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Q&A: Esmé Shapiro talks about her book Ooko and her childhood in northern Ontario

JuneFallPreview_Esme_PhotoIn the short time since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014, this issue’s cover artist, Esmé Shapiro, has garnered lots of attention for her illustration work. Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro – who grew up in Laurel Canyon, California, but spent summers rumbling around her grandfather’s farm in rural Ontario – works as a commercial artist, illustrator, and custom muralist. Her debut picture book, Ooko, will be released by Tundra Books in July.

How did the varied landscapes of your childhood inform your aesthetic as an
artist?
There is a quality to the natural landscape in Ontario that seems untouched, wild, and ever flowing. I often find myself painting foliage that mimics those qualities. My hometown of Laurel Canyon was more of a dense pocket of nature bookmarked by the bustling and disjointed city of Los Angeles. The hills there are studded with flowering cacti, dried yellow grass, and 1920s craftsman houses with tiled mushroom roofs. During the early part of the 20th century, Laurel Canyon is where Hollywood elite had their hunting lodges. I found myself enamoured with the history of the land, and how those stories interconnect with what is going on in the neighborhood today. This sense of wonder sparked my interest in multiple worlds existing at once, and I try to explore that sense of whimsy in my illustrations.

You’re a fairly recent design school grad. To what do you attribute your early success? As I enter into the professional realm, I feel lucky to work with my agent, Charlotte Sheedy, who really understands my vision. She has been a tremendous force in getting my work out there in the world. But I must admit that it probably helps that I am incredibly stubborn, and once I have an idea for a painting or a project in my head, I work endless hours to see it through. This often means that I work at my desk until I am basically just a bowl of soup in a dress.

How did the book come about? I came up with the idea for Ooko while I was staring at my gremlin of a dog, Chebini. She is basically just a fuzzy case for eyes. I started thinking about how bewildering it is that dogs are so integrated into our lives (unlike other animals). I wanted to explore this idea further with Ooko, and I thought the fox was a great animal to represent this peculiarity because they look so similar to dogs. The bones of the story came quite easily for me because I felt like I had a strong idea of Ooko’s personality, but the challenging part was chiselling away the words that were unnecessary. I learned it was important to let my paintings explain what my words could not.

How was your first experience with publishing? It was very eye opening to see how many steps it takes to bring a book to fruition. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to develop Ooko with the incredible editor Tara Walker. She gave me a lot of freedom but also knew when to step in to make sure the book was cohesive. It took a lot of work and perhaps the most profound part of the whole publishing experience was receiving my first finished copy; it’s exciting to know it now has a life of its own.

What’s next on the horizon? I am currently illustrating a children’s book authored by the wonderful Kyo Maclear that will be coming out fall 2017 from Tundra. I am also in the midst of developing a few other stories of my own, so we will see.