As a high school graduate in western Canada, Matt Luckhurst knew what was expected of him. “You were supposed to get a good job, you were supposed to be successful,” he says. “I was going to be an accountant.” He enrolled in the commerce program at the University of Calgary, but things didn’t go so well. At night, when he was supposed to be studying, he’d write his name over and over in his sketchbook, trying different styles, polishing and refining. Then, when he thought he had something good, he’d pick up his bag of spray cans and look for a place under a bridge where he could work undisturbed.
“I was never a great graffiti artist,” he says. “I didn’t have the nerve. I didn’t want to go to jail.” But he was fascinated by the planning that went into creating the art, and the way the finished pieces looked. “I was really attracted to the expression and the style. There’s a pure energy and enthusiasm to it that I loved.” He filled sketchbook after sketchbook, and at the end of the year he realized he was wasting his time in business school.
He dropped out. He went to Europe. He drew some more. His view of himself started to change. “As a child I drew, but I was never a big artist. I was into sports. I collected baseball cards.” He began to realize that art was all he wanted to do. “I called up the Alberta College of Art and Design and asked if I could enroll—right away, the next semester.” He had never had any formal training, and his whole portfolio was graffiti sketches, but they said yes. “I was the happiest person in the world. I threw myself into it. I’d stay up late doing homework—I mean, come on, it’s painting! This isn’t homework!”
He had never heard the phrase “graphic design.” Or the word “typography.” “I never realized it was something that people studied. I never realized that people created their own fonts.” He studied graphic design with a professor named Karl Geist. “He was great. He opened my eyes to this art form that I didn’t understand. It had history, rules, principles you could study and learn from. That’s when I realized that design was what really captured my imagination.”
Another professor, Rik Zak, convinced Luckhurst to apply to the School of Visual Arts in New York City and pursue a master’s degree. That was where Luckhurst met Howard Reeves, then publisher of children’s books at Abrams, who encouraged him to write and illustrate his own picture book. To get him started, Reeves suggested reworking a legend or a folk tale. “I come from a family of loggers in British Columbia,” Luckhurst says, “so Paul Bunyan was a natural. Those trees in the forests out there are huge, of course, so it seemed perfectly sensible that there would be giant people in the woods doing this stuff.” Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox: The Great Pancake Adventure appeared from Abrams Books for Young Readers.
To come up with his own retelling, he spent a week researching existing versions of the story in the archives of the New York City Public Library, “the room where they bring you the books and you have to wear gloves to look at them.” He couldn’t believe how much material there was. He joked with Reeves about doing a series with five volumes.
Then he worked on drawing Paul and Babe. Settling on figures that he could draw consistently and that looked right took a long time. “The first Paul was squatter and fatter-looking,” Luckhurst says. “Then he got to look more grown-up.” He also drew as he wrote, “little tiny drawings of how each page would look. I can’t write without working out the visual effects at the same time.” He couldn’t find a typeface he liked for the book’s text, so he wound up designing his own.
He credits Reeves and designer Chad Beckerman for shepherding him through the process with maximum encouragement and support. “It was a huge stroke of luck and timing,” he says about the opportunity.
An unexpected thrill for Luckhurst is taking the book on the road and reading it to children. “I’m fine giving presentations to adults, and I teach,” he says. “But this is terrifying. They’re honest, and they’re not laughing unless it’s funny.”
“When I give other people my book, they say, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ But when I look at it myself,” Luckhurst says, “I think, ‘I can do way better than this.’ It’s something I want to keep doing. This is something I know I can get better at.”