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The story of a storyteller

Recently commissioned illustration from The Legacy of Garman Garbh, an Irish folktale.

Recently commissioned illustration from The Legacy of Garman Garbh, an Irish folktale.

British illustrator Zara Slattery always knew she wanted to be an artist. She speaks to Veronica Stivala about drunken neighbours, Charles Dickens and her love for ­creating scary pictures.

Zara Slattery.Zara Slattery.

Fair-haired and with rosy cheeks that light up her pale skin, Zara Slattery is constantly smiling. Easy to talk to, the charismatic illustrator often lets out an infectious giggle mid-conversation.

The giggle escalates to louder laughter when she discusses the thrill she derives out of creating scary drawings. Not evil but playful in both her work and life, this modest artist loves to tell stories and to be inspired by the people around her.

Slattery was recently selected to contribute to the British Council’s Dickens 2012 celebrations and it was during this project that she discovered how much you can be inspired simply by observing people.

Stationed at Borough Market in London, Slattery’s brief was to re-interpret one of Charles Dickens’ Sketches of Boz in graphic novel format. The sketch chosen was The Streets – Morning, which meant she had to be at the market before dawn in order to catch the market sellers setting up their stalls.

Speaking about how Dickens inspired her art, Slattery explains that even though she, like many of us, grew up with the author at school, the adaptations she was exposed to were very dry.

“The experience is done for you,” she notes. “So in a way, going back to Dickens’ original works was a learning process, as I saw his takes on human nature and could discover his stories without the costume drama but with just the real people.”

It was an eye-opening experience for Slattery to see how he took real people and was able to embellish them and make wonderful social commentaries with these observations.

In a project similar to the one in London, Slattery was in Malta to take a group of artists to discover Valletta through Dickensian eyes. And what eyes are those?

“It’s just the ability to look at everyday people around you. Friends and neighbours are all quite marvellous characters. Inspired by Dickens, I took storytelling right back to basics.

“Dickens has one sketch about a noisy neighbour who got drunk a lot. I live next door to students so I know exactly what that’s like. Some things never change. The young will be young and the old will be old. It doesn’t take much embellishing for them to become marvellous characters,” points out Slattery.

Dickens was very much a man of his time – he was a great dramatist and that is what he brought to his writing and what Slattery was inspired to bring to her art. She guided the artists to just observe what people are doing. Speaking after the workshop, Slattery said she was most impressed by the comic cartoon work produced by some of the participants who had never drawn comics before.

Just as both people and the setting are characters in Dickens’ stories, Slattery taught the artists to be inspired by both people and surroundings.

Indeed, much of Slattery’s art could be said to be inspired by her surroundings. A colour motif can be traced in a good part of her illustrations: calm colours such as Naples yellow (a really pale, calm yellow), sage greens and a contrasting rich orange are the protagonists in her tight palette.

These, she notes, are probably inspired by the west coast of Britain, where she grew up. “We had these amazing sunsets,” she recalls. “I’m drawn to that horizontal landscape.”

Slattery also draws her inspiration from 20th-century European illustrations, primarily those for children, such as Sir John Tenniel who did Alice in Wonderland. His work was quite figurative, but also quite evocative, and carries a certain emotion.

In the same way, Slattery wants “to impart some sort of emotional response in the colours or the mood I use as well as responding to any brief”. Her medium, a very fine brush and black ink.

Slattery graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1992 and completed a Masters degree at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1994. She has illustrated in areas of editorial, promotional and educational publishing and has exhibited in Edinburgh and Brighton.

Did she always know she wanted to be an illustrator?

“Yes,” she affirms. “I always knew I was an artist. I never deviated from that path. I think it’s like a gift and a curse – I’m compelled to do it. I am primarily an illustrator who likes to tell stories. It’s physically and emotionally satisfying to do a good drawing. That’s what keeps you hooked but to make a living it’s hard work. You’re constantly trying to generate more work.”

We discuss Slattery’s latest project, the illustrations for a particularly ‘scary’ story for a children’s book by Deirdre Whelan Publishing. “I really liked doing scary works,” she says, letting slip an almost wicked laugh, dare I say cackle.

“I like playing with the shapes and contorting the figures. It’s a little bit more interesting. That was really quite exciting to do. I love the drama of it. One of the things I was good at from a young age was figurative drawing, so to be given an opportunity to do something different was great.” Have a look at her Celtish lady dying; you’ll feel her pain and anguish.

Slattery lives in Brighton with her husband and three children. Although she does read children’s books to her young ones, she does not necessarily get inspired by them. She enjoys reading graphic novels very much as well as general fiction.

The artist’s next project is an intriguing poetry graphic novel for three to five-year-olds. She was given a poem and convinced the publisher to let her turn it into a graphic novel.

Slattery is also working on her Apple project which tells the quirky story of five children and what they do when they encounter apples.

Zara Slattery was in Malta to conduct an art workshop on September 15 and 16 thanks to the British Council and the Malta Arts Fund. The works of art created during this workshop will be displayed during Malta Comicon at St James Cavalier, Valletta, on December 8 and 9.

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