February 18, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #132: Masha Manapov

Today I'm excited to share my interview with illustrator, designer, and artist extraordinaire Masha Manapov about her author debut Ariba. Ariba humorously celebrates community and the joy of storytelling, and it was an honor to catch up with Masha and talk about how she created this special book. Enjoy!

About the book:
Marcus' joy over his new pair of shoes reminds his grandfather of an old story about a boy named Ariba who has the most unusual relationship with an extraordinary pair of shoes. Because no matter how many times Ariba tries to get rid of his shoes, they always seem to find their way back to him. After all, why would shoes caked, baked and layered with stories ever want to find a new owner? For in life, just as we claim a few precious things as our own, there are also those rare things that claim us.

Let's talk Masha Manapov!

LTPB: Am I correct that Ariba is your author debut? Congratulations! Where did the story come from? What was your inspiration? 

MM: You are correct, thank you. The book tells a story within a story based on an African folktale which l was introduced to years ago. I illustrated a book about a man who is trying to get rid of his shoes and after the book was published, I felt that there is another story to tell and new illustrations should complete it. The folktale is based on a classified motif called Unavailing attempt to get rid of slippers; they always return and every country tells it a bit differently. I referred to the Ethiopian version of the folktale and with some help from my mom wrote a new story. I believe that the inspiration came from the initial visual world which developed over time and of which I wasn't yet ready to say goodbye.

LTPB: What challenges did you encounter since this was your first book as an author? 

MM: One of my main objectives was that this book has to have its own right to exist in the world and that it has to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. There were moments I felt that we were going off track and retelling existing classics. I also tried to avoid moralising or instructing with clear structure of right and wrong. There is a sense of that in the story so it was a very careful navigation. And there is obviously the factor of working with my mom. Originally, I wrote the main draft while storyboarding almost simultaneously to allow words and visuals to complete each other. Then she helped me fill up the gaps and to add character in a few areas. We are very similar creatively but our delivery style is very different. She is very descriptive, impulsive and works with her heart while I’m more rational, grounded and prefer to say only the bare minimum. As a whole we completed each other in a hilarious, manic and satisfying process. 

LTPB: How did you use previous books you illustrated to create Ariba?

MM: My experience as a designer and editorial illustrator contributed to the process because these are both problem solving disciplines. 

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the book? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations change? 

MM: Maybe I better show you? The visual evolution actually spans across 7 years which is a lot for an artist, in sense of style. On both times, the creative process evolved around stepping back from reality to abstract and finding a place where I feel comfortable and yet challenged enough. 

My relationship with the book evolved through the characters. Working on them made me emotionally connect to the book and develop this sense of ownership, which is absent in my day-to-day commissioned work. In editorial illustration or in any client relationship no matter how permissive they are, I always feel a bit of a guest or as if someone is borrowing or trusting me with their dear possession which I need to return after use. I embrace these limitations because in general I think that boundaries are essential. In this book there were a few points where I felt I could “take my shoes off” and feel at home and it felt amazing. Luckily, Claudia, the Enchanted Lion publisher, didn’t question these visual decisions and gave me her trust in me from the very start. Which is not taken for granted at all.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

MM: I worked digitally while using a library of textures and elements, which I created manually. Editorial experience brought me to using this method of work over recent years because short timeframes don’t leave too much time for experimenting. By my nature I’m drawn to texture, physical world and collaging so I had to make it work for me. In this book I preferred to have more control over the technique and left room for adventure while experimenting with composition, style and storytelling. I tried other manual techniques afterwards in other projects but it didn’t work which lead to a lot of frustration which wasn’t very productive. Freedom is what I’m after and I’m in pursuit after a technique that will take me there.

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books? 

MM: It’s a bit the opposite actually, my main work focuses on commercial illustrations and editorials for magazines. I also work as a designer at an amazing interactive art and science centre. All the above don’t leave too much time to write books therefore I’m very picky with my projects. I do enjoy it though, and am planning to fully commit to it in ten years’ time. 

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

MM: I am just about to start a new project for a theatre festival for children, which should be fun. But if you’re asking me about books, there are two projects that I’m working on at the moment. One of them deals with identity and belonging and it has a boy, a Stranger, an ice cream mountain and a pompier ladder. 

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

MM: Wow, this is not easy. Shouting the first thing that comes to my mind: David Hockney in his early etchings! There is something sombre and yet delicate and sensitive in this series. As fragments, memories or visions that are open to interpretation. It is not a cheerful imagery yet not sentimental and there is something experimental and innovative in this approach.

As an alter ego, it would have been great to be portrayed in orthodox byzantine icons, which would glorify me in gold as a saint in a series of frescos.

A big thank you to Masha for talking to me about her author debut! Ariba published from Enchanted Lion Books late last year!

Special thanks to Masha and Enchanted Lion for use of these images!

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