Thursday, 17 December 2009

we should be doing better than this

I just read this article which appeared in the Guardian yesterday, very sobering stuff... There is an online petition you can sign if you, like me, want the Government to know you think what they are doing here is wrong.

From the Guardian, Wednesday 16 December 2009:

Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre is not exactly easy to reach. Our taxi from Bedford station drives through the village of Clapham, with its 11th-century church and ancient yews, then out again through fields. Suddenly, we see low-lying buildings like those on a modern industrial estate. A lone man walks purposefully with a dog. From inside a glass-paned office, a man waves us through the boom gates. His uniform could be that of a security guard in any official establishment.

Karin Littlewood is an illustrator and I'm a writer. We're going to run a storytelling workshop – organised by Women for Refugee Women – with children detained in Yarl's Wood, and we have been instructed to bring Criminal Records Bureau "enhanced disclosure" forms and visual ID. This concern over child protection sits oddly with instances of children being seized in dawn raids.

About 1,000 children are locked up every year under immigration rules, many of them in families who have sought asylum. Yarl's Wood is the main centre for detaining children, with about 30 held at any one time. Although the government says it detains families only as a last resort, just prior to removal, the majority of these children are released back into the community. Many will later be granted leave to remain in the UK.

We step into the visitors' centre under a sign that reads: "Serco bringing service to life." Karin has brought rolls of drawing paper, as well as original paintings from our picture book Baba's Gift. We've had to specify in advance every item that we wish to bring. Apart from books to give to the children and library, our list includes a little wooden elephant and hippo, a finger-puppet hare, a small mbira (thumb piano) and an oyster shell.

As we walk along an empty corridor, I scribble down words from a notice: "Yarl's Wood IRC is committed to promoting and celebrating racial equality and diversity." We are searched in a claustrophobic little room, with two women guards, then a door is unlocked and I step into a huge visitors' waiting room with comfy seats and children's toys, overseen by a single guard. By the time Karin has been processed, we've lost a third of our workshop time.

Five locked doors and corridors decorated with murals lead to Crane section for families – mainly mothers with children. We are introduced to the primary teacher. The young lady smiles and we shake hands, but my brain takes time to connect. She is wearing the Serco uniform, with keys attached to her waist. A guard-cum-teacher or a teacher-cum-guard?

Along more corridors and through an indoor sports hall, we come to patches of grass, high wire fences, and two elongated chalets that house newly-opened schoolrooms. The secondary schoolteacher, also with uniform and keys, greets us. It's unusual to run a workshop for people ranging in age from five to 16, but there is nothing usual about today.

School inside Yarl's Wood is voluntary. Today, three older students are attending, along with 11 younger children from Albania, Egypt, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, Jamaica and Nigeria. Some have just arrived in Yarl's Wood. For one boy, it's his 37th day. As I give them my South African handshake, a boy of about 10 immediately asks whether I can speak Afrikaans. He asks, and I answer, in Afrikaans. I tell him I have forgotten a lot. Quietly, he replies: "My ook (Me too)." I catch the sadness in his eyes and ask: "What places do you know in South Africa?" Jo'burg, he says. "But I'm a Jo'burg girl!" I exclaim. I pull out a copy of my book Journey to Jo'burg. Within seconds, his head is buried in it.

Most of the children seem to speak English, and within seconds we are playing a name game to break the ice. I sense a generosity from the older students. How easy it would be for them to dismiss our workshop as something for little kids.

Introducing Baba's Gift, about two children's first trip to the seaside in South Africa, I recount how I wrote the story with my daughter, Maya. I slip in that many years ago I came to Britain seeking refuge. I tell them how Maya had wanted to set a story in the place where her father grew up, but from which we'd been cut off for many years. Karin interweaves my reading by showing her artwork close up, drawing in the teens. They are intrigued.

The children begin to open out. I retell a traditional African story from my collection, The Great Tug of War, about the little hare, Mmutla, who must use his wits against the powerful, bossier animals. Karin draws the animal characters as I act out how Mmutla tricks the elephant, Ttlou, and the hippo, Kubu, into a tug of war with each other. Beneath these age-old stories is the message about resilience that enslaved Africans carried to America and kept alive through Brer Rabbit. In identifying with the little hare, I hope the children may gain their own strength.
Our workshop has to finish before Karin has time to get everyone drawing, but she leaves a painting of Mmutla tugging a rope. It stretches across a long roll of paper, and the teachers say they will give the children a chance to draw in their own players for this new tug of war.
Karin asks the two small boys from Albania to help hold up the paper. They have avoided eye contact and been terribly quiet. If for a brief moment we might have almost forgotten where we are, these young siblings most visibly remind us that here are children undergoing a deeply traumatising experience.

