by Veronika Rot Gabrovec, Slovenian Reading Association
In Slovenia, the arrival of spring is usually just as cheerful and bright as in Browning’s England. When the buds on trees unfolded last May, the festival of children’s literature Bralnice pod slamnikom (Reading under a Straw Hat, organised by the Miš Publishing House) joined hands (or should I say pages?) with the academic book fair Liber.ac (organised by the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana) and with the Slovenian Reading Association. The joint venture brought additional hues to the blossoming park behind the Faculty of Arts: one of most outstanding illustrators of children’s books, academic painter Damijan Stepančič came there to talk about his work.
In one of his previous interviews, Stepančič said that he had no wish to explain his paintings once they had been created. “They simply are – or they aren’t, that’s all there is to it,” he said. “All the fancy and sophisticated words about the painting do no good if the viewers themselves don’t put in some effort to decode the painting, to understand it and get their very own message. The viewer has to become an integral part of the painting and should exit it as its co-creator.”
Does this hold true for his illustrations as well? Stepančič, who was included in the 2010 IBBY Honour List, definitely expects his viewers to work hard. “In this day and age we watch but do not necessarily see,” he says. Therefore he challenges the readers by placing lots of details into his illustrations – these enable the readers to create their very individual itinerary through the book, the journey can be undertaken time and again and is never quite the same.
And how does Stepančič embark on his own journey of creation? When working on illustrations, there is always a period of incubation first. He lets all sorts of texts talk to him, fiction, old maritime maps, encyclopaedias … He claims he has to discover the Archimedean point of each individual text. Once it is found, Stepančič can creatively interpret the verbal text and almost fluently produce all the illustrations. These tell an independent story and at the same time fully cooperate with the verbal text.
Stepančič is a very versatile illustrator and this is often mentioned in reviews, usually as praise. “Still, some people expect me to produce the same pictures time and again,” Stepančič says. “They expect me to have a 'special signature,' something that will at once give me away as the author. But why should I repeat myself? The texts that I work on are not all the same, they differ in language, style, in their message – and accordingly do the illustrations.”
The audience, most of them university students, followed the discussion with interest – unfortunately, it is not all that often that illustrations for children’s books are discussed at university. Albina found it interesting that Stepančič “thinks that every text deserves a fresh start” and admires his ability to vary in approach and style. Danira liked his idea of imaginary ‘goggles for reading between the lines’ which help him create. She also appreciated his belief that children can feel the text with different senses, not just rationally. Alen on one hand liked the idea of 'Easter eggs,' little details in illustrations that Stepančič puts there for his own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of those who are sharp enough to perceive them. But though Stepančič’s view on his work seems to be rather pessimistic. Stepančič feels the adults often ignore illustrations altogether, which undoubtedly results in a loss of meaning of the complete story.
Stepančič has a firm, clear opinion on the important role illustrations play in children’s books. He feels that people should tackle this particular field of literacy much more seriously. “Illustration should be taught as part of university curriculum, and when I say that, I don’t just mean to students of art - everybody should know the ABC of illustrations and their codes, everybody should have the knowledge to fully appreciate the messages illustrations offer,” he claimed, looking sternly at the nearby university building. From your lips to God’s ears, Damijan, from your lips to God’s ears.
Photo of Veronika Rot Gabrovec and Damijan Stepančič by Matjaž Rebolj
Veronika Rot Gabrovec is from the Slovenian Reading Association.