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!!

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