The Dream-Like Images of Sara Fanelli
Original, quirky, challenging and humorous, Sara Fanelli’s innovative take on picture book creation goes beyond the usual conventions and involves the reader on many levels. What are her sources of inspiration? And how does she approach visual and textual narrative? Gill Robins reports.
I was just putting the finishing touches to a review of Sara Fanelli’s new picture book The Onion’s Great Escape when my inbox pinged. Would I like to talk to Sara? The opportunity to interview one of the most exciting experimental author/illustrators currently working in the UK doesn’t come along often - my answer was a definite yes.
Several things struck me fairly quickly when I started talking to Sara. Firstly, there is her passion for art – she talks enthusiastically about the influence of Paul Klee, the Russian constructivists and avant-garde thinking on her work. Then there is the curiosity which compels her to explore what she sees (‘every object has a story behind it to be relayed or reinvented’), her great love of books as objects and an engaging intellectual eclecticism which is physically mirrored in her varied collection of collage materials. But she is also the sort of reflective thinker who draws you into thinking with her – a trait which carries through into her work.
So where did it all begin? Sara was born into a home rich in artistic culture. That home was in Florence, a city that witnessed the birth of the Renaissance and was governed by great patrons of the arts like the Medici family – a heritage which Sara says ‘can be very daunting’. She also observes rather sadly that ‘the corruption and dishonesty of Italian politicians in the last 20 years have escalated to a point where there is absolutely no connection at all between those high ideals and now’.
It was whilst at school in Italy that she studied and fell in love with the classical mythology which permeates her work, observing, ‘I find it wonderful the way these stories can have many interpretations all of which can be true, even when contradictory. They contain timeless truths and, of course, they are also very stimulating visually.’ Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a retelling of the great tales from Greek mythology, was particularly influential.
In 1989, Sara moved to London to study, where art colleges ‘encouraged experimentation in order for each student to find their own individual voice’. And Sara certainly found her voice, only to discover on graduating that it was a voice that few commissioning editors for children’s books could hear. In the interests of sales on both sides of the Atlantic, most publishers were looking for safe, traditional books – the new approaches which were emerging elsewhere in Europe were apparently not in demand.
Mapping aspects of life
However, by the time Quentin Blake selected Sara for the 2001 British Library Magic Pencil exhibition as one of the best 13 illustrators working in the UK, she already had several books in print, books in which her voice could be clearly heard. Her first book Button was followed by My Map Book, which not only introduces children to the concept of mapping aspects of life as a form of visual organisation but also invites readers to interact by creating a personal map on the dust jacket.
Books, to Sara, are three dimensional objects, any aspect of which can be used to tell a story. In First Flight, endpapers are used to record her friends’ drawings of butterflies whilst an insect in the corner of each page creates a flicker book effect. ‘Most of the time,’ she says, ‘I develop the narrative around an original image or visual element which I want to explore in that book. For instance, with the book Wolf! I had decided that I wanted the main character to be the one that I had noticed children related to the most in my previous book, Button, whereas, with Dear Diary, I knew that I wanted to use the format of diaries and old stationery combined with the idea of reading other people’s diaries.’
In fact, you don’t so much read a Fanelli book as form a relationship with it. In particular, My Map Book and The Onion’s Great Escape invite the reader to become part of the authorship. Books are ‘a world to retreat to, a place to explore, with different possibilities from the everyday reality. I like the possibility of a book becoming a precious keeper of the child’s way of thinking at that time. A little bit like a message in a bottle for the grown up person who once was that child and who might have forgotten what he was like’.
Sara’s preferred medium of collage gives the first clue to how she engages a reader in this relationship. In addition to liking the three dimensional, textural quality of collage, she feels that it enables her ‘to interweave different narratives, hidden comments, stories, connections’ which encourage the reader to keep returning. ‘I also very much like the element of chance and freedom that the process of creating a collage brings to the picture,’ she adds. Old or stained papers, sweet wrappers, pages from accounts books, printed music, historical documents or print in a range of languages are used to design images which are simultaneously retrospective and contemporary.
The second clue comes in the scribbles and handwriting which are hallmarks of her style, creating an immediacy which gives the impression that the author is thinking aloud on paper. ‘Scribbles,’ says Sara, ‘often have a visual function – they appear where I want some energy in the picture, but not too dominant. One can imagine anything about them – something might have just gone up in smoke or something is moving so fast that you see only its trajectory.’ And on handwriting: ‘ I like using letter shapes and their weight as elements of the picture, so I use the typography as parts of the construction of the layout right from the first planning of the page.’ But the scribbles and the handwriting are also a physical manifestation of Sara’s ability to span the worlds of both adults and children.
