By Julianne Linderman
Our area is thriving with ‘makers’ of all kinds — visual artists, writers, craftspeople, photographers — the list goes on. It’s not hard to find talented individuals and bring their creative voices to the printed page. I had plenty of questions this time for two such individuals: Robb Johnston and Rachel Nisch. Robb Johnston is the author/illustrator of two children’s books, The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree (2011) and Lelani and The Plastic Kingdom (2014), and he is working on a third. Rachel Nisch, who moved back to the area last year after teaching middle school in Tucson, Arizona, and working on an organic farm, has recently begun sharing her artwork with the public as she explores 3-D mediums (hand-carved stamps, concrete, and ceramics are among her current favorites). She is also working on writing and illustrating her first children’s book about a melon who loves the sky. Robb and Rachel both work at the Brinery, though I did not find that out until after I met with Rachel (who connected me with Robb). Each of these artists had such interesting things to share about their unique approaches to making and creating.
Author & Illustrator Robb Johnston
Robb Johnston’s first book, The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree, tells the story of a beautiful tree and an eager woodcutter who would like nothing more than to chop it down (and hear his ax go “Thwickety-THWACK!”). Johnston created the detailed, colorful illustrations using watercolor, ink pen, color pencil, and acrylic paint. Described as “gorgeous” in a Kirkus Starred Review, the book was also named to Kirkus’ Best of 2011 list. Johnston’s second book, Lelani and the Plastic Kingdom, follows a determined, young girl from her home on a tiny island in the South Pacific as she travels to the island of ‘New Flotsam,’ a kingdom in the ocean made entirely of plastic. As Lelani discovers how she can make a difference in reducing marine plastic pollution, the book inspires young readers to do the same, while taking them on a vibrant journey through magical places.
Julianne Linderman: Prior to publishing The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree, was creating a children’s book something you had been wanting to do, or a goal of yours?
Robb Johnston: Art has always been a big part of my life, although it was actually my dad who floated the idea of illustrating a picture book. I remembered his suggestion while teaching English in Japan. I moved to Japan in 2006, right after graduating from Michigan State University. I lived there for a year and half, teaching English conversation in a beautiful town called Tsukuba, in Ibaraki Prefecture. I was teaching Japanese kids how to speak and read English by using some of the same books I’d grown up with back in Rockford, Michigan. That inspired me to create a book of my own. I really wanted to become a part of the world of children’s literature, to put a book out there that would inspire future generations of readers around the world.
Julianne Linderman: Both of your books illustrate beautiful natural worlds, and Lelani and The Plastic Kingdom introduces young readers to the issue of marine plastic pollution. What do you feel are some important functions of children’s literature (education, enjoyment, fun, a combination) in your view? And what are your hopes as an author/illustrator?
Robb Johnston: Environmental themes are very important to me. I think most children have an innate fascination with the natural world, so I try to present my unique vision of it in a way that inspires their imaginations and deepens their appreciation. I also enjoy picture books that explore cultural and social themes. The very best children’s books, in my opinion, are those that entertain, educate, challenge, and inspire; the task for authors and illustrators is finding ways to subtly, elegantly accomplish those goals.
JL: The tree in The Most Beautiful Tree billows in beautiful colors across the book’s pages. As her conversation with the woodcutter carries on throughout the seasons, her blossoms and flowers transform in colors and patterns. Can you tell us more about your design choice for the tree, particularly your abstract representation? You mentioned that readers have come back and told you the trees remind them of certain things (for me, it was mandalas).
RJ: My design choice arose from doodles I was making in the margins of notebooks when I was teaching in Japan. I was captivated by the variety and beauty of the designs and patterns, and began to think of ways to integrate them into a story. I eventually decided they would make excellent abstract representations of leaves and flowers on a tree. Many people associate the designs with mandalas or Zentangles. I am always interested to hear the cultural associations as well. I’ve heard people say the designs in the tree remind them of motifs from Russia, the Middle East, Japan, and the Pacific Northwest.
JL: How did your upbringing on the island of Rotuma in the South Pacific Ocean influence Lelani and the Plastic Kingdom?
RJ: Being of Polynesian decent, it was important for me to reflect that culture and its people in my most recent book. The landscape of children’s literature is seriously lacking in diversity, and I attempt to chip away at that through Lelani. Ethnicity is not a central element of the story, but it depicts people and places of the South Pacific. Hopefully kids from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences will be better able to relate to the book because they can see something more of themselves in the story. Hopefully, people who don’t know much about the South Pacific will feel inspired to learn more! I also got to experiment with traditional motifs found in Polynesian art. Specifically, the border designs throughout the book are meant to resemble tapa cloth. Tapa cloth is a traditional art form from the Pacific islands. It involves making sheets of paper from the inner bark of certain trees. Then, black and brown dyes are used to paint designs and patterns on them. They’re beautiful!
JL: Can you talk a little bit about the character of Lelani? Who is she? What inspired her character?
RJ: Lelani is a Polynesian girl who lives on an island in the Pacific Ocean. I never specify which island in particular she is from, because I wanted her to reflect the islander identity as a whole, rather one particular subset. I knew from the beginning that the main character of the book would be a strong-willed, adventurous little girl. I borrowed her name from a family friend who is half Tongan.
JL: You get a chance to interact with young readers during classroom visits you offer for your books. What do you enjoy about interacting with students and hearing their responses?
