One thing I love about social media is the contact I might otherwise never have had with creatives so much further along in the industry than I am. Among my FB friends, I have peeps like myself who are (hopefully) on the cusp of breaking into publishing and others who have been creating and publishing for a couple of decades or more and whose stickability and flexibility, I hope to have myself and from whom I can learn much. Denise Fleming is one of these.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[DF] I am an author/illustrator.
I usually begin with words, but during the writing process images flash through my mind and influence what I am writing. But first and foremost I am a visual person.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived, and how has that influenced your work?
[DF] I have always lived in the midwest and most of my books reflect that. I use the trees and bushes and animals I see everyday in my art. I enjoy the seasons in Ohio and have included those in several books.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[DF] From the time I was very small I liked to make things. I would draw, paint and crayon pictures, work in clay, wood and papier-mâché.
My grandmother taught me to sew. I would design and make clothes for my dolls. I was very fond of extremely large buttons on my designs. As an adult if I see a shirt or jacket with oversized buttons I want it. I have jars and jars of buttons I have collected for future projects.
My father was very supportive of my art and would buy me quality art materials – no kids stuff for me.
Making things was what I did, who I was, definitely how I defined myself.
[JM] You have been publishing books for over twenty years (I am in awe). What has changed most in publishing for you in that time?
[DF] Well, the computer entered the illustration world.
I am a dinosaur and love handmade art. I feel it reflects the individual and has more emotion. It also shows the human hand with mistakes, that become part of the art. There is some handsome work created by computer, but much of it does not appeal to me and individual styles do not stand out.
Publishing used to be more personal. Although, some of the smaller houses have retained the personal touch.
We have lost many of the independent bookstores, which changed the focus of signings and tours. Independents hand sell which is great for quieter books. Kudos to the independents that survived. Hopefully more will make their way back.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[DF] I work in paper. I create a picture and a piece of paper at the same time. The technique I use is pulp painting. Fiber, floating in water, is poured on a screen. The water drains through the screen and the fiber stays on top of the screen. I build up layer after layer of colored fiber to create an image. Squeeze bottles, stencils, and pouring cups are my tools.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[DF] Many of my books are set in the natural world and record the lives of wild creatures.
I have two characters that have appeared in more than one book.
Buster, an orange-red dog has two books. I hope he will return in a third book with his friend, Betty.
And Mouse who eats his way through a table of food in Lunch, and builds an alphabet in Alphabet under Construction. I am working on a third story for Mouse.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[DF] I rough sketch out thumbnails for the book on parchment paper with china markers to figure out pagination and get a feel for the visuals. When I am pleased with those I make an actual size dummy with comprehensive drawings. I design my books, so at this point I pick the type and book size. From here I blow up the drawings 120% and transfer and cut the stencils. I also roughly figure out the amount of each color of pulp I need. I find I use more yellow than any other color. I then pigment the cotton fiber pulp which is white. The pulp arrives damp. I add more water and retention aid (helps bond pigment to fiber) before I color it. For the book I am working on now I am also using abaca fiber, which is from banana leaves and is more transparent.
I then make the paper with the image and then flip it off the screen, sponge it, put in vacuum table to remove as much water as possible and then put it in the drying press between blotters and homosote board. There is a marine plywood top and bottom to the press around which are belt clamps, which I tighten to exert pressure.
There is a lot of process involved, but no other medium can create the effect of pulp painting.
[JM] Do you have a few words of wisdom for someone trying to break into this industry/profession now?
[DF] Read, read, read and write, write write. You learn by studying successful work. Not to copy but to discover the essence of the art. Why it works. And not just work that is popular today but classics. Work that has survived and is still relevant.
Also, even if you have a strong signature style, I think it is important to experiment, to try new media. Recently I have been experimenting with simple printmaking techniques to see if I can work them into an alternative style. If nothing else, experimenting widens your knowledge and informs the work you are doing. See some of my experimentation below.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[DF] I have a large workspace on the back of my house. You enter through two sets of french doors off the living room.
My husband, David, is an artist also. So, art rules at our house.
Papermaking requires space. I have three quite large tables and several smaller tables. There is a large school size paper cutter, drying racks, a drying press, a sink, two big vats, a drying press, two refrigerators for storing pulp, several large cupboards for art supplies and props for presentations, copy machine, computer and printer, manuscript and reference drawers, and a closet for storing art from the books. There are also plants and puppets and toys along with bulletin boards crammed with ideas. Not a house beautiful layout by any means.
I also have a small studio in the backyard where I do other art – doll making and printmaking. We have a clay studio at our cottage. And we still do not have enough room to do everything we want to do.
We built the studios ourselves, from scratch, except for the lake where we refurbished a garage.
Next on our list is tearing down two sheds here at home and building a wood working /sculpture studio for my husband, David.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[DF] I have eclectic taste. There is clay work and stone carvings, some paper art, art dolls, a Chris Raschka study of cats, hand turned bowls, and some awesome feathers. I am always changing what is on display. There are usually natural things such as a bowl of cicada skeletons and dragonfly carcasses, bird nests and eggs, whatever I find in nature that interests me.
At the present time we have two puppies that are into everything, so some things have had to be put away.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (urban, state or national) in the world?
[DF] The Pinery, a provincial park in Canada, where we camped when our daughter, Indigo, was a child. It is on Lake Huron. There are sand dunes and great trails and Canadians are considerate campers. I sketched out my first book, In The Tall, Tall Grass, in a tent there with a doe watching me.
[JM] Thanks for the tip about The Pinery. Cats or dogs?
[DF] Well, we have adopted stray cats for years. At one time we had eight house cats. I always thought I was a cat person, but over ten years ago I got Georgie and he was the love of my life. He was a giant yorkie. When he died last fall, I was heartbroken. I really missed him. I felt that I couldn’t go through the winter without a dog. There were two yorkie puppies that needed a home, so I took both of them. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. They are loving and very naughty, just what I needed.
Sparky, one of the cats (kittens) that inspired Mama Cat Has Two Kittens, is still with us, he is twenty. His brother died several months ago. So, we have three great cats and two bad puppies at this time.
[JM] Sparky looks mighty fine for twenty! I wonder how he is coping with those two crazy pups!! Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[DF] I am an open book. Don’t think there is anything exciting or secret about me that people don’t know.
[JM] One word to describe your art.
[DF] Dilys Evans said my work is “expressionism.” I am going to go with that. Dilys Evans is the founder of the Original Art Exhibit at the Society Of Illustrators.
[JM] Dilys does rock and I would go with anything she said about my work! Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[DF] Iced tea, Nutella, peanut butter and cheese all sustain me.
Really bad days require Ruffles potato chips with onion dip.
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Denise, thank you for joining us today. I was absolutely fascinated to find out about pulp painting technique as this is new to me (a non artist) and I loved the textured look it gives to your art. I am also not surprised at how many sweet cats and dogs have found their way into your household over the years! I wish you continued success in your art and join with you in hoping for a real resurgence of independent bookstores.