Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, Brianna Mccarthy

If you read my last post, you know I'm a sucker for Caribbean illustrators and have made it my business to promote the work they do. It would be remiss of me if I didn't include Brianna Mccarthy in that campaign. Mccarthy is a young lady from Trinidad and Tobago whose talent can only be described as dazzling. In her insistent mastery of a single subject matter, Mccarthy reminds me of the great Impressionist painter Edward Degas, who obsessively depicted dancers (ballerinas) in his art. Only with Mccarthy, it's girls. Mccarthy repeatedly draws and paints girls. Beautiful, colored girls. In doing so she displays her mastery in the depiction of African, East Indian and creole physical features. Truly, in her art I see the working out of a Caribbean aesthetic which recognizes and affirms négritude (black consciousness), antillanité (West Indianness), and créolité (transcultural fusing.) Her art simply radiates color consciousness and métissage.

This is the first time Mccarthy's work is being featured on a children's literature blog. Indeed, when I contacted her to solicit an interview I could sense a sort of pleasant surprise in her response. I see great potential for children's illustration in Mccarthy's work and can easily compare her skill and style in watercolor to that of award-winning African-American children's illustrators, Sharda Strikland, E.B. Lewis and even Jerry Pinkney in some respects. There is such a need for illustrations like hers--unapologetic, eloquent images of beautiful, black people-- not only in the general universe of commercial images, but in children’s illustration in general and Caribbean children's illustration in particular.

I guess you can tell that there's just not enough good things I can say about her work :-)

It's painstakingly detailed....

It's highly conceptual...

It's protagonistic (Caribbean Cinderellas anyone?)...

It's versatile....

It's anecdoctal (Don't these illustrations already seem like part of a story?)...

I recently had the pleasure of picking Brianna's brain about her work. Here's what she had to say.

Brianna, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, I really appreciate it.

Thank you for the opportunity! It’s an honour.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Brianna Mccarthy interesting?

I’m a 26 year old, self taught artist. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago and I do my own thing.

Let’s talk about your art. Your drawings are highly recognizable not only for their signature style, but also for their subject matter. You repeatedly depict black/colored women and girls. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice?

Erte’s (Roman de Tirtoff) work had a huge impact on me. Realizing that there wasn’t much of that kind of art featuring black women was a turning point. I thought, “This is fantastic! But where can I find some where the women look like me?” I’m female, black and West Indian – those come with a host of dynamics. I’m certainly influenced by my ethnic make-up or cultural influences as I want to know them intimately – it’s all very beautiful. Someone asked me once why all my paintings were of Black women. I had to think about it. I knew the answer, but what was it? I happen to be Black, female and West Indian; it’s what I identify with and influences how I see myself – therefore, it comes out in my expression.

What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?

Watercolour – I love its fluidity. Graphite, acrylic, ink, cloth, paper, a metal ruler and a scapel. Can’t do much without them!

What is your process for creating an illustration?

Almost every mood I go through inspires me to create – I sketch when I’m bored, I sketch when I’m happy, sad, angry. It’s a quirk but I need to have clean hands and space to move around. I try to keep everything I could possibly need close by as stopping to get things that are missing breaks the vibe especially after 4 or 5 hours of concentrating.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Life. Beauty. My dreams and moments of apparent idleness. The inspiration for the set of layered paper collages I made recently came from attempting to makes the faces I drew into simple shapes – I drew long curving lines and incorporated the shapes and features I believed were staples in my faces – the eyes, cheekbones. It was a completely random exercise but it served t o give me a wealth of new ideas and ended up not being that simple at all.

What aspects of your own life or experiences have you brought to your illustrations?

I’d have to say my family – I have three sisters, all very creative, individual and strong. My mother and grandmother as well have influenced what I illustrate and how that comes across. For example, I think much of the jewelry I draw mind reconstructed out of my childhood of searching through my grandmother’s jewelry boxes. I think it’s still something I find enjoyment in; digging through women’s jewelry – it’s amazing fodder for me to create. I discovered that my great aunt’s name was Romancia La Roche and have a picture of her wearing a feathered cloche and jet beads around her neck - I thought it was fantastic! I think a little flair and drama is a wonderful thing – the women I grew up around certainly had and still have that.

On your blog you describe yourself as a “self-taught” artist. Do you really mean to say that you have never engaged in any formal art studies?

That’s exactly it. I have done CXC Visual Art which didn’t actually, in my case, involve much teaching of art. Art classes where mostly opportunities to the homework you failed to do the night before for all your other subjects! Like at many Caribbean Schools, Visual Art wasn’t really considered an important subject at my high school – so much so that Art wasn’t even offered at as an A Level subject. Since then it’s been a process of discovery and revelations. I didn’t even consider studying Visual Art at university; I opted for French at one point and English Literature at another.

