IN THE STUDIO WITH MATT JAMES
14 AUG 2018
How did you first become interested in illustration?
I can’t remember a specific moment when I started thinking about illustration, it was definitely part of my childhood, though, and it probably started with comic books. Someone bought me this little yellow light box that came with sheets of character designs from DC Comics — I would spend hours tracing Wonder Woman and Shazam. That light table made me look more closely: it drew me in — made me look intently at the quality of lines and think about how to make mine look the same way. I also remember that the “Y” in Woodstock offered a cartooning course, which I took. I was in grade four or five, and the guy who taught it was really impressive: he had made a comic strip that he was trying to get syndicated in the newspapers. The amount of work he’d put into it left me awestruck — I think he had three or four months’ worth of daily comic strips all ready to go, hundreds of perfect pages all hand drawn and inked, neatly collected in these beautiful presentation boxes with tissue paper between each of the pages.
Why did you decide to get into picture books as opposed to another art form?
My high school had a really cool art department with printing presses, an enormous process camera, a darkroom, pottery wheels — basically every kind of art equipment you could think of. When you got to grade eleven, you could drop gym class and take “double art”, spending an entire morning or afternoon trying your hand at printmaking, photography, pottery, etc. A lot of the teachers there had been commercial artists in the 50s and 60s. They sorta guided us towards graphic design and illustration and that was fine by me. There was less fluidity between “fine art” and “commercial art” back then, which was a drag for everyone and made it tricky to figure out how to move forward on a path towards making a living as an artist.
I still do a lot of painting outside of the world of book illustration, and I take a lot of photographs. Picture books have always excited me though, I love puzzling out the pacing and the storytelling and I love being able to slowly expand upon ideas over the course of 32 (or however many) pages. I really love the experience of holding a book in my hands. I like the smell of the ink on the paper and the feel of turning the pages. I guess I really like print in general.
What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?
I’m not really what you would call a creature of habit — I probably should pay more attention to what works and what doesn’t, but truthfully it’s a different ballgame every time I sit down. It’s more of a feeling out process — just keep drawing, painting, writing or whatever until this feeling takes over. Sometimes it happens when my studio is a crazy mess, other times I feel overwhelmed and need everything to be orderly and neat. I think I thrive on change. Though I will say that I spend an awful lot of time at work. I should probably get up and go for a walk more often!
You work out of a studio in Parkdale that you share with two other artists. Tell us about the space.
That’s right! Greg Smith, Glen Halsey and I have been here for the past ten years or so.
We love this place. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but it is a window into/onto Parkdale with all of its funky Parkdale sights, sounds and smells: it’s a bit of a feast for the senses around here. The studio is pretty scrappy and doesn’t really offer a tonne of space, but it is a bit of a miracle that we have a place where we can create music and art affordably in this city and we thank our lucky stars daily.
Your new book The Funeral is very special and unique. What was your inspiration for the story?
Hmm, that’s kind of tough to pinpoint. Is there one specific inspirational spark? Basically, the story came from life: I followed my kids around at a few funerals. This book was a way for me to sort through my own feelings about the death of some loved ones, initially it was the loss of Uncle Frank, and then later when I was making the final art my dad got terribly sick and passed away. In other ways, it was a documentation; me watching my kids and writing down some of the great things that they say.
This was the first time you wrote and illustrated a book, as opposed to just illustrating, what did you find to be the biggest difference between the two?
This was more like making a story out of words and pictures — working the words and illustrations at the same time — pushing and pulling and kinda molding them into a story.
Just illustrating a book is maybe a bit more cut and dry: a text exists and then pictures are created to complement it.
Your artistic process for the book was quite varied. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Yeah, I did take some things a bit farther than I have in my other books. I had a nice balance happening in my studio where I was working on two very different books more or less at the same time, sometimes leap frogging one another. One book was When the Moon Comes, written by Paul Harbridge, which is set in the depths of winter on a cold moonlit night. That book was really planned out in advance, the pallet is very cold and dark (mostly blue and black) and is straight up painting all the way through. It was a nice contrast to this book, which takes place in springtime with lively pinks and much chlorophyll in the greens. It has painting as well as collage, and little models made out of whatever materials I had laying around (twine, cardboard, masking tape, flowers). The Funeral was much more of an exploration where you see the results of experimentation right on the page. If it were a record, it would be mostly first takes or demos — I tend to like the look of rawness over refined.
What is one thing you learned while writing and illustrating The Funeral?
I learned a lot of things. I learned how to press flowers in a microwave! I had the idea to use real flowers, and I would (don’t tell anyone) steal little spring flowers off people’s lawns on my walk to work every day and dry them at the studio. I also saved flowers from my dad’s funeral and incorporated them into the artwork.
Interview by Meaghen Seagrave and Laura Chapnick. Photography by Laura Chapnick.