This year, Yuyi Morales illustrated Georgia in Hawaii, Amy Novesky’s picture book about Georgia O’Keeffe. This week, Morales chatted with Kidsbiographer about researching tropical flowers, remaining true to oneself, and seeing children paint a pineapple.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Georgia in Hawaii? I’m particularly interested in hearing about any botanical research you might have done – I love the paintings of Hawaiian flowers that grace the book’s frontispiece and endpiece.
Yuyi Morales: The first part of illustrating Georgia in Hawaii consisted of getting accurate references for the time period in which O’Keeffe’s trip to Hawaii took place. Although I found plenty of information and imagery about Georgia and her art in general, finding specific images and documentation about Georgia’s trip to Hawaii was much more difficult. One book kept me afloat: Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings of Hawaii, published by the Honolulu Academy of Arts. All the 20 paintings that resulted from this adventure in Hawaii are depicted in this book, as well as two photographs of the artist. Now, while some of O’Keeffe’s paintings depict the flora, it wasn’t until I began researching every one of the specimens in the paintings that I finally had a glimpsed of how she might have looked at them and then given shape and transformed what she saw into paintings. It was such a moment of discovery to become familiar with the look, size, and the way of growing of many of these specimens that inspired Georgia to paint. Also, many of these flowers had been part of my growing up, and I began recognizing them and pairing them with memories of my own childhood in a tropical region of Mexico . The plumeria is a fragrant flower that still grows in a tree right outside on of my aunt’s house, and the heliconias and philodendrons grow abundantly in the gardens of many of my relatives.
Kidsbiographer: How did Georgia O’Keeffe’s work influence your illustrations for this book?
Yuyi Morales: One thing that I kept with me about Georgia’s work as I planned the illustrations for Georgia in Hawaii was her dedication to looking at things carefully and often paying attention to an specific piece of the object’s beauty. There we have her paintings that depict flowers or fishhooks from a much, much closer view than most of us are accustomed to. And so, I wanted my illustrations in this book to honor observe very closely.
Also, I decided to bring into my images other elements from paintings she created at other times of her life. And so, if you look carefully, as I imagine Georgia might, you will notice that other of her paintings are blended into the landscape of my illustrations, mainly to depict emotions the way I imagine she might have felt them. For example, in the image that illustrates Georgia’s frustration at being told what to paint, I depicted it with a sharp form influenced by her painting Orange Red Streak, 1919. The glow of a volcano and Georgia Georgia falling in love with a piece of red coral, I depicted inspired from her painting Special No. 21 (Palo Duro Canyon). My favorite, however, was the inspiration from New York with Moon, 1925 to replace the walls of her New York studio with a moon peaking among the clouds, the buildings, and a street light reminiscent of her own work.
Kidsbiographer: Like many picture-book biographies, Georgia in Hawaii is very character driven. How did you approach character development in this book from an illustration perspective?
Yuyi Morales: Illustrating any character is an exercise of discovery. As I studied who Georgia was as a person and as an artist, the more I understood that she was very different from what I had imagined at first. Stoic, resilient, stubborn, she even seemed much different from the kind of artist I am. Making bonds between the person who portraits her (me) and the person she was is an act of looking, of understanding, and finally of reconciliation. I can’t claim I know exactly who Georgia was, but I know that I rejoice in having explored her work and in imagining what she might have felt as she fell in love with the views and discoveries she made during her trip to Hawaii and then put in paintings.
Kidsbiographer: How did you, as a visual artist, relate to O’Keeffe’s conflicts in Georgia in Hawaii?
Yuyi Morales: One of the most fascinating things for me is how art surfaces from the undercurrents pushing upwards in our lives. A painting, a song, a story, or any significant creation is only as powerful as the stirring in our lives that makes it happen. Art is rich because it is filled with our questions, our fear, our desires, and our thirst for understanding. For me, discovering where these paintings of Georgia might have come from, what was happening in her life at the time, what were her challenges and her fights is what makes it relevant for me. Who was Georgia at that time is the question that kept my own discoveries alive when I looked and tried to honor her paintings. To be told what to paint? I could never paint other people’s dreams and desires. What I paint is what I dream and desire myself, what I wonder about, what I need to know more about, and even what I fear, or else it would not be heart-art, but hand-labor.
Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Georgia in Hawaii?
Yuyi Morales: At the release party, Amy Novesky created a coloring page that said something like this at the top: “In her studio in New York, when Georgia closed her eyes, she could still see Hawaii and its sharp fruit. Then she finally painted a pineapple. Would you paint one too?” Then, children were invited to draw themselves painting a pineapple.
And seeing what the children created and how they drew themselves painting a pineapple in their very own way was the most fascinating of the discoveries of how a story can inspire the freedom to create.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Yuyi Morales: Right now on my table are the many pieces of what my editor Neal Porter calls “a meditation of Frida Kahlo.” This is a book I have been creating for a while, the illustrations for which use puppets, paper cuts, and paintings.
I am also working in a book about Pablo Neruda, a gorgeous text written by K.L. Going.
And right in between these two projects (end the rest of my life), I am now, as we speak, making a piece for a book called America the Beautiful, in which I am one of ten artist asked to expand on President Obamas’s message of inclusion and working together.
And with that, it’s time to go back to my drawing table!