August 21, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #78: Cátia Chien

I had the pleasure of working with Cátia Chien about a year and a half ago over at All the Wonders when the team took a closer look Elaine Magliaro's Things to Do (I maintain that this is still one of the best features we put together!). So when her new book The Town of Turtle, written by Michelle Cuevas, came across my desk I knew without a doubt that I wanted to talk to Cátia about it. Now, four months after the book has been out in the world, I finally have a chance to share our conversation with you about a book that cannot help but lift the spirits of everyone who reads it. 

About the book:
When a solitary turtle decides to make some renovations to his shell, he doesn’t have a blueprint, only a dream for a better life. He starts by building a deck—though he figures the deck could use a fireplace. And a fireplace needs wood, so naturally, he plants a garden. But it isn’t really a garden without a pond . . . Soon, Turtle can barely recognize his own shadow.

Finally satisfied with the intricate world upon his back, word begins to spread of the magical “Town of Turtle,” attracting newcomers from far and wide. All are welcome in Turtle’s town, where life is a little less lonely, if only you come out of your shell.

Let's talk Cátia Chien!

LTPB: When you received the manuscript for The Town of Turtle, what about it drew you in? How did you work with Michelle Cuevas's text to create your own illustrative story? 

CC: What attracted me to the manuscript was the way the story highlights dreams on multiple levels. On the one level, the story is about a lonely turtle who dreams of having friends and builds a town in response. On another level, the story is about a community who dreams of finding a better home and migrates to the Town of Turtle in response. As an immigrant living in America, it was exciting for me to illustrate a book that shows, even in a small way, what I hope to see in the world: a happy ending for those seeking asylum and refuge. I included little flags as a way to quietly highlight this important part of the story. And on the last page of the story I added the narrative of everyone in The Town of Turtle raising a flag that includes all the colors of all the flags to represent diversity and inclusion.

In addition to the opportunity to add to the story, as an artist, I found it truly exciting to imagine Turtle’s dream as a lucid tangible object and what that would look like. And outside of dreams, I also had fun turning the people in the story into animals—instead of a postman I had a whaleman, instead of a ballerina a dancing cat, instead of a topiarist it was a pangolin and so on.

LTPB: How do you use the books you work on to learn and grow as an illustrator? How do you ensure you keep coming up with creative ideas?

CC: I’m not always successful at fulfilling my vision, but it is always my intention, to grow my craft and discover new things with every book I illustrate. And to this end, much of my creative process is about making sure I give ample time to research new images, ample time to look at the sky and give time for things to settle. Although to be honest, time is hard to come by these days since becoming a mom! It just means that things take longer than before. But it helps to fill my head with new inspiration so that I don’t keep going to the same places for creative solutions.

LTPB: What kind of research did you do on the legend of the World Turtle (wherein a turtle supports the entire world on its back) for this story? Where did you draw your inspiration?

CC: I didn’t do any formal research on the World Turtle legend. For The Town of Turtle, I simply took Michelle Cueva’s story at face value. And for inspiration, I create mood boards, which I put together from images I find on the internet and in books from the library. They are typically just collections of images that intrigue me for some reason from photography, cinema, fine art, other picture books, etc. And I also draw inspiration from people I meet. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to co-teach a workshop with Christian Robinson, and I got to see his approach to paper collage. It looked so fun, I wanted to try it for a book. I like the way multimedia creates play and unexpected results, but in the past I’ve reserved this for my sketchbooks or preliminary book brainstorms, never for a final. But seeing Christian’s sophisticated and yet fun process reminded me of how much fun it is to play, and it gave me the confidence to try it in a book. Thanks Christian!

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

CC: I used several mediums for The Town of Turtle, including charcoal pencils, pastels, collage, and acrylic paint. But I think I prefer painting, mostly with acrylic, that seems to be my one constant. But I love charcoal pencils too. I don’t know. I feel like I’m always changing, so I want to leave room for that. Actually, I am very intimated by inks, so maybe I will try them more in the future. Also, I would love to one day do a book that incorporates printmaking. I see so much potential there for experimentation.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

CC: I have a couple of projects in the works right now. Leonard Marcus invited me to contribute to a graphic novel showcase at the Eric Carle Museum next year, so I’m illustrating a chapter from a comic that my husband Michael Belcher wrote. That will be in February of 2019.

I am also working on a picture book with Chronicle. It’s about a bear and a moon, and it was written by Matthew Burgess. I’m so thrilled to be working with Matthew!

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

CC: I would be so honored to have Yuri Norstein illustrate it. He is one of the father’s of Russian animation, and I admire his work so much! Or I would love it if Beatrice Alemagna or Carson Ellis or Christian Robinson would illustrate it. They are each so sensitive in the way they use their craft to tell stories. I know they would bring nuances and surprises that are uniquely their own!

Thank you so, so much to Cátia for taking time to answers some questions! The Town of Turtle published from HMH Books for Young Readers earlier this year!

Special thanks to Cátia and HMH for use of these images!

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