One Illustrator’s Journey
By Marjorie van Heerden
A talk with slide show/power point - given at the Children’s Book Forum annual meeting - July 2003

Photograph of The Parthenon

Before I can tell you about my experience as an illustrator in Greece
I need to take you back a few years, twenty years to be exact. In 1983 I did my first professional illustrations for a book that was published. At that time we were living in Stellenbosch and it was a different time and a different world. The book was Soetlemoen en Nartjie by Cecilia Saayman.
A few months later Human & Rousseau published Die Een Groot Bruin Beer and this was the first book I wrote and illustrated.
When I look back at these first steps I am convinced that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Some months later we went to live in Chicago for just over a year and this is where I made my first contact with world famous children’s book illustrators and their work.

I fell in love with people like Maurice Sendak and the brave creativity of their work. 

Illustration from Jack and Guy (Maurice Sendak)
 Our two children were still very young and fortunately very keen “readers”, in inverted commas at that age, but nevertheless this provided me with the perfect laboratory to test the new books I discovered every day in the vast bookshops of Chicago.

Illustration from Where the Wild Things are (Maurice Sendak)
I realised that a picture book relies as much on its visuals as on its words, if not more so. This may seem obvious, but you will be surprised at how many writers do not share that view – this is one of the things that struck me when I got to know our colleagues in Greece better. I was surprised to see how under-rated the illustrator’s contribution to children’s literature is in that wonderfully rich old culture.

Illustration of Peanutbutter
Anyway, after our stay in Chicago we moved back to Stellenbosch and in the following years I was very fortunate to publish quite a number of picture books like the Peanutbutter series. And I also illustrated for some really fine children’s book writers.

Studio in Linden
In 1988 my husband, Johann’s work took us to Johannesburg. We found a lovely big house, with a large garden in Linden and we built a wooden shack in the backyard, which I made into my studio.
I worked in that studio, under a huge Eucalyptus tree for ten years. These were very important formative years in my work as an illustrator and writer. They were also very important formative years for our two children. We were fortunate enough to have a large Jacuzzi on the stoep outside the bedroom. This became the scene of our daily family gathering. Every evening after work the four of us met in the warm bubbling water and discussed the day. This was a ritual we followed 365 days a year, summer and winter. Sometimes for only fifteen minutes and sometimes for hours. And so the years passed.

Illustration of Monasteraki (Papas)
And then, one December evening we were sitting in the Jacuzzi. Alexia was home on holiday from UCT and Markus had just received his Matric results and was also preparing to go and study in Cape Town. My husband and I were facing the dreaded “empty nest”. And then Johann dropped the bombshell, “How would you feel about Mamma and I going to live in Greece for the next four years?”

21 Euripides Street

He was working for M-Net at the time and they had offered him a contract job with a sister company in Athens. If we accepted, he was to start on the first of March 1999, just over two months later.
Those were two very busy months! When I touched ground again, we had moved into a lovely house in Dionysos, about 30 kilometres north of downtown Athens. 21 Euripides Street sits in a beautiful indigenous pine forest on the slope of Mount Pendeli. Incredibly, the mountain is one solid block of pure white marble. 
A Marble Mine on/in Mount Pendeli

This is where the ancient Greeks mined the marble to build the Parthenon and many other Athenian landmarks.
The house had an attic room just perfect for an artist’s studio, with windows facing north towards Marathon and Thessalonica.

My  Studio at 21 Euripides Street
The View
On a clear day I could see from my work bench, five mountain ranges including the Parnassus Mountains where Delphi sits perched against the hang.

Sanctuary at Delphi
I would imagine that I could hear the chanting of the oracle and Zeus’s eagles screeching overhead on their way back to the navel of the earth in the centre of the sanctuary of the Oracle of Delphi.
I unpacked my library of children’s books and all my art stuff and could feel the ancient magic all around me – so different to the African magic which was my earliest influence and inspiration.
My dear friend, Joan Rankin has the normal sixth sense that all women have, but then she has a few more. When I told her about us moving to Greece, her first reaction was, “I wonder how your illustrations will change.” Joan has a wonderful grasp of life and the world we live in. She went on to explain that she believes that wherever you live, your creativity is also influenced by the stars and their cosmic effect. I was intrigued and I could not wait to see if and how her theory would work in my case.
Anyway, we settled in and I quickly got to know the lie of the land. Within the first week I got the hang of the busses and trains and I worked out my own version of sign language along with a few badly pronounced Greek words. Trying to communicate outside of the tourist areas gave a new meaning to the old saying, “It’s Greek to me.”