You have been told before that your paintings are really illustrations and that you should get into the professional book illustration. The way I have always understood the difference between illustrative art and fine art is that with illustrative art, the illustration is always secondary or subsidiary to the product being illustrated, while with fine art, the painting itself is the critical object and holds first place in the range of values being considered. With illustration, the main concern is selling the product while we can think of fine art as, “art for the sake of art.” Also, the fine artist typically doesn’t have to answer to anybody in the making of the work, while the illustrator does. Given these distinctions, can you see yourself as an illustrator? Or are you more of a fine artist?

Fine artist…which is why the illustrator label always sounds great but never fit me. I don’t follow rules or have anyone to answer to; based on that alone I’d have to say fine artist!

I know you have a full-time job, but if an aspiring or established Caribbean children’s writer saw this interview and wanted you to illustrate their book would you be game? Would you do it?


One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Should you get into professional children’s illustration in the future, what do you think you can bring to the Caribbean picture book aesthetic?

It’s feels great to see local art that jumps out at you, that’s so different it makes you smile. I think traditionally there is a style and a feel to local work. You can tell sometimes because you’ve seen it before. When that tradition is broken and the new style is individual and fresh, I think it’s great. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring something different to that forum.

Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?

No I don’t currently. I never considered it and I can’t see that as an option for me at this point based on the kind of work I do.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

My email address is

Brianna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in art and in life.

Thank you so much for the opportunity and the encouragement!


Brianna Mccarthy from Trinidad and Tobago is a 26 year old, people watching, wisdom seeking West Indian who paints, draws and makes girls. Her artwork has been featured on many Afrocentric blogs, including Woman of Color, Kiss My Black Ads, Black Girl with Long Hair, and most recently, Alice in Nappy Land. The beautiful fashion of Mccarthy's colored girls has also earned them the spotlight on fashionista websites like Shen Dove Style, Au Courant Daily and b.vikki vintage. Mccarthy's art has been featured online in Hiddenyou Ezine, Poema Jones and Khristian A. Howell Surface Design and Photography. She holds degrees in English Literature and Psychology from the University of the West Indies and is currently an intern with Trinidadian fashion house, The Cloth.

Related Links

Brianna Mccarthy's Online Portfolio

Brianna Mccarthy's Blog

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, James Hackett

If you have even the slightest interest in Caribbean illustrators, then James Hackett is a name you must have heard. I am absolutely taken aback by Hackett's work. He's a fellow-Trini and looking at the images in his portfolio I really do feel a sense of home, a satisfying sense of 'Caribbeanness'. I am perhaps most impressed by Mr. Hackett's versatility; his illustrations span a number of styles and working with both traditional and digital media, he is able to produce a wide range of effects. As a children's literature aficionado/scholar, I spend hours pouring over the talent in the international children's illustration market and I can easily compare Hackett's work to that of Ward Jenkins, Lou Simeone, Andrés Martínez Ricci, or Jeff Crowther. At the same time, I think Hackett's cartoonesque work, in combining vector art, urban aesthetics, batik designs and textures, magna comic elements and collage techniques, is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Check out these kid-friendly samples from his portfolio (click on images to enlarge):

I have been corresponding with Mr. Hackett and I recently had the chance to pick his brain about his work.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview James, I really appreciate it.

No problem at all.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes James Hackett interesting?

I like telling stories. I have always tried to do that in my pieces and my work. There is always a story to tell. People like stories especially if they are good and I think I have been lucky enough to have interesting viewpoints that capture people’s imaginations.

On the web and in several print publications, you go by the alias “daaknite.” What’s the story behind the name?

I am a huge fan of Batman. I like what the character stands for: this ever vigilant human being in a world full of crazy people. He exists in this dark world but helps people as broken as he is amazing. I like to think of myself as a Dark Knight, playing on as many puns as you can think of with those references from the romantic to the obvious.

Let’s talk about your art. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?

I like experimenting. Every chance I get I play with things and tools and find stuff that works. With traditional media I tend to work with pastel, watercolours, pencil and ink but these days I prefer mostly to work on the computer. This is primarily because I do not have a lot of space to work as I would like to. The computer keeps it simple for me so I just sketch and scan my concepts and finish them on the computer or work with photographs.

What is your process for creating an illustration?

These days I typically start with a sketch. Because of my graphic design background I see compositions and ways to make them work effectively very quickly in my head. The sketch helps me nail down the vision and once this is scanned I finish the work in Adobe Illustrator ( I have a couple tutorials in my blog that shows this process.) On the computer it is faster for me to work my colours out and tighten up the composition and layer in the details etc.

Although your illustrations typically feature adult concepts and figures, when I look at some of your work, (like the illustrations above) I see the qualities of children’s illustration- bright colors, quirky perspectives, animals with human characteristics, humorous elements, and visuals that subtly but powerfully tell a story. Have you ever illustrated for children and if not, is this something that interests you?

