We have been doing a series of throwback posts of our conversations with storytellers, artists, poets, academics. These posts are found in our Behind the Books website and are being shared here now in our new home. This interview with Suzy Lee was posted back in March 2011.
Your website indicates that you are currently working and based here in Singapore, could you share with us the nature of your work here?
I came to Singapore in 2006 because of my husband’s job here. Life brings us always to an unexpected spot—I remember when I arrived Singapore and felt the smell of tropical for the first time- something I’ve never experienced before. Since then, I am enjoying my life and work here. I am working as a half-time book artist, a half-time mom with two kids.
What is the best food that you have tasted so far in this country?
My favorite one changes every day. I had Yong Tao fu Laksa yesterday and it was marvelous.
How long have you been doing drawings and illustrations (if you could share with us some of your earliest work from when you were a child, that would be wonderful)?
Children usually get compliments when they make any art, don’t they? – and I was the child who ‘really’ believed in those compliments and decided to become an artist. I’ve been doing drawings since then, all my life.
Could you share with us how you were like as a child? How were your obvious talents in the arts developed at home?
I am not sure I was that talented when I was a child. (If I look at the early drawings, they don’t seem to be extraordinary at all.) My parents were not professional artists at home, but always lots of books were around, music was on all the time. They encourage me a lot whatever I did.
And there was a local artist that I met when I was in a primary school. He ran a humble art studio and he looked like a real artist to me. (My idea of a “real” artist at that moment was- taciturn, serious-looking, having a beret on his head sidewise, smoking a pipe all the time) But in a sense, he was the first real artist-kind I met in my life and it’s true that I was quite serious about art since then. I wrote and illustrated a book about him –“My Bright Atelier”
You mentioned in the 7Imp interview that one of your favorites as a child was Florence Parry Heide’s The Shrinking of TreeHorn illustrated by Edward Gorey – I’d like to know were you also exposed to Western-based authors? Who among these authors made an impact on you?
When I was young, there weren’t many picture books in general in Korea not only by the Korean authors/ artist. Probably that “The Shrinking of TreeHorn” was my mother’s. I can remember “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde (my copy didn’t even have the illustrator’s name on the cover)
and “The Life of Numbers” by Fernando & Maria De La Luz Krahn. I read these books until they were torn apart. As the Gorey’s books gave me a certain feeling of strangeness and solitude, above mentioned books gave me the same feeling that I couldn’t forget.
Your website also shows that you received your BFA in painting from Seoul National University and your MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Arts in London, tell us what your top three significant learning are from these institutions?
1. You have to find out what you really like and what you really hate.
2. There are two kinds of people: people who pushed forward what you like till the end and who didn’t.
3. Focus on what you have now. Forget about what you didn’t do.
Did you have any arts mentor whom you believe to be highly influential in your development as an artist?
I have been influenced by thousands of mentors from everywhere. All different qualities that I learned from them are equally important and became part of my works.
In the 7Imp interview, you noted that some of the authors whom you would like to have a cup of coffee with would be Michael Sowa, Shinta Cho, and Maira Kalman. Could you share with us a little bit how you came to know their works?
I just happened to get to know them through their books. Maira Kalman’s “Chicken Soup, Boots”- her works are easy-going. She unfolds the story in a very easy manner just like her drawing.
Shinta Cho- I got to know him in a bookshop in Tokyo. Absurd but poignant, strange but funny.
Michael Sowa- I thought I found Edward Hopper’s art book but it wasn’t. Sowa’s works are absurd but poignant like Shinta Cho’s books but in a different way. Realistic but dream-like at the same time. Loneliness and humor co-exist in his images. I was fascinated by these bipolar feelings that his works offer.
Medium and Styles Used in Illustrating
What is the medium that you usually use as you do your illustrations? Do you use any special software? Pens? Inks? Colors?
Art materials I use are mostly traditional. Pen, pencil, charcoal, water colors, gauche, acrylic colors, collages, lacquer sprays, printmaking etc. I also use Photoshop. What kind of books I am working on decides the art material.
What are your thoughts on digital pens and inks? Do you prefer working using this medium or do you still make use of the traditional mode of doing illustrations? Could you share with our readers what makes you decide to either use one (old-school, traditional means) or the other (modern technology) in your designs?
One of my missions in the recent trilogy books- Mirror, Wave and Shadow- was how much I can hide the use of computer. I drew the illustration by my hand but final output was digitally manipulated.
Digital pens and inks? If it is about how much closer to the original hand drawing, I would rather draw directly by my hands. Every medium has its own advantages- if I have an intention to push forward the ability of digital drawings, I would certainly use them though.