The interdependency of knowledge and creativity
Because of her family background, Sara has stayed attached to and in touch with childhood even as an adult. She also feels that she retains the connection visually in the way that she looks at the world. She shows great respect for children as serious readers and thinkers, appreciating their inquisitiveness and their ability to contribute and be creative. We talked for some time about the knowledge/creativity dichotomy that education produces. Sara refers to Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED (Technology, Education, Design) lecture in which he likens education to strip mining for a commodity, a process which mines for knowledge at the expense of creativity. Her view is that ‘knowledge and creativity are interdependent, as the more we know the more connections we can make so the more creative we can be’. Sara’s own intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity are the embodiment of this, but as she adds, ‘The problem is about finding a method of teaching that nourishes each child’s mind instead of forcing it to comply with a set of bureaucratic systems.’
And the creative capacity of children is nowhere better exemplified than in Sara’s workshops, about which she makes an interesting observation. ‘The most rewarding thing about the workshops I did with children was finding out that what adults (and some publishers) believe is ‘not for children’, actually comes very naturally to them.’ She went on to explain that collage is a very natural medium for children, as they draw shapes with scissors instead of pencils. ‘Once they become familiar with this – a couple of minutes! – they naturally play with scale, repetition, textures, etc. using magazines and different papers.’ She adds ‘children’s thoughts are more advanced and sharper than a lot of grownups presume’ although she has been told many times that collage is too sophisticated for children.
I ask Sara about her favourite children’s authors: Maira Kalman for her poetry and humour, J Otto Seibold’s ‘Mr Lunch’ books as examples of computer generated children’s books and Kveta Pacovská for her beautiful pictures and the rhythm of her books. She references Bruno Munari for his experimentation with book format, ideas on creativity and children’s workshops.
So where did the idea for her latest book, The Onion’s Great Escape, come from? Her answer is indicative of her thought process. She first started pondering the matter of onions after reading the Martian poet Christopher Reid’s translation of a Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem which contained the line, ‘To write a weepy poem try onion juice’. In 2007, Sara published Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am, an adult book which drew on some of the literature which inspires her, including Dante, Goethe and Beckett. The book explored the new territory of printmaking, three-dimensional models and... onion juice.
Sara continued to ponder onions, rejecting ideas until: ‘I matched the onion shape to the possibility of a three dimensional character coming out of the book, and then the idea of layers being represented by pages. And these went hand in hand with the idea of a progression through the book: a ‘knowledge’ that leads the onion to freedom (from the frying pan and from the book).’ The final outcome is a thought-provoking book which is part poetry, part narrative and part philosophy, thus reflecting the layers of the onion in the internal structure of both book and vegetable. Interacting with the book leaves you with a little book of philosophy which you have personally released from confinement. The allegory of thinking in new ways to create freedom from traditional conformities is powerful.
In addition to her children’s books, Sara has an impressive client list for her commercial work, including Royal Mail, Pizza Express, Tate Modern, New York Times and various theatre poster and book cover designs. But perhaps the front page of her website best summarises Sara. It carries Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’ and it is the search for meaning beyond the pure and simple which motivates her thinking and her art.
The Onion’s Great Escape, Phaidon Press, 978 0 7148 5703 9, £14.95 pbk
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Walker, 978 1 4063 1747 3 £9.99 pbk
The following titles are OP but may be available from Abe Books or Amazon:
My Map Book, Walker, 978 1844280308, hbk
Mythological Monsters of Ancient Greece, Walker, 978 0 7445 8898 9, hbk
First Flight, Jonathan Cape 978 0 2240 6457 6, hbk
Dear Diary, Walker, 978 0 7445 8263 5, pbk
It’s Dreamtime, Heinemann, 978 0 4348 0207 4, hbk
A Dog’s Life, Heinemann, 978 0 4348 0364 4, hbk
Wolf, Egmont, 978 978 0 8037 2093 0, hbk
Pinocchio: Picture Box, HarperCollins, 978 0 6940 0829 2, hbk
Cinderella , Walker, 978 1 8540 6228 4, hbk
Button, Little Brown & Co 978-0316273930, hbk
Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am, Tate Publishing, 978 1 8543 7728 9, £19.99 pbk
Gill Robins is a Junior School Deputy Head, Leading English Teacher for
Hampshire LA and Editorial Chair of the English Association publication English 4-11. fiction and non-fiction 5 -11.