Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interview with Artist JJ Lee

Artist JJ Lee opened her show The White Tortoise of Ch'u at loop Gallery on Saturday. This children's story, written by author Fabian Boutilier, is a magical mix of history, folklore and mysticism. JJ Lee presents 10 of the planned 16 illustrations from the as yet unpublished book.

JJ Lee has a BFA from the NSCAD University (1992) and an MFA from York University (1999). A recipient of many awards for her work, Lee is also featured in the Magenta Foundation’s Carte Blanche Volume II: Painting, a survey of contemporary Canadian painters. She currently lives and works in Toronto where she teaches at the OCAD University.

JJ Lee and Ingrid Mida at Loop Gallery on January 22, 2011

In spite of a hectic schedule, JJ found the time to answer my questions about her work.

Ingrid: Have you illustrated a book before?
JJ: No I haven't but always wanted to. This opportunity dropped into my lap just at a time when I was seriously considering illustrating a book, especially since the birth of my daughter three years ago. Children's books have been basically the only genre I've been reading lately!

Ingrid: How does this project differ from what you've exhibited in the past?
JJ: This project is so entirely different than anything I've done before. While I still regard these pieces as my work, these images have a much clearer narrative. In my paintings I try to stay away from the illustrative and go more for the evocative, but in this case I was trying to strike a balance. It was hard!

Ingrid:  What was your working process for the illustrations?
JJ: Generally I would pick a page, and usually an image would come to me. I would start sketching it out, but then, as usual, the image changes as the process develops. There were a couple that started off as for one page but then as the piece developed I would change it to illustrate another space.

Ingrid: Did you use any different mediums in your work?
JJ: This work is on paper, and I used  gouache, acrylic, pencil crayon, conte, collage, photocopy transfer, pencil, and pen and ink (to name a few). I prepared the paper with an absorbent ground to play up texture and for it to receive the water based media better. 

Ingrid:  How did you and Fabian first meet?
JJ: Fabian saw my work in Carte Blanche 2: Painting, a compendium  of Canadian contemporary painters. He then emailed me. When I received his email, my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe my good luck!

Ingrid:  Was it a challenge to work under the direction of an author or did it take the pressure off you?
JJ: The great thing about Fabian and his approach is that he allowed me to do whatever I wanted! He didn't impose a vision onto me; he just provided the text. He was also extremely supportive of my artwork. He trusted me entirely to create work that would suit the story. It definitely was an enjoyable challenge, trying to balance my approach with a story.

Ingrid:  What does your daughter think of your artwork for this project? Did she want to help?
JJ: She likes to go into the studio and say, "Aww, the turtle is crying!".  

Ingrid: Do you think you'd like do more children's book illustrations?
JJ: Absolutely! I would like to do a million more!

Ingrid: What's next for you?
JJ: I wish I knew! I'm at a real crossroads in my career now. One reason why I am interested in illustrating children's books is because it can reach quite a large audience. It's a nice way for a lot of people to enjoy your work instead of occasionally selling one painting to one person. My husband is a kindergarten teacher. I would love to work on something with him. Or perhaps illustrate one of my daughter's stories.

JJ Lee will be at Loop Gallery for the next three Sundays,  January 30th, February 6th and February 13th at 3 pm to do answer questions and for the readings of The White Tortoise of Ch'u by author Fabian Boutilier. 

Don't miss the interview with JJ Lee on Artsync TV, which airs in Toronto on Fridays at 7 pm and Mondays at 7 am on Rogers Cable 10.