garden. I believe that part of the reason I was able to survive living in Brooklyn and New York was because of that garden.
When the house was sold, I wanted to go to India but my partner at the time was scared of India, so we went to Poland. We didn’t like it at all, so after a year we went to visit friends in France and just stayed. We’re in a tiny village, Bourg de Visa, between Toulouse and Bordeaux. It feels very much like we live in the country.
Has your work changed or been influenced in some way by the different countries you’ve lived in?
Oh absolutely. In Poland and Europe in general, there’s a great emphasis on study and technique. So I got a very good handle on technique. In the USA the approach is very different; it’s about your vision and your expression of that. When I first got here I bemoaned the lack of technique I saw, but when I went back to Poland after three years in the USA, I saw artists there stuck in technique. Now in France, again, they like to see the piece of paper that justifies you being an artist. So now I appreciate what I experienced in the United States – that nobody asked about schooling. The final results are what matter.
Do you plan to write more books?
Yes, definitely. I’m working on three right now. Each idea is very different and so working on them all at once is good. For example, for some stories I have to do a lot of research, so I have to be connected and online. For others, I can just sit in the garden and draw.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I’m starting on a new book by Kate Hosford, The Perfect Cup of Tea. Like Christy and Frances, Kate is also a pillar. She’s an Audrey Hepburn type: elegant, eloquent, knowledgeable, funny, compassionate, and down to earth. In my daydream fantasy it is discovered that we are, in fact, sisters. I’m thrilled that we are starting on another collaboration.
Queen on Wednesday by Gabi Swiatkowska. FSG/Foster, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-37446-4