January 18, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #94: Elise Peterson

In Brontez Purnell's The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett Jacuzzi balances "normal" childhood issues like not fitting in at school and wondering if people in galaxies far, far away have it easier than he, with watching his younger brother for hours at a time and coming to grips with hating his mother's boyfriend. Although the story is technically fiction, these are real issues experienced by children every day. Add in Elise Peterson's mixed media collage illustrations, and the entire story suddenly feels like a scrapbook: the story becomes even more grounded in reality because not only is the story relatable, but the illustrations themselves are photos pulled from Elise's own life. It was an honor to chat with Elise about her process for bringing this story to life in a visual way.

About the book:
The first children's book from multi-genre artist Brontez Purnell, a 2018 winner of the Whiting Award, sweetly portrays a common but rarely narrated childhood experience—having a single parent and taking care of a younger sibling. With illustrations by Brooklyn artist Elise R. Peterson, The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett recounts 11-year-old Jacuzzi's evening activities while he cares for his baby brother and waits for mama's arrival home. He ponders his dad, school, and his future—and when his brother wakes up, Jacuzzi knows just how to get him back to sleep.

Let's talk Elise Peterson!

LTPB: When you received the manuscript for The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, what drew you in? What did you connect with? How does the story connect with the themes you explore in your own artwork? 

EP: I was initially ignited by the prospect of bringing to life the narrative of a Black boy who, Brontez Purnell, wrote in such a dynamic and complex way while weaving in the very layered experience of being raised by a single mom. Having shared the experience of being raised by a single mother, I really connected with the subtle yet bold, joyous wonder that was highlighted in the book along with the threads of inescapable truth. Far too often, we are plagued with the one note tragedies of single parenthood. Working on this book also became a space of catharsis for me. My estranged biological father had passed away the same year, and I was still trying to find my place in mourning. Missing someone I had no recollection of. I used real images from my father and I to help visually narrate the story. Specifically there is a page in the book where Brontez writes of Jaccuzzi’s dad “with faraway eyes” sitting on the couch. One of the few photographs of my father is of him in a parallel moment. In my own practice, I work to confront hard truths in my own experiences along with those around me. Working on The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett provided the space for me to continue to explore the timelessness of truth.

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

EP: Collage is my first love and go to approach with 2D work. The idea of using, many times, extraneous materials in order to create a a new world is just my kind of exciting challenge. I primarily focused on found materials around my home like foil and origami paper, 35mm photographs, scanned archival images and pastels.

LTPB: As this is your second picture book for children, what do you feel like you learned from How Mamas Love Their Babies that made you a stronger illustrator for Nightlife

EP: I really tapped into what my style as an illustrator is. I have always worked in collage, but transitioning my personal practice into a book narrative was more difficult than I anticipated. In the spirit of collage, making the most out of many materials I already had access to forced me to become more imaginative in the world I was creating. It was the final additional of the pastel touches that I think really rounded out my overall aesthetic. 

LTPB: You are first and foremost an artist, so theoretically you have autonomy over your your entire process. What is it like, then, to relinquish that autonomy and illustrate someone else’s ideas? 

EP: I’m humbled by the privilege to bring to life someone else’s story. There’s a challenge and also freedom when working within the parameters of someone else’s mind. The best part as an illustrator is visually propelling a story to a place the author hadn’t imagined.

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

EP: I’m working on a multimedia art installation that will be opening in LA this April. Here’s the tiniest preview of the energy from the space. So excited to share more! I’m really pushing my creative approach with this project. I’m also always building on my Cool Moms podcast which will be launching our website this Spring. Collaborating on creating visuals to live in another medium was also super exciting.

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

EP: Ha! No one can tell your story better than you.

Thank you to Elise for chatting with me! The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett published earlier this year from Dottir Press.

Special thanks to Elise and Dottir Press for use of these images!

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