Pencil drawing of the Market (Papas)
I soon found the ancient fresh market where the housewives buy their fruit and vegetables and meat and fish, exactly where there great-grandmothers did two millennia ago. So, now we had food on the table.
And then I went out and, wandering through the winding narrow streets of Athens, I found all the bookshops that sell children’s books and books in English. As a welcome-to-Greece gift Johann bought me a bright yellow Volkswagen beetle...

Photograph of the Yellow VW Beetle
This little beetle was probably purring around the streets of Athens even in the days of the Junta, the early Seventies. The Greeks do not call it a beetle, they call it SKARAVIOS, the Scarab – I like that!
Our life in Athens was good! Being in Europe gave us the opportunity to travel a lot, and relatively cheaply. We explored the Greek islands on scooters, the best way to get around.
After a while I became quite wild and I drove the scooter with confidence, wearing my favourite purple jacket and my broad-rimmed hat while negotiating risky dirt roads and softly humming love songs.

We visited  Santorini
and Crete... 
  and Cyprus... 

and Prague... 

and Italy...
 and Istanbul (or Konstantinopolis as the Greeks insist on calling it).
  In Greece we also explored the main land and we saw wonderful places like Delphi and Meteora... 
and Olympia and Mycenae and Epidauros in the Peloponnesus.

Amongst ancient ruins and old monasteries built in the most unlikely, but heavenly spots, I spoke to the spirits of oracles and gods. Sculptures and gargoyles watched me passing by in my purple jacket. We climbed up castle staircases and felt the presence of knights long gone and we wandered through medieval buildings and old market places.
We ate the regional dishes and we slept under 2,000-year-old olive trees.
Johann under an Olive Tree
Sometimes the temperature was in the 40’s and then we swam in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean.
Johann, Markus & me
Sometimes it got really cold. Even in sunny Athens, at our house on Mount Pendeli, we had snow every winter.
Once we were snowed in for three weeks over Christmas, so we ate mussels and drank Glühwein in front of a roaring fire. 

 And even the snow did not stop Johann from making a braai when we were tired of seafood!

We loved this new life and this new environment.
Illustration from The King’s Equal
We did and saw so many things and I was always aware of the energy and the wonderful light surrounding me.
Illustration from The King’s Equal
All of this was constantly feeding the artist living inside of me.
Illustrations from Greek Books
When we first arrived in Greece, I was in the final stages of completing a five-year project. While we were still in Johannesburg I conceptualised, wrote and illustrated The Bright Books reading series.
I finished the final illustrations in my new Greek studio.
And the moment the courier collected the last parcel full of illustrations I started to make contact with the local children’s book writers and illustrators. I contacted them through the Greek branch of IBBY and we had our first meeting in the coffee shop of a bookstore.
And once again the gods on Olympus smiled on me; one of the writers Voula Mastori, was looking at some of my work over her coffee and suddenly she said, “I have just finished a children’s book, how would you like to illustrate it?”
The book was called The Moon Story and for the first time my name appeared on the cover of a book in Greek letters!
And for the first time my illustrations were called, IKONOGRAFISI, – I was thrilled! Over the years some of my work has been published in five of our official languages and in French and German and Swahili and four different languages in Malawi and three in Uganda and seven languages in Zambia and so on. But this was different – Greek letters just look so great – sort of classical and important!
And so began my involvement with the children’s book world in Greece. At first I was just doing illustrations for Greek children’s book writers and I hosted regular children’s book teas at my house.
I illustrated a lovely book for the writer Vangelis Eliopoulos.
It was called The Three Teapots and again I found myself drawing friendly green dragons, but this time they spoke in Greek! The illustrations are quite dark, but I could feel the influence of the northerly light in the colours that appeared on the paper as I worked.
Then a very exciting opportunity came my way – again those smiling gods on Olympus! The publishing house Pataki got the Greek rights for Katherine Paterson’s The King’s Equal

I have always admired the work of this brilliant American author and I was very happy to do a set of new illustrations for her book.