RJ: Speaking to groups of kids about books is always an amazing experience. Being able to connect the book in their hands to the person who created it is a lot of fun. They are so curious about my ideas and so eager to share their own ideas as well. I love being able to show them the first ROUGH drafts of my stories, with all the revisions, mistakes, and do-overs. I think kids can take a lot from seeing the early stages of the work: mistakes are a necessary part of the process; they help us improve and grow. I try to drive home lessons of creativity and perseverance. With Lelani, I try to empower students to make decisions in their daily lives that will have a positive impact on the environment.
JL: What do kids seem to really like about each of the books? Has this led to new ideas for your future books?
RJ: I’m always amazed by the reactions to the illustrations, in both books. There are a few pages in each where, as I’m reading, I’ll turn the page and hear *gasps* from the audience. There’s no way to describe how good that makes you feel as an illustrator. For me, the lesson for future books is to keep improving and putting my absolute best work out there.
JL: What were some of your favorite books growing up? Did you have a favorite author and/or illustrator?
RJ: My favorite books growing up were ones that had highly-stylized illustrations or stories that challenged me to think in different ways. Some of my longtime favorites are Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher and the The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter, and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Animalia by Graeme Base always drew me in; I could get lost in those pages for hours. Also, the Time-Life Library of Learning. Those volumes were filled with fascinating photography and excellent illustrations. The books themselves were hardcover and huge, perfect for my little hands to flip through the pages a thousand times. I learned so much from all of the volumes, but I definitely gravitated towards those dealing with the natural world (insects, marine life, plants, etc.). And let’s not forget about Zoobooks. I’m always adding to my list of inspirational artists, authors, and illustrators. Other favorites include: Tomie dePaola, Neil Gaiman, Ivan Billibin, Stephen Gammell, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Hayao Miyazaki, Maurice Sendak, Ernst Fuchs, Jim Woodring, Chris Van Allsberg, Edward Riojas, and Mike Mignola.
JL: What has been one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing these two books? What is next for you?
RJ: The most rewarding aspect of independently publishing these first two books has been interacting with people who enjoyed them. The Woodcutter has been out there for a few years now, and it’s always amazing to me when a complete stranger approaches me and shares their experience with the book. Those encounters make me feel like I have, in my small way, accomplished the goal I set when I was living in Japan: become a part of the world of children’s literature. I’d like to continue to create books and works of art that challenge me to grow and improve, and that inspire and resonate with people of all ages
Robb can be contacted at Robb.firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on his work and upcoming events, visit www.robbnjohnston.com.
Artist Rachel Nisch
When we met, you were making these awesome concrete orbs. What drew you to concrete? Are you still making them?
I am still playing around with concrete, making orbs, small blocks, and other objects when I come across oddly shaped vessels I can’t resist. I’m drawn to concrete because of its gritty, basic, understated, no-frills functionality that is somehow combined with a surprising softness. I’m a sucker for a good utilitarian aesthetic. I became orb-inspired when I came across a concrete sphere while perusing the Internet, and thought: Those would be so cool to have … everywhere!
You were also carving stamps. Can you tell us about those?
I continue to carve stamps, which I use for greeting cards, as stand-alone art pieces, and to illustrate a children’s book. My most recent series of stamps was inspired by the Little Rincon Mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona, but I am working now on some abstract floral designs. At the moment I’m captivated by Cyclamens.
When did you start doing art? Did you like drawing as a kid?
I was raised feeling like art was a very accessible thing, and I always played around with drawing and watercolors in (and I cannot overemphasize this) a very amateur sense — mostly for my parents’ birthday cards or to fill smatterings of Ikea frames in my college apartments. I’ve really enjoyed discovering three-dimensional media — the first being ceramics, and now concrete and carving — because the media themselves seem to have more agency in the process. I’m happy to hear what the clay, or the concrete, or the rubber has to say.
You also love ceramics. What are some of your favorite things to make?
I do have a real love for ceramics. I could ogle a collection of cups for hours. When I find someone willing to let me use their set-up, I like throwing simple shapes (again with the utilitarian aesthetic!). I was recently on a cylinder kick, but bowls are my favorite. A good bowl becomes part of your daily routine. Mine fits perfectly cupped in my hand, and holds my morning yogurt just right.
I asked in our first email exchange what draws you to art. I loved your answer about ‘the balance between control and suprise’ (and I will share that answer below). Is there anything else you would like to add?
"What draws me to art, I think, is finding the balance between control and surprise. Perhaps what I love most in any work I’ve done are the elements I don’t control — the mysterious ways the inks layer or the way the glazes run together." (I definitely stick to what I said, but to expand … ) As I’ve only started selling my art this past year, I’m just discovering the next phase of surprise in the process, which is the response to what I’ve made. People seem to gravitate to the orbs and are compelled to touch them, even just as they pass my table at a craft show. And it’s always fun hearing what people see in my stamps: monkeys where I see a tangle of branches, or a manger where I thought I carved a plateau. Maybe in celebrating the surprises I’m justifying a lack of precision and predictability that come with skill. If so, I’m grateful for the acceptance that comes with that justification — no reason to get hung up on perfection.
What are you planning to do next?
At the moment, I’m excited to be working on a children’s book, inspired by my farming experience. The story is about a melon who loves the sky, and the illustrations are carved stamps that blend the literal and abstract to leave plenty of room for the imagination.
Rachel Nisch can be contacted at email@example.com. To view more of her artwork, you can visit her website: nicespreadprints.wordpress.com.