I am quite interested in illustrating for children’s books but I have not had a good opportunity as yet. I would really love to go all out and enhance a well written tale.

What about graphic novels or comic books? Graphic novels are big right now in the young adult literature market. I think Caribbean youth would enjoy locally-flavored graphic novels. What say you?

The thing with graphic novels is they take a lot of time, I have been burned in the past by trying comics and what not. I was young, but now I would really need a lot of time to do one. My heart still would like to try but I will not be able to do it justice at the moment because my head just isn't there yet. It would be nice to visit it in the future however because so many possibilities for stories exist as you suggested.

One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Should you get into professional children’s illustration in the future, what do you think you can bring to the Caribbean children’s book aesthetic?

Well I have been trying to break into the illustration market for the last few years unsuccessfully. For me it has been an uphill battle of discovery. I become more and more professional after each disappointment. I think (I may be wrong) that generally it’s a matter of seeing Illustration as a high craft and approaching the whole matter with professionalism, something that is kind of glossed over here from my experience, so foreigners are leagues ahead of us after the talent factor goes out the window. It is has a lot to do with us here looking at the industry more seriously and being able to garner that respect.

You are in the process of designing Carnival costumes for a children’s band for Carnival 2011. Can you tell us a little bit about this project? The concept behind the band perhaps?

Carnival has given me so many wonderful experiences. I have been involved with it off and on for about 12 years or so. The children’s band will pretty much be like a story book that we expect to expand into costumes and play out into the streets. It is not a revolutionary concept but it is something that makes so much sense. The process starts with a story that features "kidcentric" ideas and themes and then we create designs based on those characters. We plan to release the story as part of the marketing for the children’s band in a few months.

Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?

I have thought about it before, just not recently. I may try again at a later date.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

My website has all the contact information.

James, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a pleasure conversing with you.

Thanks a lot for seeking me out, it’s encouraging to know that there are a few people looking at what I do.


James Hackett from Trinidad and Tobago is a writer, documentary film-maker, and up-and-coming fashion designer who is perhaps more well-known in Caribbean circles for his work as an illustrator and animator. With over a decade of experience working in print, media and advertising houses in Trinidad and the Caribbean, Hackett’s work has been exhibited in the region and in the United States. His digital/graphic art has been featured in Draconian Switch, Outish Magazine, The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, The Trinidad and Tobago Express and regularly in Caribbean Beat. Hackett’s illustrations bring together his interest in magna comics, batik prints and Caribbean folklore to create upbeat Caribbean images that reflect the pizzazz and vitality of the region. Hackett was a resident illustrator and writer for VoX, the groundbreaking youth-focused magazine that was published in the Sunday Express in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 90’s. At VoX, Hackett was one of the writers behind Tales from Daaknite, the “urban-fiction-meets-folklore/fantasy” serialized stories that became popular among young people in Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett holds an Associates Degree in Design from John Donaldson Technical Institute (Trinidad) and is currently pursuing a degree in fashion design at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett is a member of Zigwa, the Trinbago-based arts collective.

Related Links

Hackett's Print Shop on Facebook

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Interview with Melanie Schwapp

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Melanie, I really appreciate it.

It’s an honor and a great pleasure.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Melanie Schwapp interesting?

I don’t think I’m all that interesting (smile). I think I’m just a typical mother trying to juggle work and looking after her family. If anything makes me interesting it’s how much I enjoy it all, how much I love being with my family and watching my children discover more and more of their world and the part they play in it.

Let's talk about your book, Lally-May's Farm Suss. As far as I know, to "suss" something is to figure something out, to finally grasp something difficult and elusive of understanding. Who is Lally-May and what does she figure out in this book?

Well, that was not the exact interpretation of ‘suss’ according to Lally-May. The book uses the Jamaican dialect interpretation, which is ‘to gossip’. Lally-May is quite a precocious child, and loves to use words that she hears other people use, especially adults. It makes her feel quite ‘grown up’. So she uses the word ‘suss’ to tell her story since she feels that in speaking about herself, she is ‘sussing’. However, Lally-May does very much discover something in the book, a lesson which many children sometimes learn the ‘hard way’ (as we say in Jamaica), and that is, ‘to do as you are told’.

Well you learn something new every day! Here's something else I don't know: the book is based on a Jamaican myth. I’m not Jamaican so forgive my ignorance, but what myth is the book based on?

Ahhh - the dreaded ‘Rolling Calf’! The creature that every child growing up in the country areas of Jamaica fears! According to Jamaican folklore, the rolling calf is the embodiment of evil spirits that roam the countryside at night, wearing a bell around its neck and searching with fiery eyes for some helpless mortal to destroy. It is a myth used many a time to control rambunctious children – ‘if you don’t behave yourself, the rolling calf is going to come for you!’

Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip -or insights- about Lally-May or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

People often ask me who Lally-May is, and I really can’t answer, because she is such a mix of all the children in my life – my own kids along with my nieces and nephews, and also a little of myself as a child. I also used to spend summers at my grandparents’ farm in St. James, and as much as Lally-May does, thought the world revolved around me :). Then in watching my own children grow, I realized that it really is a blessing to be happy in your own skin as a child, since it makes the world so much less threatening. I realized how important it was for my children to know their heritage, how important it was in giving them a proud, solid base so that wherever they ventured in the world, they would always have a foundation beneath their feet. And so, Lally-May was born, from bedtime stories to my children about Jamaican myths and culture, and also from anecdotes to help them deal with difficult situations in their lives.

Kojovi Dawes illustrated Lally-May's Farm Suss. How did his vision of the story coincide with the one in your mind as the author?

Completely! I remember when Kojovi and I first spoke about Lally-May and he laughed at her escapades as if she were as real to him as she was to me. And then when I saw his first sketch, I screamed – it was awesome to see this person that I’d pictured in my mind actually appear right before me. Kojovi was on the exact same page in his interpretation of ALL the characters as I was.

Publishing outlets for Caribbean children's writers are not as numerous as I, personally, think they should be. Please tell us a bit about how you got Lally-May's Farm Suss published.

I must admit, it was a struggle. Not many publishers liked the concept of Lally-May – the voice of a child as exactly a child would speak, with the mistakes in grammar and the way she described people with child-like abandon - the teacher with the very sweet perfume and the housekeeper with the missing teeth. Publishers felt that these factors would be offensive. However, just as I was about to give up, a publisher who’d lived in Japan fell in love with the book, and set me on the path to publishing. Unfortunately, our arrangement fell through, and I continued the process on my own.

Please share with us your creative process. Do you work from an outline or is it a stream of writing? 

My creative process differs according to what I’m writing. When I write for my children, I know what I want to say, and I know where I want the story to end up, so I just make my outline and add the ‘meat’ to the bones. However, when I write my short stories or the novel I’ve just completed, it’s a different process – the characters lead me. Sometimes I find the story going in a totally different direction from where I’d intended, and I catch myself saying “where is this coming from?” It’s from the characters as they grow from flat, one-dimensional figures to three-dimensional PEOPLE, with personalities so strong that they guide the plot. 

What inspired you to write for children?

My three little angels. Bedtimes were an exciting time for us as a family as we looked forward to hearing about another of Lally-May’s escapades, and when they said, “Mom, you should write these down”, I did.

Last month you did a book reading at the Bookland bookstore in New Kingston (Jamaica.) How did that come about and what was the experience like?

Bookland, as a contribution to Literacy Month in Jamaica, has enlisted a number of authors to conduct readings at their New Kingston store. They asked me if I would be one of the contributors and I was excited to do it. It always remains a great honor to me when other people enjoy Lally-May. She was such a personal icon in our family, that to see her appreciated by others is a fulfilling experience. The event was an absolute pleasure. 

Do you have any more readings or book signings lined up and if so, where and when can we see you read?

I have been asked to do another reading at a literacy festival in October.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What are some of your favorite books today?

Oh gosh, the Bobbsey Twins, without a doubt were my favourite childhood books. I loved the closeness of the Bobbsey family, and the intelligence and independence of the children to actually solve mysteries. I actually formed a detective club with my friends to try to solve crimes in our neighborhood. We had lots of meetings, but to date, no crimes solved :).

It’s difficult to pinpoint favorite books today, because I love so many different styles of writing. I love that we are all so different, yet all so human, and that writing expresses this. I really enjoy books that are deeply cultural, like ‘The Kite Runner’, ‘Ancestor Stones’, and all of Andrea Levy and Edwidge Danticat’s novels.

Please share with us your latest project and where we can learn more about your exciting career. Can you tell us anything about your upcoming books?

The novel “The Dew Angels” that I’ve just completed took me nearly six years to write. It is truly a piece of my heart on paper, because it has been my outlet for sadness, happiness and self-actualization for the last six years. It is about a girl growing up in Jamaica and dealing with many of the color and class prejudices that exist silently in our culture. I enjoyed disappearing into the novel, and when I’d finished I felt as if a best friend had just departed from my life. I am now in the process of negotiating its publishing with some agencies.

My ‘career’ however, is still very much being ‘mummy’ and landscaper, and not much to learn about unless you speak to my children :). Hopefully, as my children spread their wings, I will find more time to pursue publishing more of my stories.

Where/how can we purchase Lally-May's Farm Suss?

The book is available at most local bookstores (distributed by Novelty Trading Co.) and on the website ‘’

Melanie, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in your future career.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to have spoken about my love of writing.