Unfortunately the publishers could only afford black and white illustrations and a full-colour cover, but I actually enjoyed the discipline of showing Katherine’s interesting characters in monochrome drawings.
While working with these Greek publications I also started the Greek branch of the international Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators with another writer I met in Athens. I will tell you more about the Society later this evening.
Years ago, when we moved back from the USA to Stellenbosch I organised the first international Children’s Book symposium in South Africa. Many of you will remember that symposium and that it was there that we decided to start this Children’s Book Forum. Anyway, I decided to get some of my new Greek colleagues together and to organise an International Symposium on the island of Hydra

Our theme was May the Myth be your Muse and it all turned out to be great fun. We were fortunate to get excellent speakers like the brilliant writer/illustrator Tony Ross and there are few more beautiful spots for such a happening as this lovely Island near Athens.

Steve Mooser, President of SCBWI in Hydra
And while all this was going on I realised that what Joan had predicted, was starting to happen...
During those last few years, working in Johannesburg, I was almost exclusively involved in developing, writing and illustrating educational books. I was working to impossible deadlines, but somehow I always managed to make those deadlines!
I found that I was depending more and more on my memory for reference material and for colour and light. My illustrations became a world where all the emphasis was on the characters living in an environment of very little real or interesting background. The educational books were important and it felt good to be able to make a contribution, but somehow my world as an illustrator was becoming smaller and less interesting.
Now, living in Dionysos amongst those timeless indigenous pine forests, my vision and my imagination started opening up again.
These trees do not grow fast and straight like the pine trees in South Africa’s plantations of imported non-African trees.
In these natural Mediterranean forests the trees grow much more slowly and they weave up towards the sun whose beams peep through the pine needles and, like fingers, touch the forest floor.
Sometimes I would go walking in the forest and I would marvel at the gentle play of the sunlight.
Sometimes I would sit at my desk in the studio and I could see so far and I could see layers of colour that show the distance much farther than the eye should really be able to see. Much farther than any photograph could show you.
Or I would walk around in Athens, making eye contact with many sad dogs and negotiating around many more lazy cats. And I would find my senses come alive, seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling – just touching life. I wanted to put it all into my illustrations. I became swept along, hungry to try to capture a colour, a movement I saw. 

My paper, pencils, crayons and paint were not media to use for illustrating, but they became vehicles to take me on a journey. I became obsessed to try and work out exactly what the light was doing and how to replicate the colours, the light and the shadows around me.

Me at Apollo’s Temple (Delphi)
As for the writing of my stories; at one time I was really struggling with a piece of text. And then one day we visited Delphi again.

Me at Apollo’s Temple (Delphi)
I decided to take the draft along and to try again while we were at the oracle’s sanctuary. This is one of those magical places on earth. It has that magic that has touched human consciousness for many centuries, like the pyramids in Egypt or the Victoria waterfall or Meteora or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. These very special places have been spots of worship and quiet for so many generations and Delphi is to me one of the most special.
While the family went exploring I sat down on the steps at the remains of Apollo’s temple and I took out my pencil and my draft text. The muses came out from behind the trees, smiled at me and the words just started to flow.
And so every place we visited, every person I met, every scene I saw became another thing I could learn from. Yes, it was not only the natural beauty around me that was responsible for the changes in my head and in my illustrations; some of the people I met also had a profound effect on my work.
I remember a conversation with Harriett Barton, an art director from America who attended the Hydra Symposium. She showed me how, what she called “a sense of place” could take my illustrations into a different dimension. With a few words, she made me realise how to merge all the things I sensed around me into my illustration.

Illustration of Grandpa and Boy
A sense of place! I realised that it is not just a tree in the background of my illustration, but it is also the shadow of the tree, the wind that plays with its branches, and the sun that touches its individual leaves... But let me not get carried away again!
The past four years were wonderful, but eventually it became time to pack up again. As my husband always says, “When you reach the end of a chapter, turn the page and read on. The next chapter may just be even better than the one you have just read!” Johann never looks back. He is always on the lookout for what may be waiting around the next corner. He also has a saying he often quotes, “When you’re on a journey and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realise that the real end is the journey.”

