Why I Love Doing Children’s Books by Kieron Black

The Royal Ulster Academy art exhibition takes place in Belfast every year. It’s quite a prestigious event and for an artist to make the shortlist, never mind the exhibition itself, is a fairly big deal, at least locally.

Last year I was lucky enough to make it through the process and get a piece into the exhibition. It wasn’t my first time as an RUA exhibitor, and hopefully it won’t be my last, but it was a memorable one … for all the right reasons and one very wrong one.

It was one of my landscape pieces that made the grade, a moody piece depicting a band of rain falling on the Mourne Mountains here in Northern Ireland. It was a bit of a sleeper hit, a painting I had initially dismissed and only submitted on the encouragement of my wife. I remember painting it – I had felt a very strong need to try and capture the scene but afterwards could only see the flaws in it. But there was something in it’s mood that resonated with people and I think that is why it made the exhibition.

So there we are on opening night, me and my wife, wandering around the rooms and trying to absorb at least some of the amazing work on display. I remember we were scratching our heads in front of one of the more radical pieces when an official from the RUA gently tapped me on the shoulder.

‘Ah Kieron’ she says, ‘I wonder, we have a lady here really likes your piece and is thinking of buying it. Maybe you could have a little chat to her about it?’

‘Uh … what … why … I’m uh … really …?’ I say, concise and to the point as ever. My wife digs me in the ribs. ‘Of course I can’ I finish.

So suddenly me and this very nice lady are standing in front of my painting, each of us clutching a glass of rapidly warming white wine. What a perfect opportunity to further my artistic career I think. So, in order to maximise my chances I immediately morph into a red-faced stuttering imbecile who can barely string two coherent sentences together. It does not go well.

You see, we artists, for a lot of us, we’re the absolute worst choice to represent ourselves. Something to do with left brain, right brain I think, creativity negating salesmanship … or something. Anyway, standing with that lady, all I could see was the flaws in my painting, all I could feel was the heat in the room, all I wanted to do was submerge myself in my chardonnay (which I don’t like anyway) until the encounter was over.

I know – I’m selling myself short, now and then, I know I am. In the end the lady bought the picture. It was a good painting, it still is, and I hope it still brings her lots of happiness … for I did capture the mood I was looking for, it does have a resonance with the right viewer, and it is, I have to stand up and say, art.

But that didn’t help the conversation at the time. I only just managed to stop myself from pointing at the key elements of the painting and saying ‘mountain’, ‘sky’, and ‘rain’ like some foreign student in week two of a ‘nouns’ workshop and there’s a part of me that still thinks the lady bought the work just so I would stop talking.

Now, let’s contrast that with another ‘art’ encounter I had only just last week. I was waiting for my six-year-old daughter, Penny, to get her shoes on after her ballet class (very important I do it myself daddy) and there’s a light tug at the hem of my jacket. I look down to see another six-year-old pink-clad princess, who, when I lean down, whispers ‘I loved your book.’

‘You did?’ I say. Cue a ten minute conversation, earnest and unselfconscious, about what Gerald has for breakfast, how you get to Goblinia from Downpatrick and whether or not the slime in the Slimewoods smells (it does). It was sublime and all I wanted to do after that was get home and do some more work on the next book.

So why was that encounter so different from the RUA ‘sales pitch’? Well, maybe the art was already ‘sold’ for one, in the form of the book, so no pressure there. But otherwise, the situation was very similar – Kieron talk about your work.

And as a piece of work The Goblin’s Blue Blanket also has flaws in it, more than I’d like to admit (don’t tell my publisher!) but in this instance I didn’t care. Together the story and the visuals, if indeed they are separate elements, connected with that little girl and she and I were able to immerse ourselves in that world for the entire duration of the conversation like we had been there, and in a way, we both had.

Now, those flaws. I know I’m not the best artist out there, how could I be? I’m not even in the league that’s next to the league of those I admire most in the field, people like Chris Riddell, E.H. Sheppard, and Satoshi Kitamura. My work verges on sloppy, lazy even, and I can see the bits in it that would have been so much better if only I hadn’t gone for a surf or a snowboard that day and had stayed in the studio instead and just worked …

But, and it’s a big ‘but’ (snort – he said ‘big but’), it’s exactly those surfs and snowboards and hikes in the mountains that inform the work, that make it what it is, and that’s an unalterable, integral part of what I do. No, I’m not the best artist out there, not by a long shot, but I’m the best guy there is to tell my story.

And telling a story is wonderful. I’ve done readings where I’ve honestly wondered if the front row of children are levitating, for every time I look up from a page they are a little bit closer to me, faces rapt. Sometimes I want to shout out ‘I just made this all up you know – it’s complete nonsense!’ But it’s not – my daughter tells everyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t) that she is the little dude reading by mushroom light on the trunk of a tree in the Slimewoods. That her daddy’s favourite character in the whole book is the little guy in red dungarees with the oil can. That he would turn down the chance to be in Pearl Jam if he could only join the bug band playing at the skate park. This, and all the rest of the detail that I put into that book and had once fretted would go unnoticed is again and again seized upon, questioned, and relished. That, dear reader, is an amazing feeling.

Which all makes children unquestionably the best people to work for. They couldn't care less whether my skill-set matches that of Sheppard or Riddell, for them there is the story told and it begins and ends there and there is an important lesson in this which I am still learning.

And don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy and will continue to do my landscape painting, just in future I think I might get my daughter to do the sales pitches for me. She’d do a much better job.

KB