Quill and Quire

Wallace Edwards

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Call of the wild

Animals cast a spell on illustrator Wallace Edwards

Wallace Edwards and I climb out if his 16-year-old Toyota Corolla in front of his home in Yarker, Ontario, near Kingston. I start toward the house, but Edwards waves me over to a small wooden shed, where he fills a bucket with cracked corn. Together we stroll down toward the river that runs behind his house.

Wallace EdwardsEdwards moved to this village of 750 from Toronto to join his long-time girlfriend, Katie Freeman, who recently took a job at Queen’s University. It’s a big move for Edwards, after living for 20 years in Canada’s largest city, but so far rural life seems to be treating him well. Or, at least, he’s treating it well. At the sight of Edwards in green leather jacket and green rubber boots, about a dozen ducks begin to quack enthusiastically, calling to him as if he were an old friend. “Hey guys,” he answers, crunching his way across the snowy trail to the riverbank. The ducks form a line at the water’s edge and wait expectantly. Edwards drops the feed into the shallow water, and watches for a minute, as lunch is devoured.

Last year, Edwards won the Governor General’s Award for children’s illustration for his book Alphabeasts. He is clearly passionate about animals – the ones around him, but also the ones he draws. His eyes are calibrated to pick up the faintest lines, the slightest grooves on the skin’s surface: bumps, scales, the textured edge of a feather. His right hand, trained at the Ontario College of Art, expertly maps the mess of stubble on a pig’s snout, the chaotic jungle of a lion’s mane. One look at his illustrations and you get a strong sense of what he sees if he stares at those ducks long enough.

Edwards is a young-looking 45 – fit, broad-shouldered, pink-cheeked. He’d pass for mid-thirties except for the mist of gray in his brown hair and the poster above his desk with the cranky, fatherly message: “Life before Nintendo games – Come to the museum.” Video games arrived too late to ensnare the teenage Edwards, so he whiled away the time drawing, honing his cartooning skills during the hundreds of hours he was locked to a high school desk. With a teacher droning in the background, he filled math and science notebooks with cartoon interpretations of the Bible, Beatles songs, and the stuff of typical male adolescent fantasies: knights, spaceships, monsters. “I was a terrible student,” he admits, “except for the time I scored a 98 in English, which is a miracle because I’m slightly dyslexic.”

He fared much better at the Ontario College of Art, where he dropped his cartoon style in favour of more detailed, life-like drawings. He was prompted by the work of one of his OCA teachers, whose own drawings were masterful animal studies – stunning pencil work the likes of which Edwards had never seen. Edwards was so impressed, he tried to mimic his teacher’s work, once spending seven relentless hours crafting a lion’s head trying to capture it exactly. “I have an obsessive personality,” he explains. A portrait of a vulture earned him an honours mark.

When Edwards graduated from OCA, it was his ability to draw detailed wildlife, not his cartooning, that launched him on a successful career as a freelance illustrator. He recalls in 1987 having to draw 200 varieties of fish for the Metro Toronto Zoo. For Environment Canada, he was commissioned to do a poster for schools featuring worms, which required the Vancouver Ministry of Natural Resources to mail him live samples. That drew warning phone calls from the local post office. Nevertheless, a tadpole project for the zoo is now in negotiations.

In Yarker, his pantry-sized studio has the chaotic feel of a high school locker. Old books are stacked high on shelves guarded by toy robots and model planes. Judging by his bookshelf, with several volumes of animal guides, Edwards could be a biologist. A dusty black stereo lying under his desk emits a steady soundtrack of audiobooks – 10 a week, he says, 20 if he’s working intense hours. Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Edgar Allan Poe, John Le Carré, and atomic scientist and author Richard Feynman all get plenty of airtime.

He pulls a sketchbook off one of the shelves. Page after page is filled with sketches of robots: The Jetsons meets Picasso. He tells me he’s always wanted to do a book about robots. Out of a manila envelope he pulls a series of prints, of pigs’ heads. The works, a series of 200 from the late 1970s, are startlingly beautiful and eerie. The face is all pig, but the eye is strangely human. Works like these often get sent south, to New Jersey, where a friend operates a gallery that does a fast business selling Edwards’ work. (He doesn’t have representation in Canada – yet.)

Edwards cites American Realist Andrew Wyeth as a major influence, especially for how Wyeth painted backgrounds. “It was where his imagination would go – free dreaming as he painted. Images would slip in,” explains Edwards. “I try to create a situation where I can allow that part of me to come through. The part that’s normally not easy to tap into.”

Alphabeasts was a chance for Edwards to flex his imagination – a labour of love that took over a year and a half. Leafing through the rich water-coloured pages, I can easily see why people find its 28 animal portraits so appealing. Each portrait gathers itself around a single animal captured in an absurd domestic setting. An alligator lounges in a plush red recliner chair. An obese hippopotamus poses beside a dainty violin with a couplet beneath teasing – H is for Hippo, preparing to play. “I didn’t want there to be a story,” says Edwards. “Kids make up their own stories.”

The paradox is delicious. Realistically drawn wild animals play house, adjusting to human civilization. Edwards layers his beastly portraits with rich Victorian-like wallpaper patterns that lend the paintings a mesmerizing depth and texture. He flirts with symbolism: “I admit the archetypes slip in. I was listening to German romance poet Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story on the Holy Grail when I was drawing the Kingfisher painting. It made me think of the Fisher King. If you look at the wallpaper in that painting there’s a Grayling fish with holes in it.” He pauses and smiles. “It’s a Holy Grayling. The god of really bad puns had descended. But that’s what happens when you sit in a room all by yourself.”

Edwards is humble, about his talent, his newfound success in children’s books, “I just tried to draw the book I wish I’d had as a kid. I still have a very kid mentality. Strangely, it’s also what pleases the adult in me.” And maybe that’s his secret. His illustrations don’t condescend to children, they engage the imagination on multiple levels, blending childhood whimsy with adult sophistication – William Blake would approve.

Hippo-sized sales and a GG award for Alphabeasts have secured Edwards another book deal with Kids Can Press, due out in fall 2004. He says to expect more fantastical animal portraits themed around idioms and wordplay. In the meantime, he’ll be busier than ever balancing his freelance illustration work, the new book, and sending paintings to New Jersey – putting all his ducks in a row.