August 18, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #153: Vita Murrow & Ethan Murrow

Today is an exciting day! I am sharing my interview with award-winning duo Vita Murrow and Ethan Murrow. We talk about their latest collaboration Zero Local: Next Stop: Kindness, including the kind story that inspired the book and the highly-unique process work that went into creating the illustrations. Enjoy the read!
About the book: 
Train riders are used to stressful delays on the Zero Local line. But when a new passenger shows gratitude to the driver on their daily commute, tensions begin to ease. Eventually the artistic traveler stops riding the Zero Local line, and discord begins to creep back into the train car. Will the regular passengers find a way to restore the sense of camaraderie they once felt? Inspired by a true story, Ethan and Vita Murrow share with us a tender ode to the power of art and its ability to foster friendship and community in the most unlikely of places.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Vita and Ethan Murrow!

LTPB: What inspired the story we experience in Zero Local? Did you always envision it to be wordless?

VM: Zero Local was inspired by a real-life experience Ethan had a few year ago riding the Orange line train here in Boston. I’ll let him tell it. But I will say, enduring stories of the unexpected change-makers like P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins and the perhaps lesser known The Witches Secret by Frances Charlotte Allen served as mentor texts. And wordless for us meets young readers at an exciting moment in their own development and we hope they feel empowered to join as a storytelling partner. Wordless or limited word also feels democratic, widely accessible and art-forward, which are all really important to us. 

EM: As Vita noted, the book arose from an experience on my regular subway commute in Boston, where riders are often grouchy. I exited the train and walked behind someone who went up to the driver and gave a very brief but genuine thank you. The driver lit up with a huge grin, and I was struck by how simple yet important this act of warmth was in an otherwise bleak environment. I came home, told Vita how happy it had made me to see, and she said, “When are you going to do it too?” I was surprised the next day at how nervous it made me to walk up to the driver, as if I was engaged in a momentous act when really, I knew it was merely a small moment of gratitude. Of course, it was actually the easiest thing I did that day. Sharing a flicker of mutual happiness with someone was deeply satisfying. It is surprisingly hard to shift social trends in spaces like a train where habits become engrained, and ignoring one another is almost assumed behavior. Zero Local advocates for instigating little cracks in our day-to-day drudgery, to recognize those around all of us working hard, helping others and so on, and hopefully to pay this kindness forward into our larger lives. 

LTPB: Am I correct that this is your second book together? Can you tell me about how you co-create your stories and why they’re wordless? 

VM: Yes, our first book The Whale with Templar Big Picture was us dipping our toes in the water and discovering if our strange storytelling edges could be lain into kid lit. Before that we partnered on a short film Dust and for many years, I was Ethan’s Director of Photography for his studio content. 

EM: Our first collaborations were amusingly free-form compared to building books. We would build props, source wardrobe and chat about potential stories without much concern about where it would lead us. We looked for sites like rural coastlines where we could set up and let our minds and work wander throughout long days of playful acting and documentation. These experiments were made into video, film and drawing projects for galleries and museums. I think our books and approach to working together are always rooted in a desire to retain components of this wildness and a willingness to embrace elements of abstraction within narrative structures. Basically, we just want to keep playing. 

LTPB: Why did you create this book in black and white with only the yellow as a pop of color? Why did you choose yellow as the accent color?

VM: We were looking for a way to make the abstract idea of paying it forward concrete with acts of artful kindness. Our search for a way to visually represent a feeling led us to yellow. Also, yellow has some symbolic roots in art, architecture, and the natural world.

EM: The train can be jarring, the same people, the same routine, and then all of a sudden something happens that is surprising, someone gets on who disrupts things for example. We wanted to use a color to signify change and suggest emotional shifts. 

LTPB: Your process for creating and staging the images is pretty great! Can you talk about it? What did you use to create the illustrations for the finished book?

VM: We think so too. We love process so we made ours the most labor-intensive, complicated and playful as possible. We cast actors/talent, build sets, and produce live action photo shoots (with a father-daughter photographer duo, Jess and Stewart Clements), in order to bring our imagined world to life. Our actors and photographers add so much to our storytelling and help us work out how we want things to look, and what is working and what’s not, in ways just the two of us couldn’t access otherwise. 

EM: Yes, the long-winded nature of our process gives us ample time to suss out the story and gives our collaborators lots of chance to contribute to the nuances of the imagery or narrative. The images are built initially via digital collage in Photoshop. Then a stencil of the image is projected on paper. I use Koh-I-Noor woodless graphite pencils on Lenox 100 paper. Finally, the photographer who initially shoots the performance imagery for us documents the artwork. The color was added digitally in collaboration with the art direction team at Candlewick.

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

VM: We are working on a post-apocalyptic arctic mystery. This is the 3rd or 4th generation of a story idea we have been kicking around for years; as a film script, a cartoon, all kinds of stuff. This time we are not using live talent, instead we will be working with puppets, toy models and drawn backdrops. Shake things up a bit (and keep our budget in check). 

EM: I am particularly excited about the fact that this next book has lots of action scenes, which are incredibly hard to draw, but exceedingly fun to set up and execute. 

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

VM: Oh wow what a cool question. As tempting as old inspirations are, for a project about me I’d like to share space with someone contemporary. And partner with another Indian diaspora woman creative entrepreneur (like me). I’m thinking Mumbai-based graphic designer and illustrator Pranita Kocharekar. Or Sydney, Australia-based Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, a comics maker and illustrator, could offer a bold, bright stroke. Or for a more graphic novel hand, the work of Toronto-based Pranisha Shreshta.

EM: Every time we go to Montreal we spend most of a day in the AMAZING store Drawn and Quarterly, an international epicenter of comics, graphic novels and visual literature. Each time I leave the store I realize how much more there is to discover about these fields, worldwide, and how many thousands of amazing artists are creating innovations every day. The store is like a feast so I’d want to choose someone who was advancing things in their own work, perhaps an emerging artist I’d never heard of. But, if forced, I’d choose the funny, minimalist imagery and inventive storytelling of Øyvind Torseter. 

A million thank you's to both Vita and Ethan for taking time to talk about their process with me! Zero Local: Next Stop: Kindness published earlier this year from Candlewick Press!

Special thanks to Vita, Ethan, and Candlewick for use of these images!

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