Since you have already shared with 7Imp a few photos of your workstation, I note that the photo was taken sometime 2008, let me just ask how much has it changed now that you have two little children? Would you be able to give us a more recent photo of your workstation now?
I have two facing desks in my work room at home. One is for computer work, the other is for drawing. But my kids (4-year-old boy and 2 year-old girl) think those desks are theirs.
I also caught on in two of your interviews that instead of referring to yourself as an author/illustrator, you would rather be called a Book Artist. Tell us a little more about this.
In that way, I can feel I am actually involved in a “book”. When I make a book, I see a book as a whole. Every elements of a book linked together, and I’m the organizer under the broaden concepts of art.
Almost all of your books deal with girls as protagonists (Wave, Mirror, Alice in Wonderland, Shadow, The Zoo, Blackbird) – any special reason for this? Is this also inspired by your having two children at home?
Maybe that girl in my books is myself when I was young or the eternal child in my mind. Or, I should say that it’s simply because I need the flipping “skirts” to show the active movements of the protagonists!
On Children’s Literature and Publishing
In the 7Imp interview, you shared that you used to have exhibitions as a painter and once worked as a freelance illustrator before you became interested in a ‘book’ as a medium when you took your MA in Book Arts in UK. What led you to the path of children’s literature? What sparked your interest?
I happened to see Sue Coe’s artist book in my professor’s bookshelves when I was a university student. It was quite shocking that a book can be that powerful medium to carry an artist’s statement. I got to have interest in the book that can develop the story using the power of pictures. Naturally, I moved to the world of picture book. I thought that I saw the very intuition that cannot be simpler and stronger. That was what I’d been looking for.
What are the joys of being a book artist for children?
I am very lucky to have the most creative readers and reviewers in the world- children. And also, it is such a joyful moment to see when children find something in my books which I found in children.
What are some of the difficulties that you have encountered so far?
I once found the notes for a bookshop regarding my book “Shadow”. It stated that the key selling point of “Shadow” would be “Accessible enough for even very young children; sophisticated enough for adults”. That was a quite a compliment for me, since that is the most difficult part whenever I make a book.
Tell us about your very first published book, Alice in Wonderland in 2002 – how did it come about? What was the feeling like?
I was in the middle of process of making “Alice in Wonderland” as my MA Book Arts project. I happened to go to Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2001, and brought the dummy book without any intention to sell it. Then some linking accidents happened- my friend introduced me to “La Trois Ourses” and as soon as they saw my dummy, they brought me right away to the booth of Edizioni Corraini, specialized in artists’ books, to show my project. And the editor liked the dummy, and then published it. Everything’s happened in a blink of time. Bologna was the place this kind of thing actually happens and I was the Alice in wonderland.
Did you expect that your books would be as well-received internationally as they are now?
Every time I open my book and show it to people, I found that they smiled at the same page, made the similar gesture at the same page. My books were mostly wordless and that might be one of the points we could communicated more easily. It’s fascinating that we’re connected by this universal understanding and unexplainable bond.
In the 7Imp interview in 2008 you mentioned working about a girl who wants to be an artist, has this book been published? What are some of the more recent projects that you are currently undertaking?
That is “My Bright Atelier”, which I mentioned in the above question. I am currently working on “The Border Trilogy”. It is an essay about my picture books “Mirror”, “Wave” and “Shadow” that commonly share the subject of a “border”. The “border” in the trilogy is the border between fantasy and reality as well as the physical center binding fold of the double spread-page of a book. Through this book, I talk about the esthetics of a book form, the principle of a wordless picture book and an artist’s practical/ philosophical approach towards the picture books.
If you are to share with young artists the top three lessons that they could benefit from in terms of book publishing as a trade/industry, what would those 3 life lessons be?
I think I could say just one fact.
Imagine that your artworks can be affordable, portable, intimate, replicable and universal. What could be better than that? They are the innate qualities of a “book”.
Thank you so much Suzy for being a part of our GatheringBooks Wordless Picture Book Special (When Words are not Enough) – I honestly can not get enough of your books. I could not stop staring at the illustrations and just literally drowning in the artwork. Absolutely beautiful. Please watch out for more of our Suzy Lee Special in the next few days where we talk about her latest work Shadow (2010) and Mirror (2008), Wave (2008), La Revanche des Lapins (2003), and my personal favorite Alice in Wonderland (2002).
She has also shared with us two of her other books The Zoo (2004) and The Black Bird (2007) which are technically not as ‘wordless’ as the first five books – but we shall still review here in GatheringBooks nonetheless. Watch out for more!
For more information about Suzy, please click here to visit her website. Click here to be taken to the Paper Tigers interview in April 2009. Click here to be taken to the 7Impossible Things before Breakfast interview in August 2008.