Accepting the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Book, illustrator Salley Mavor delivered this speech on September 30, 2011.
I would like to thank the Boston Globe–Horn Book selection committee for choosing Pocketful of Posies as an award winner this year. It is a great honor to have my work recognized this way, especially because my fabric relief illustrations are so unusual. Since my first book, The Way Home, was published twenty years ago, I’ve felt outside of the mainstream of children’s books, that my style didn’t really fit and was more of a novelty. It’s as if I had been rowing upstream, paddling with my needle and thimble, in a river of watercolors. Now, I feel that I’m playfully floating down the stream of possibilities. I think I will even manage to stitch a few French knots along the way.
Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune to work with some wonderfully supportive people who understand my need for artistic freedom. My agency, Studio Goodwin Sturges, stood by me as I took time to experiment and worked on projects other than children’s books. With Pocketful of Posies, I felt the trust of Margaret Raymo, my editor at Houghton Mifflin, who was patient while I worked alone for long periods—sometimes a year at a time without showing her anything. At home, my husband Rob Goldsborough has encouraged my endeavors, never suggesting that I get a “real” job.
Lately, I’ve been describing my work as part of a Slow Art Movement. Yes, it is very time consuming and not very practical, but that is part of what attracts me to this way of working. I sew, wrap, embroider, carve, and embellish in as many ways as I can—all by hand. What I can’t really do is speed up the process, and machines are no help. In the past I used a sewing machine but now find that I can better achieve the look I want with hand-stitching. Through the repetitive, tactile process, I find a calm satisfaction that can help lead to effective problem solving. Each illustration requires figuring out something new, whether it is a way of constructing a driftwood house or making a tiny basket, so I need time to work things out.
It would be more straightforward and faster to paint or even use paper collage, but I discovered early on that it was easier for me to express my ideas in a sculptural form. As a child, crayons were never enough, and I had the urge to sew, staple, or glue real things to my pictures. My mother kept my first book: a twelve-page tour of the things in an eight-year-old’s life. The paper and fabric collage illustrations have held up well, including a cut-out pop-up of a play kitchen. Looking back, I have early memories of sewing and constructing things at home. My sister and I would spend hours stitching outfits and creating scenes for our dolls. I was especially interested in all things miniature and coming up with ways to decorate and furnish the dolls’ environment. I can remember making a tiny bathroom and looking around the house for shower curtain material. It had to be water repellent—regular cloth would not do!
I took a pair of scissors, went into our bathroom, and cut a small piece out of the 1960s-style polka-dotted vinyl shower curtain. It took awhile for my mother to discover that the corner was cut out, but she was quite open to sacrifice in the name of art. She was an artist herself and created an atmosphere in our home where art and making things by hand was important. In our family, learning how to make things was not only fun but there was an unspoken high regard for handwork and beauty. With this in mind, I’ve dedicated
Pocketful of Posies to the memory of my remarkable parents, Mary and Jim Mavor.
Later, at the Rhode Island School of Design, I rediscovered my childhood fascination with working in three dimensions. My teacher, Judy Sue Goodwin Sturges, recognized my interest in sewing and encouraged me to work outside of the yoke of traditional illustration mediums. David Macaulay’s class assignments were more like conceptual exercises, which forced me to stretch my imagination. He once brought in a box of pumpkins and had the students transform them into something else. By my junior year at RISD, I had stopped trying to translate the pictures in my mind’s eye through a brush or pen. I found that I was happy and energized while manipulating materials in my hands. I was no longer struggling to keep in step. With a needle and thread, I could dance. For some reason, I’d been under the impression that in art school one concentrates on serious fine art, and I’d kept my interest in handcrafts underground. I used this time in school to try different ways of working and taught myself embroidery.
I’ve never taken any classes in fiber art or sewing, except for a 4-H class in my childhood. I don’t think I would have made a very cooperative embroidery student, given my tendency to resist conformity and inability to follow patterns and instructions. I just figured out stitches by looking at diagrams and sewing obsessively.