So, it became time to pack up again and to leave Dionysos. It was time to turn the page. It snowed on our forest while I was packing and while the movers were wrapping our things and putting them all into a huge container to ship across the ocean. And when we arrived in Cape Town the bright African sun was shining! We have gone full circle and we are back in the Cape, where my journey started.
The most exciting thing is that, although I have turned the page, all those feelings have not gone away. All around me I can see colours, shapes, light and shadows that are, if not more so, just as exciting as the ones I experienced during my four years stay in Greece. These are the sights I grew up with, but somehow I see them differently now. Can it be because of my Greek experience or am I just a bit further down the road on my journey?
We now live in Gordon’s Bay and once again I have my studio in the attic and I have a window over my desk, this time with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, of False Bay
  My work area is new, but very familiar. I have started working again and the first book I have illustrated is already with the publisher.
But now, after a long round trip, after 15 years I am back in the Cape and I look at my situation and my work with new eyes. Dionysos was a wonderful chapter in my life, but here in the Fairest Cape the light is also magical and the sunset is quite humbling.
It is good to be back home... 
 and the journey continues...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  

Athens – June 2001

Calliope:  Please tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in children’s books?
Marjorie:  I grew up on a farm near Cape Town in South Africa and from an early age I loved reading and I loved drawing.  In South Africa there was no television before I was 26 years old, so reading books was one of our main sources of entertainment.  I also had lots of time to spend in my studio.  After school I studied Art at university and later worked as a graphic designer in advertising.  It was only when my daughter was born and I started reading to her (literally from the day that she was born!) when I re-discovered children’s books.  That is when I became fascinated again, this time as an adult and a mother, by the illustrated picture book.  I realised, through the eyes of my young child, the unique power and the beauty of picture books and it became my dream to write and to illustrate my own books for very young “readers”.

Calliope:  Which came first, the writing or the illustrating?  And for you, how are they related?

Marjorie:  My first breaks were to be commissioned to illustrate picture books written by other authors.  At this stage I was quite happy to only create visual images for the written word.  To be honest, I doubted my own ability to write really good books for kids.  I had learnt to realise how truly difficult it is, while it seems so, so simple.  My first editor, however, encouraged me very strongly to try.  And my husband, who is an academic and an avid reader, always believed in my ability and always supported my efforts.  And that is how I eventually took the plunge and wrote my first picture book.  Maybe because I am so visually oriented, my stories often start with a very strong visual image.  The story lines, the characters and the words form around the images in my head.  To me a good picture book has to result from a perfect harmony between the text and the illustration.  Neither is more important than the other.  Like the voices in a canon the words and the pictures flow together.  The words create the visual images, their form, their colour, their flow, their rhythm and their energy. The illustrations should become the words, their narrative, their humour, their irony, their emotions.

Calliope:  In your workshop, “Getting Started”, you made many helpful points.  Could you summarize what advice you have for new authors who aren’t sure how to begin?

Marjorie:  You have to know yourself.  You must always remember that you are an adult writing for a child.  You have to also know your reader.  Never read your own work as an adult – read it as the open young mind it is created for.  Try to find the child inside yourself again.  See and experience the joy and, above all the wonder of life as a child does.  See and experience things for the very first time, the way a young child does. Never, ever underestimate a young child’s intelligence or intuition.  Keep in mind that these kids were designed to absorb and to learn and to enjoy – all they need is the right stimulation, the right triggers. The seeds of thousands of wonderful stories are there right inside your head.  And you are gathering more each day.  Your strongest and most influential memories are almost always those of your childhood. Just forget about trying to be a “writer” and simply tell your story to that child inside of you.

Calliope:  Many new writers and illustrators complain about time management.  Can you tell us how you manage to produce so prolifically?  Any advice for others, especially those who also work at other jobs?

Marjorie:  Conceptualising, writing and illustrating picture books, like many other ventures, is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  It is damned hard work!  And it takes a lot of self-discipline.  I am in the very fortunate position that my writing and illustrating is my full-time occupation.  So, every weekday morning at about eight I go to work and I work a full day of between eight and ten hours. My studio, my “office”, happens to be in my house, but that does not change the fact that I go to the office every day.  I also have other responsibilities.  I do not have a maid or a housekeeper, so if there is washing or ironing or shopping or other chores to be done, then I schedule (budget) my time for those jobs.  In this respect I function like many other women who also work full days and still manage to keep the house.

Before I start on a new book I spend quite a lot of time working out a realistic work schedule, with specific set targets and specific target dates – I draw up a “project plan”.   And then I try to stick to it.  This is not always possible, but for me it is the only way to work.  It is not that I am overly flexible with the “project plan” and the schedule but I try to remain realistic and I never lower the standards by which I measure my final work.  The artistic quality of the end product is the ultimate measure and not the efficiency of successfully sticking to a time schedule.  Often a publisher’s deadline dictates the final drop-dead date.  Then, sometimes, I simply have to put in lots of overtime and weekends.  Fortunately I am blessed with a husband who does not mind preparing the odd dinner and he loves washing up dishes.  When I do have to push hard to meet a deadline, the challenge is to remain creative and to meet the deadline without compromising quality – this is when I remind myself that once the book comes off the press it stands against my name for ever…

