Picture books are called picture books for a reason; their pages are filled with often-fantastical graphics aimed to appeal to a young people’s imaginations, while sentences run subtly at the bottoms of the pages.
Medea Gallery Artists’ Co-operative recently took advantage of this unique literary layout and created an alphabet picture book entitled A is for Artist, which is “a kaleidoscopic view of creative energy channeled through 24 individual prisms,” according to Sheldon Dawson, coordinator of the project.
“We decided to create this book to reach an audience beyond the walls of the gallery and to showcase the eclectic work created by the 24 contributing artists,” explained Dawson. He credits Kathleen Black, another member of the cooperative, with the idea to create a book for children; Dawson added, “Since our collective had 24 members, an alphabet book seemed like a good fit.” This coincidence proved to be a success. Each page represents a letter of the alphabet and is illustrated by an original piece of artwork from a member of the co-operative, paired with a sentence that they wrote.
The imagery is as diverse as the members of the collective. The letter “P” is a sculpture by Helen Lyons, “Q” is a water-colour painting by Leo McVarish and “R” is a photograph by Judith St Germaine.
For some adults, writing or creating art specifically for young people is a real challenge, feeling they have to have to alter their personal style to be accessible. For Dawson this was not the case, however. “I didn’t have to change because I am a freelance illustrator, and have often worked on children’s books in the past,” he said.
Dawson’s experience with illustration shines through in his piece, titled The Pumpkin Queen’s Garden, a fantasy land painted in acrylic to represent the letter “G.” The page is filled with detail, an almost cartoon-like rendering of a photograph found in an “I Spy” book. The quirky and charming scene is filled with animals and foliage, swarms of bees and butterflies, rabbits, squirrels, cassette tapes and a polar bear holding a drum.
Dawson doesn’t believe that any of the contributors had to alter their personal artistic styles or techniques too much. “Perhaps the biggest adjustment was in choice of subject matter,” he remarked. However, the artists tried to stay true to their practices. Dawson explained, “One of our goals was to appeal to children, while still giving parents an accurate representation of the sort of artwork regularly on display at Medea.”
The Medea Gallery Co-operative is the oldest artist cooperative in Winnipeg, and perhaps even “the oldest surviving artist co-op in Canada,” according to Dawson. Medea was formed by a group of women artists in 1976 who felt that they were “shut out of mainstream galleries because of their gender.” Dawson explained that these women named the gallery Medea after “a strong female character in Greek Mythology, as women artists have become more accepted in the mainstream the makeup of the Medea co-operative has evolved to include men.”
A is for Artist follows in a strong tradition of collective projects by Medea. For instance, two years ago the co-op experimented with a community art project, in which they “loaned out artwork for display in public spaces such as schools, office buildings and libraries.” The co-operative also partnered with the Manitoba Theatre Center last year to create an exhibit of artwork for the MTC lobby during their production of Medea, fittingly. The co-operative is going to continue to partner with MTC this year during the production of Steel Magnolias in the spring.
The majority of the 24 pieces created for A is for Artist were on display at the Medea gallery at the end of last year. The gallery is currently looking to exhibit the works outside of the gallery space, with one possible venue being the Millennium Library. Moreover, the book itself is available directly from Medea gallery or at McNally Robinson booksellers.