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November 29, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #232: Sam Winston

I'm so excited to present my interview with Sam Winston here today! Sam's work lives at the intersection of two heavily-connected worlds, fine art and language, and he expertly combines his two passions in his author-illustrator debut One & Everything. I'll let the art and language expert do the show-and-telling from here!

About the book:
Once there were many stories in the world. There were stories with sunsets and wonderful tales filled with fairies and dinosaurs. But one day, a story decided that it was the best, the most important story ever. It called itself the One and started to consume every other story it came across. The One ate stories made of seas and others full of dogs. Soon it seemed that the One was all there was . . . or was it? Inspired by the Endangered Alphabets project, aimed at preserving cultures by sharing their unique scripts, author-illustrator Sam Winston uses writing systems such as cuneiform and Tibetan, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ogham to illustrate this book in his signature typography-based style, using symbols and letters that have relayed the world's stories over the centuries.

Check out a short film about the book:

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Sam Winston!

LTPB: What inspired you to create One & Everything? Have you always had an interest in languages? Can you talk about your research process for this book?

SW: The first picture book project I worked on, A Child of Books, was translated into 23 languages, watching that process of the book travel (and change meaning) into all these different languages and alphabets fascinated me. I was also aware about language loss and wanted to know more about that. The final piece of inspiration was an insight I had some time ago; It takes a change of perspective to change our world. All of those were mixed together to make the book.

early spread

final spread before text added

As for research, at first it was a period of time seeing if we could build an actual book with fifty different languages, that in itself is quite a technical challenge. Once we knew we could and the story was written, we started many conversations with experts in many languages.

At its heart, I hope, it’s a visually vibrant and joyful story that looks to celebrate world culture.

early spread

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book?

SW: On a technical level, having 50 scripts (alphabets, syllabaries, writing systems) in one software file is a big headache. Editorial changes were complicated because the email platform would unintentionally swap letters around and the desktop publishing software also really struggled to properly align everything. I don’t recommend having multiple left and right reading languages on the same page!

That process went on for over five years, in part due to research of all the different scripts and alphabets but also because of the type of imagery I make. The majority of the illustrations are created by a moving and placing single letters at a time.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own?

SW: I have actually never illustrated someone else’s text in a picture book before. I would be interested in the opportunity, but considering how mixed text and image becomes in my style of work – we would need to find an author that is happy to have their words melt into pictures.

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?

SW: I think one of my main points is that words are images too. We often discard the typography to get to the message, but I think we lose a lot when we do that. I am constantly looking for places where words come into being. That can be anything from a typewriter, pencil, letterpress or printer and computer. In this particular instance it was Adobe InDesign (so computer), the program isn’t something traditionally used for Illustration but I like to use it a lot.

A couple of things I hope run through all my image making is craft, process and time. By making sure I slow down and really commit to a picture, I hope to learn something from that process. So, whilst I am always looking for the work to have a cultural conversation, I am also wanting to learn a bit more about my own creative practice.

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

SW: As I was working on this project it became clear that language finding a home in print or on the screen will never be a simple story. Language does not flourish outside of culture and asking how the globalised world can meet our communities is still one of the most pressing questions of our time. It is important that younger generations see their spoken heritage as part of their future. Localisation of culture, especially for children and teenagers, reinforcers the message that their heritage belongs in tomorrow’s world.

That idea is something that still really inspires me. We will be doing some art shows around this and I am also making an artist book looking at how it’s difficult to see languages that don’t have their own scripts.

Oliver Jeffers and I have a new collaboration that also needs finishing soon. That one is inspired by a previous project of mine called ‘a dictionary story’.

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?

SW: Anyone under the age of 5 would do a fantastic job. It’s the time before children are taught anything about art. After that point they suddenly become worried about getting it right or wrong and they begin to self-sensor.

Before then, all you get is honesty, originality and innocence. To me that makes for a great combination. Not only would the words be simple and direct, the illustration would be completely unique as well. What’s not to love.

A million thanks to Sam for answering one and all of my questions! One & Everything published earlier this month from Candlewick Press.

Special thanks to Sam and Candlewick for use of these images!

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