I have huge admiration for anybody who can successfully write or illustrate part-time.  I wish I could offer a magic formula for a writer or an illustrator who has to earn a living at doing another day job, but I can not.   If your aim is to be published, then I absolutely believe that you and others should take yourself as an artist, and your work as a writer or illustrator seriously.  If you want to do it as a hobby, then remain an amateur and love it, as the word “amateur” indicates – there is nothing wrong with that!  You may not succeed in being published, but you can still enjoy the wonder and the satisfaction of creative work.  If you do have the ambition to be published, then my only advice is to make the time, even if it is only two hours a night and ten or twelve hours over weekends.  But then dedicate yourself to spend those hours “at the office” – make a contract with yourself and your family.  Like an adult part-time student, who works at a profession every day and who has to set aside the time for dedicated study every evening, you will have to create those set blocks of time for your 10% inspiration and your 90% perspiration!

Finally, never think about the money!  If you are destined to be the next JK Rowling, it will happen.  In the meantime, even if you cannot get your book published, you can still create a lovely work of art that you can enjoy yourself and that you can share with your own or your friends’ children in the one and only original artist’s copy.

Calliope:  Can you talk a bit about that illusive ‘inspiration’?  For illustrations?  For stories?
Marjorie:  I have already alluded to the 10% inspiration.  I honestly believe in that ratio.  And I do not believe that inspiration is “illusive”.  If one immerses oneself in the world of children’s stories and pictures for eight to ten hours every day, then the "inspiration" just magically happens.  Scientifically it might be slightly inaccurate, but I believe the strongest muscle in the human body is the brain.  The more you exercise it, the more it thinks and the more it creates ideas!  I have also surrounded myself with illustrated children’s books for the past twenty-five years.  My personal collection numbers more than 50,000 titles.  I dip into them over and over again and I often exercise my brain muscle by reading the words and savouring the pictures.  What is illusive, though, are those wonderful moments of spontaneous inspiration, which come from suddenly seeing and noticing a thing of beauty.  I find beauty very, very simulating and, yes, inspirational.  To see a really good work of art.  To see the beauty in a simple everyday thing in nature.  To see a child laughing.   Inspiration lies everywhere in the everyday things in life around me.  Sometimes a single visual image can inspire a whole story line, with characters and plot complete.  Sometimes a person or a character can inspire a story - or an animal or a flower or an ancient monument or a single news item in the morning paper.  Or a tiny, lost kitten on the steps of the Parthenon.  An innocent comment by a child or a simple question or an observation can lead to a story.  It all comes from life all around me. When my daughter was six, she had heard and read so many stories that she made up a wonderfully original story herself and she told it to me.  Quite a number of years later that story became a published picture book with her name on the cover as the author and mine as the illustrator.

The story and the pictures are so interrelated in my head that I cannot say that the inspiration for one is different from the inspiration for the other.  Sometimes a story idea is the germ of the book and very often a single visual image is.

Calliope:  What was your favorite project so far and why!

Marjorie:  My favourite project tends to be the one I happen to be working on.  I always feel that it is going to be better than the last one.  I find that I am growing all the time, as a writer and even more so as an illustrator.  Each new book I work on is an exciting new experience.   And always different!

Although creating picture books is my first love and not so-called educational readers, I do feel very proud of the reading series I conceptionalised, wrote and illustrated, the Bright Books.  This series of sixteen fully illustrated picture books takes the child from the very first day of reading at school, through to the end of the third school year.  It was specifically designed for the historically disadvantaged kids in South Africa and it is currently prescribed in many schools there.  The project took me five years of hard work, lots of research and a solid 90% of perspiration!  Not only do I feel proud as a writer and illustrator, but I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in my own small way to the education of the kids in my country where historically, through the whims of politicians, so many of them had to go through life totally illiterate.

Having said that, I have to repeat that every new project is an adventure.  The most exhilarating part is that Eureka! moment of inspiration.  The fun part is the long slog and many hours of taking one step at a time up that high mountain of putting it all into words and pictures.  The hard part is pouring my first cup of tea in the morning and looking through yesterday’s work and then realising that I have to redo it all, because it simply is not good enough.  The frightening part is when I look through the proofs and am given my final chance to give my last input.  And the moment of gratitude for having been given this gift of creativity is when the publisher hands me the first copy off the press.