Julie Paschkis is a painter, textile designer, and award winning illustrator and author of books for children. You can see her love of pattern and folk art in all of her illustration work. All of her visual work tells stories. The many children's books she has illustrated include folk tales, poetry and biographies. We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to Julie about her love of illustrations.
Nikki: How did you discover and then develop your passion for art and illustration?
Julie: I grew up in a household where we were encouraged to make things and allowed to get messy. Everyone in my family makes art, even if it isn’t their life work. (Photo of Julie and her younger sister; source: Julie Paschkis)
N: Were there any particular experiences that influenced your work growing up in Pennsylvania?
J: I have always seen and always loved Pennsylvania German Fraktur [an elaborate folk art illustration style originally practiced by the Pennsylvania Germans]. I like the decoration and the joy in the images. (Photo: Pennsylvania German Fraktur by George Speyer)
N: You studied at Cornell, then RIT, and then taught art in schools. How have those experiences influenced your work?
J: I went to a great high school, Germantown Friends School. I applied to go to Cornell with the eventual plan to go to law school, but I took a year off before college. I went to live in Norway where I went to a folk high school. That changed the course of my life. I came home and went to Cornell, but after two years, I realized that I had to use my hands as well as my head to be happy. I switched to the School for American Craftsmen which was part of RIT to study weaving and textile design. It was a continuation of the folk high school. When I taught art I was inspired by the work that the kids did, and I just liked being around them. But teaching is all-consuming, and I eventually wanted to spend more time on my own work.
N: How did you get started working as a professional illustrator?
J: I started illustrating for a small newspaper where a friend was a writer. Eventually I did more commercial illustration for other newspapers as well, and I continued to paint and make things for my own pleasure, and eventually I showed that work in galleries. In 1990, I took a class in children’s book illustration from Keith Baker, and that became a major focus of my life.
N: Tell us about your process for illustrating a picture book like The Great Smelly, Slobbery Small-Tooth Dog?
J: The text is beautifully rhythmic and repetitive - the smelly dog goes over the fields many times! So I decided to vary the illustrations by imagining them as textile banners of different shapes. I also liked the Victorian idea of communicating emotions through flowers; I had a book in high school called The Language of Flowers. So I added a layer of meaning to each illustration by including flowers that tell the emotions of each picture: jealousy, fear, anger and love. The endpapers give a key to the language of flowers.
N: You worked on two August House LittleFolk picture books Fat Cat and The Great Smelly Slobbery Small-Tooth Dog, with award-winning author Margaret Read MacDonald. How did you get involved with Margaret?
J: Margaret is famous in these parts (and many other places) for her wonderful storytelling and her wonderful self. I was honored when she approached me and asked if I might want to illustrate one of her picture books.
N: You also have a blog, Books Around the Table, with four other female artists. How did the blog come about?
J: The five of us are a critique group. We meet once a month to share our work and give each other feedback. We help each other make our work better. We’ve been meeting for about 20 years. In 2012, we started the blog. One of us writes each Friday - each of us writes once every 5 weeks. That amount of writing is fun. Sharing the blog helps us to post consistently. (Photo: Illustration by Yuri Vasnetsov)
N: Is there a specific medium that you prefer to work with? Why?
J: I experiment a lot with different media. I have made art out of bread, out of cloth, out of cut paper. But mostly I paint with gouache, which is an opaque watercolor that comes in tubes. I like it because it can be opaque or it can be translucent depending on how much water you add.
N: Your quilts are of particular interest to me. It’s a skill I wish I had! How do you tell a story through this medium? Some of your quilts focus less on a pattern and more on a subject.
J: I like telling stories no matter what medium I am using - it is the way that I make sense of the world. To make a picture in a pieced quilt you translate the drawing into squares and triangles by drawing it out on graph paper. Then you sew together the pieces in long strips and connect them. It is slow work! But it isn’t that much slower to make a REALLY big quilt. Twice I have made giant quilts to hang off of buildings. (Photo: picture of quilt titled Mr. Big by Julie Paschkis)
N: What is your favorite children’s book? Why?
J: I love many children’s books. One particular favorite is Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen. I love that it’s gentle and sweet without condescension and without whitewashing reality. I like the way the words and the pictures go together. (Photo: Illustration from Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm)
N: Who is your favorite illustrator? Why?
J: I have many favorites. I like pictures that have graphic punch and beauty. I am less interested in realistic or cartoony styles. I like the Provensens, whom I just mentioned, as well as Maud and Miska Petersham, Margaret Cooney, Edgar and Ingri Parin D’Aulaire, Wanda Gag, Ivan Bilibin. Those illustrators that I saw as a child are deep inside me. I always have my eyes open to new work too. Among illustrators currently working I especially like Maira Kalman, Doug Florian, Carson Ellis, Joohee Yoon and Christian Robinson. (Photo: Auntie Katushka by Maud and Miska Petersham)
N: What advice would you give to aspiring artists or picture book illustrators?
J: Creativity is a habit. The more work you do, the more ideas you will have, and the better your work will become. Not everything you make will be great, but bad ideas can turn into good ideas. Good ideas can get even better so just keep working. (Photo: Courtesy of Julie Paschkis)