I’ve spent years developing a technique I call fabric relief, which eventually led to illustrating children’s books. My early creations were more sculptural, with dolls set up in three-dimensional scenes. One of my first jobs was illustrating a story for an educational reader about a community of ecologically minded insects who made a town out of trash. I tested out the three-inch spider made of wire and fabric by hanging it inside the communal refrigerator in the house where I was living. The resulting scream from my roommate was proof that I was headed in the right direction. However, during the photo shoot for the story, I realized that I was unprepared for the complexities of setting up the 3-D scenes for the photographer. Making the bugs and their mushroom houses was the easy part.
Even though I wasn’t behind the camera, I had to direct the shots, keeping in mind how they would appear on the book’s pages. There were backgrounds to create, and lighting concerns, as well as how much depth of focus would work best—too much for me to handle with my lack of experience. After that, I lost interest in pursuing illustration work and focused on making dolls and designing sewing projects for women’s magazines. The experience of writing out directions would come in handy twenty years later, when I wrote my how-to book of projects, Felt Wee Folk. I worked continually, mass producing and selling hundreds of things at shops and craft cooperatives. But I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to do more with my skills as a fiber artist and was frustrated by the lack of respect given to needlework by the art world.
In an effort to make what I was doing fit into more conventional notions of art, I adapted my figures and environments to fit into the confines of a frame. I figured that if my work could hang on a wall, it would be recognized as art. Later on, I found that this change in presentation also made it easier to make pictures that could be photographed and used as illustrations. During the 1980s, I kept up a busy schedule in the evenings after my children went to bed, making individual pieces and working out new ways of combining materials in a relief format. My method of working progressed for about ten years before I was ready to make the jump from producing stand-alone pieces to illustrating my first thirty-two-page picture book in 1991. Throughout my thirty-year career, I’ve been involved in many design enterprises, all commonly expressing a world held together with a needle and thread. Since I continue to explore different creative areas, I prefer to call myself an artist who also illustrates children’s books.
I find primitive and folk art stimulating, with its blending of abstraction and untrained rendering of real life. Although my pictures are not realistic, I feel a compulsion to use real things in my artwork. Somehow, these objects force me to move in surprising directions, to go to places where I wouldn’t artistically venture otherwise. I also find that welcoming found objects into my work can become a trap. Some very interesting-looking things can seduce me into thinking they belong in a picture. Later, if it’s distracting or doesn’t contribute to the story, I’ll have to make the painful decision to kick it out. That’s hard, especially when I really like the object. Writer friends tell me that they encounter something similar in their writing. They have to get rid of clever characters, witty dialogue, or funny situations that seemed perfect earlier. We agree that it’s all part of the creative process, that every step is important along the way.
Pocketful of Posies is a culmination of decades of single-minded focus and motherhood, bringing together what I’ve learned about sewing, color, design, storytelling, and children. From the start, I was attracted by the idea of using nursery rhymes and squeezing the action into a series of very different pictures. I didn’t have to repeat characters and environments throughout the book, as illustrators usually have to do in a story book. This was an opportunity to include one-of-a-kind found objects that I wouldn’t normally be able to use because I didn’t have to replicate or change the scale of the object throughout the book. The variety of rhymes held my attention through the five-year duration of the project. Every page was completely different and fresh, making it possible to start over again and again, meeting and falling in love with a new cast of characters every few weeks. I’ve noticed that this book has broken through age- and gender barriers, appealing to young children as well as great-grandparents.
It’s a great responsibility to connect with children through picture books and create their first introduction to art. Communicating ideas and stimulating the imagination interests me more than technique. I want to show the reader something they can care about and attach to. Adults call attention to my labor-intensive and inventive approach to illustrating; children respond directly to the emotional gestalt of a story with pictures.
I’m inspired by the words of Lolly Robinson, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard. I printed out this quote before I found out that she also works at the Horn Book. She says, “The best picture books are more than text and art bound together. They are small movable sculptures: a combination of kinetic and performance art.”
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas and life’s work. I hope that my book will encourage more illustrators, writers, art directors, publishers, and children to see the creative possibilities in even the smallest things around us.
Dean Schneider introduces Sally Mavor, who accepts the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Book for Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, at the September 30th BGHB award ceremony at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.