For many, summer brings to mind vacation, and vacation brings to mind various and sundry islands – for those fortunate enough to visit them.
For those missing summer, I highly recommend Amy Novesky’s Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased, published by Harcourt and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Met with good reviews all-around, it was also named a Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book.
Novesky tells the story of a year in the life of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who travelled to Hawaii in 1939 to create two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company. O’Keeffe created many paintings of Hawaii’s wonders—but not one of a pineapple. “She was not going to be told what to paint.”
Novesky writes with reverence for this spirited artist, and Morales’ rich and colorful acrylics (assembled digitally) enchant. Here, I chatted with Morales about working on this book:
Tell me what it was like to read Amy's words for the first time.
This manuscript came to me several years ago, and I immediately connected to it. There were two things that caught me the most.
The first one was the part of the story about Georgia arriving in Hawaii with the eagerness to live by the fields in order to comply with her commission to create two paintings to promote the delights of pineapple juice—and the refusal of the pineapple company, explaining that only workers lived there, to which she answers, “But, I am a worker, too!”
The second was her journey of discovery of such a paradise and how in the process she manages to get caught in the beauty of the flowers, the magic of the landscape and the curiosity of simple things, such as the fishhooks—and ends up never painting a pineapple.
And then I truly laughed when instead she gives the pineapple company two paintings, one of which is of a papaya tree. Papaya had been the main competitor of the pineapple industry.
I guess you could say I was drawn to her stubbornness and defiance.
What was your research for this book?
Most of us are very familiar with O'Keeffe's work as the painter of the New Mexico desert, the jimsonweed flowers, the New York skyline, but not much at all is told about this journey of hers to Hawaii.
While I researched this book, I found very little available about her trip and the artwork produced during this venture. Amy mailed me a book that had been very useful to her own research, Georgia O'Keeffe: Paintings of Hawaii.
[This book] is rich with stories and details about her recognition of the land and gave a view of how experiences turned into paintings, as well as giving insight into the emotional stage of her life at the time. Of course, much of my research was also visual, and I looked for many references [to] Hawaii between the 1930s and ’40s. Flowers were also a big subject of my research. To my delight, many of the flora was familiar to me, since several of these plants also grow in the semi-tropical area of my birth town in Mexico.
I always find it very interesting how research molds the illustrations of a book. In my case, so much of the look of what I create might seem more inherent to my own style, and yet nothing on an illustration happens without the careful consideration of the realistic details of a story.
Was it challenging, especially initially, to interpret the work of such a famous artist, while still maintaining your own voice as an artist yourself?
One thing that was very eye opening to me, while illustrating this book, was how different Georgia and I are as artists. I realized that I had started with a very idealistic image of her, perhaps because that is the kind of artist I am—an idealist floating among clouds.
In the process, I began seeing a more realistic, stubborn and even, at times, elitist painter than I had imagined. I even started to believe that if she had been alive to see my work, she might have hated it! Oh, had we lived at the same time, and I’d had a chance to miraculously meet her, I might have been afraid of Georgia!
But it is her strength that draws me to her, what makes her an example for my own work, what makes me want to look up close, repeatedly, and for a long, long time at things.
Also, this was a book in which I worked with the assistance of two of my siblings. My sister, Magaly Morales [illustrator of What Can You Do with a Paleta, among others], and my brother, Mario Alejandro, were part of my process, and so we shared some of the technical experience together.
Illustration from GEORGIA IN HAWAII is copyright © 2012 by Yuyi Morales and used with her permission.
Morales' pic used courtesy of Seven Impossible Things.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.