Author spotlight: Emma FitzGerald

Author/illustrator Emma FitzGerald was born in Southern Africa to Irish parents, and did most of her growing up in Vancouver, BC. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art in Visual Art at UBC, she moved to Halifax, NS where she completed a Masters in Architecture at Dalhousie University.

It was in summer of 2013 that she started documenting her North End neighbourhood through drawings and stories. This became the beginnings of her first book, Hand Drawn Halifax (Formac Publishing, 2015), which has sold 10,000 copies to date. The drawings and words speak to the importance of community, and shared oral history, and extends beyond her own neighbourhood to include places like North Preston, Cherrybrook, St. Margarats Bay and Lower Sackville, showing her interest in not only ‘the centre’ but also the edges of the city. She has also illustrated children’s books, including A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop  by Rita Wilson (Nimbus Publishing, 2019). It was nominated for IBBY Canada’s Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver award for Excellence in Canadian illustration. Emma’s many years of researching Elizabeth Bishop, including artist residencies in Great Village and Rio de Janeiro, allowed for the project’s full realization, and also to a collaboration with film maker John Scott, creating animation sequences for The Art of Loosing, a forthcoming documentary film about Nova Scotia’s most famous poet. 

Emma continues to document places and people, in Hand Drawn Vancouver (Appetite of Penguin Random House, 2020), and has started work on Hand Drawn Victoria.

I note in your bio that Halifax is your “chosen” home. What is it about Halifax that captured your heart?

I think the people, who are community minded, and the general feeling that people work together to “make things happen.”

Did your house portraits come first or your study of architecture?

I liked to draw houses as a little girl, based on reading Anne of Green Gables and other L.M. Montgomery books where the protagonists had a strong attachment to a particular house/home. This sparked my interest in architecture, and was the beginning of my motivation to pursue it as a career. However, the house portraits came out of economic necessity, when I was laid off and not able to find architectural office work.

Why did you switch to illustration?

I always would illustrate things for my mother, whether it was menus or place cards for dinner parties. When I worked as an architect, I kept an art studio practice, focused on installation and art that had its basis in relational art practices, with community as its focus. Alongside this, I would make posters for music events, cd covers etc, always saying yes to opportunities to draw. From this came a desire to make books, and I submitted an illustration portfolio to a publisher at around this time (2010), but it took several years before it became clear what direction I would take in publishing.

Tell me about Hand Drawn Halifax. What was your goal in creating that book?

The book emerged, as opposed to being something I set out to do. I had always sketched when traveling, but never taken the time to draw on location when at home in Halifax. Then came the economic necessity of making a living, so I went about completing a drawing every day in my neighbourhood for one month, to test drive my ‘style’ and attract attention to my house portrait business. From the beginning I posted the drawings online on social media, accompanied by short stories that were told to me as I was drawing/snippets of conversation I overheard. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and people started sharing their own stories with me. This experience formed the basis of my “Pitch to the Publisher” at Word on the Street in 2013, which resulted in a contract with Formac Publishing. At that point the book pivoted from just being about my North-end neighbourhood to all of HRM, including neighbourhoods that are typically under represented. I wanted to celebrate the moments of connection that can happen anywhere; whether at a Tim Hortons, in a parking lot, on a sports field, or at an after-school program. There was a real sense of adventure and discovery, as I went to places I had never been before, drawing and ‘seeing’ what would happen. So the book acts as an invitation to the reader to similarly discover new places on their own. I also tried my best to be aware of my own position, often as an outsider, and be respectful in how I represented people.

You’ve also illustrated books written by other people, including EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street by Sheree Fitch and A Pocket of Time by Rita Wilson. What is that process like? Do you work collaboratively or quite separately?

The author and illustrator work separately, with the publisher, mainly the editor, acting as a liaison, and of course the designer also has a voice in the process.  However, I had met both Sheree and Rita before getting started, which is fairly unusual, but helped in connecting with their work, and motivated me to do the very best work I could. In both cases I got a small amount of feedback after the initial sketches, but that was communicated via the editor, Whitney Moran.

I know that A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop is very special to you. Why is that?

The project had a feeling of being ‘fated’. Both the author, Rita Wilson, and I, have spent many years separately researching Bishop, including both staying at Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, as artists in residence. On my part, I had also travelled to several of her homes in Brazil, during a six-week artist residency in Rio. I have also been working on a film project with John Scott, creating images for his forthcoming feature length documentary film about her life. So I feel very invested in Bishop, in a really lovely way. To happen upon Rita’s book project and get to just ask if I could illustrate it was like a dream come true. I think I love Bishop so much because of the clear love for Nova Scotia expressed in her work, alongside her obvious need for travel. I think I can relate to that!

Do you see yourself writing your own children’s books? Why or why not?

I have a few ideas, kicking around. I am trusting that when the time is right, that might happen. For now, I have been too busy with other projects. I do enjoy how the Hand Drawn books are words and pictures together, for adults as much as for children. I think we all have an innate need to look at art and ‘listen’ to stories though pictures…. 

What picture books captured your imagination as a child? What picture books do you recommend today?

I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with illustrations by Graham Rust, Roahld Dahl’s books illustrated by Quentin Blake, books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, John Bergman, Beatrix Potter, Rosy’s Garden by Satomi Ichikawa,  and Winnie the Pooh illustrated by EH Shepard.

I have to say I still have a soft spot for the old favourites, but I also am inspired by how dynamic the picture book world is today. The most recent children’s book I bought and enjoyed is My Best Friendby Julie Fogliano, with illustrations by Jillian Tamaki, and I am excited for Jillian’s forthcoming book Our Little Kitchen.

How has life been like for you during the pandemic? What aspects of quarantine and staying home do you like? What are some of the first things you’ll do when stay-at-home orders are lifted?

It was quite dramatic in that I moved across the country on March 27th. My initial plan was to move to Victoria on April 2nd, but I sped up my decision as it was seeming like interprovincial travel might be stopped. I completed a 14-day quarantine on arrival, which was made easier because I had some friends drop over groceries and basic kitchen supplies. Since getting through the quarantine, I have mostly been self isolating, and just treating each day as a new day, trying to be gentle on my expectations of myself. Luckily there have been no restrictions on visiting city parks, and there is so much nature to enjoy here in Victoria. During my daily walks I will see owls, otters, sea lions, eagles and more! Also lots of lush plants and blossoms. I am returning to my love of ballet, doing online dance classes, and keeping connected with family and friends via phone and Zoom. As we look towards some of the restrictions I look forward to visiting my parents and siblings in Vancouver.

What project are you engaged in right now?

The intention was to be fully engaged in promoting the launch of Hand Drawn Vancouver this month, with many events planned in Vancouver by my publisher, Appetite of Penguin Random House Canada. However, due to the pandemic, the release date is now June 23rd, and so far the only event still planned is an online exhibition of drawings via the West Van Memorial Library, coming up on June 10th. I do have plenty to work on in the meantime, including getting started on Hand Drawn Victoria, which will also be published by Appetite. It will be interesting to see how much of the ‘new normal’ will influence the book.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

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