Talking with Albany artist Elizabeth Zunon about illustrating a legend, drawing on her family's history, and stoking her creativity

elizabeth zunon legendary lena horne

Check it out: A new children's book about Lena Horne -- The Legendary Miss Lena Horne -- was illustrated by Albany artist Elizabeth Zunon.

She's illustrated a handful of children's books. And like her other work, the images in The Legendary Miss Lena Horne are beautiful -- warm and textured, incorporating illustration and collage.

We bounced a few questions to Zunon this week about working on the book, an upcoming project based on her family's history, and local spots where she stokes her creativity.

What was the creative process like for doing the illustrations in this book? What sorts of things inspired you or influenced your work?

Illustrating The Legendary Miss Lena Horne started with doing a bunch of research first. I had heard of Lena Horne, and the song "Stormy Weather" from general pop culture (the song starts: "Don't know why, there's no sun up in the sky, Stormy Weather... since my man and I, ain't together... keeps rainin' all the time"), but didn't know anything about Lena Horne other than the fact that she was a singer and actress.

I read the manuscript of the book, written by award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford first, then promptly bought a few Lena Horne CDs to set the mood, help me get into the mindset of the time where she lived, and watched her movies: Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky, and found tons and tons of clips of her performing on the internet, along with information about her life.

elizabeth zunon legendary lena horne couch scene

I then did preliminary sketches which I submitted to my editor and art director at Simon & Schuster, we discussed changes to make, and finally I went on to create the final color illustrations using oil paint and cut paper.

This is the first book that I've worked on about a singer, which was awesome because there was no question as to what music I would be listening to while I worked. Lena was singing to me the whole time!

She passed away in 2010, I wish I could have met her.

You've mentioned in the past that an interest in children's books has been a constant in your life, from childhood through college at the Rhode Island School of Design and into your adult life. Now that you've illustrated a bunch of books, what have you learned along the way -- and has the experience changed the way you see these sorts of books?

I've learned through illustrating books that the characters and their stories don't just leave my mind as soon as I'm finished creating the artwork. I've learned to find things in common between myself and the characters, which helps me tell their stories better, but which also makes them a constant fixture in my life, whether they are fictional characters or not. They feel like my friends, whether I've met them in real life or just in my imagination!

one plastic bag cover

I see these books not just as something to read and enjoy, but as potential avenues that open up in life. One Plastic Bag: Istaou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, for example, made me rethink the way I recycle and dispose of my trash, and made me experiment with creative ways to make art from recycled materials. I would have never figured out ways to make plastic bag jewelry... dreamcatchers... basketball nets or woven purses if it hadn't been for illustrating that book!

The first book that you've both illustrated and written is lined up to be published in 2019. What's the idea for the book and how'd it come about?

Yessss! My first authored and illustrated book is called Grandpa Cacao. It's a story about where chocolate comes from!

The idea stemmed from three things: a love of chocolate, an interview with my dad for an art school project, and the fact that I spent my childhood in the Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), West Africa, which is the world's leading producer of both coffee and cacao (from which chocolate is made). It also occurred to me that I don't think many kids know where chocolate comes from (other than the candy store!).

I have not been back to the Ivory Coast since we left in 1997 just before I turned 13, and after just about 20 years, I'm yearning more and more to go back and actually walk through a cacao plantation and pick one of those beautiful cacao pods off of a tree.

The book Grandpa Cacao is a fictionalized account about my father as a young boy with his father (who died way before I was born), harvesting the cacao fruits on their plantation and preparing them to be exported for use in chocolate. I was a city kid when we lived in the Ivory Coast and never experienced country or village life. The story is a yearning for a part of me I've never experienced before.

Elizabeth Zunon personal photo.jpg
That's Elizabeth with some of her illustrations for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

And last question... What are some places you visit -- or things you do -- around here when you're looking for creative inspiration?

I like going to Crisan at the Albany Institute of History & Art for a piece of cake, chocolate or almond croissant, and a latte for a sugar-caffeine rush to get the inspiration flowing. It's also a great place to also explore a new exhibition or take a look in the gift shop.

When I'm in a creative slump, I like taking long walks around Center Square, Pine Hills, and the downtown area to remind myself that there is a whole world of people, things and activities out there outside of my little home studio.

I also visit Arlene's Artist Materials to be seduced by fabulous decorative papers, tubes of colorful oil paint, and anything else an artist might want. I discovered brush pens and gel pens there, which I now make art with regularly!

Lastly, I'll blast some of my favorite music and dance around or leaf through the pages of a fashion magazine for inspiration.

This interview was lightly edited.
____

Earlier on AOA:
+ Holiday gifts: Elizabeth Zunon
+ So, how do you create a giant clog sculpture?

photos courtesy of Elizabeth Zunon

Comments

Amazing true stories and most amazing art!! So so great!!

Say Something!

We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.

What's All Over Albany?

All Over Albany is for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. In other words, it's for you. It's kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who can help you find out what's up. Oh, and our friends call us AOA.

Search

Recently on All Over Albany

The Capital Region's home ownership rate ticked upward last year for the first time in a while

Another few bits for the apartments / rents discussion... The home ownership rate in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metro area ticked upward for the first time since... (more)

Stuff to do this weekend

Welcome to summer. Have a lemonade and some freshly-picked stuff to do. There's baseball, strawberries, jazz, wine ... all kinds of fun things to make... (more)

Dog poop is a universal issue

One of the bits from this Ian Bogost article about the topics that frequently pop up on Nextdoor: The dog-pop-in-other-people's-trash-cans issue is everywhere and all... (more)

No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Tucked in at the end of a state Department of Environmental Conservation digest of agency police officer encounters -- titled "Strange Rattle in the Engine... (more)

Here's the design of that Henry Johnson commemorative medallion

Here's that how that coin-shaped medallion to honor Henry Johnson turned out. It will debut at a free event at The Palace June 27 at... (more)

Recent Comments

Troy has way more parking downtown than any other city I visit. There are 3 parking garages downtown and 2 are within 1000ft of Monument Square. There are public surface lots nearby. Outside the downtown core there is tons of street parking with few to no restrictions. It is unrealistic to expect cities to have parking directly in front of your destination like the suburbs. That's WHY they're different classifications.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

...has 2 comments, most recently from Ellen

Albany City Hall carillon concerts

...has 1 comment, most recently from Tim

Where to take foreign language classes

...has 6 comments, most recently from BrĂ­d

Five takeaways from the start of the fifth major effort to redevelop 1 Monument Square

...has 9 comments, most recently from RedBarron

Morning Blend for Jun 20

...has 1 comment, most recently from ace