The government has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet its policy runs completely counter to the spirit of the convention. It pays Serco to "normalise" the imprisonment of children – something morally abhorrent that should never be considered normal.

Moral issue

That is why almost 70 writers and illustrators for young people have this week signed an open letter to Gordon Brown, supporting the End Child Detention Now campaign. It follows a joint report by the Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Paediatrics and Child Health, and Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health, warning that detaining children in immigration centres puts them at risk of mental health problems, self-harm and suicide, and demanding an end to the practice. This is a cross-party moral issue in which we should ask every MP to stand up to the rising tide of anti-immigrant xenophobia and support Chris Mullin MP's parliamentary motion to stop detaining children.
After leaving Yarl's Wood, we meet someone who knows it well, and who says the atmosphere inside has been subdued. Last week, she tells us, a woman was deported, naked. It was her final protest.

What else have these young people – who have struck us as so delightful and thoughtful – witnessed in their uprooted lives? Have we no shame?

Monday, 7 December 2009

advocate it

I'm finally up and running on the Advocate Art website - so I guess it's official and I have an agent! The fabulous thing about being represented is that I will now have a presence at book fairs in Frankfurt, Bologna and New York, to name a few. Hopefully this means greater exposure and a chance for more publishers to see my work...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

two down, one to go...

[but the last one is a VERY hairy dog!]

in your face

Done in 10 minutes last night on the back of an envelope with my new black pen and some pastels which were lying around from my current pet portrait, I think this might be my Christmas card instead of my lovingly painted robin! Sometimes life's just like that...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

polka dot robin [or berry christmas!]

I'm working out a Christmas card design based on my cupboard folk art birds. I've produced homemade cards before, but this year I'd like to do something a little more elaborate in design and get them printed up. As usual though, I've left it a bit last minute! This is the rough, which going to try and produce completed artwork for this week (between pet portraits and the puppet festival design work...).

Friday, 6 November 2009

hold on to your sombrero...

My fabulous assistant just picked a name from the sombrero.... and the winner is...


Print will be winging it's way to you soon! Thanks to everyone who left all the lovely comments. I plan to have another celebratory giveaway when (if!) I ever have 50 followers...

Monday, 2 November 2009

rain, rain, go away....

Thought you might like to see how my home town looked at midnight last night... We had a month's rain in a few hours, causing both rivers to burst their banks and invade the town centre (that is actually one of the main roads, not a river!). This has never happened before in living memory, perhaps we should be worried and maybe now it's time for our great leaders to take climate change a bit more seriously? I wish I could say I had faith in them to act! Luckily, for me at least, I live up the hill...

New roughs over on the Growing Boy.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

all change

I've been busy streamlining and reworking my illustration website. A long way still to go but I think it reflects me a bit more now and will be much simpler to navigate around - it had become a bit of a labyrinth!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Can you keep a secret? I'd like to keep it all very hush, hush until it's absolutely confirmed and the agreements are signed, but it looks as though I may have myself an agent...

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Update: Isaiah complete (above).

" if he were shielding himself from the little spotlight shining on him, is if the snow were
a window through which he has caught sight of something deep inside the earth."

from Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Two posts in one day! It's because it is so dark, too dark to work. The rain has been falling in a steady torrent since yesterday, shows no sign of stopping, and has kindly let me know that I have a leaky roof too...

This is the first stage of Isaiah, done with watercolour, pencil and a little salt ;-)

As soon as day breaks, I will start to work over this. It still looks like night outside, even though it's noon.

i colori del sacro

By a strange coincidence, I have just found out that the The Jumis Tree (the original painting of the print in my giveaway) has not been selected for the Italian exhibition. I have to say I'm a little disappointed, mainly because my last selected work was well-received (and in fact was bought at the exhibition) and I liked this new work far more! But also because, having been personally invited to submit work, it was rejected with a generic 'Dear illustrator' letter. It would have been nice to receive some feedback at least...

I recently read a quote from artist Chris Cyprus on changing his style from landscape watercolours to a far more personal illustrative depiction of allotments. He said, quite gleefully "when I started the project I knew I was on to something, because no one wanted to buy them". I guess that's a little how I feel today!

So, if you'd still like to win the first print of this painting, which now has the non-distinction of not being selected (!), make the artist happy and enter here!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

isaiah II

I think I'm ready to start the final illustration. Flipping the child's figure has given him more movement, you can start to feel the sense of rushing air. Reducing the size of the figure in the composition gives him space to 'fall' into and emphasises his smallness and vulnerability.

Also, flipping the image makes me look at it again afresh and tends to show up all the proportions that are not quite right. I often hold my artwork up to a mirror for this very reason. Accordingly, I've made a few tweaks when drawing out the final artwork, which I'll post soon.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

isaiah roughs

In sombre mood as I'm playing around with roughs for a personal illustration. An idea that's been in my head since I first read Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, but is only finally manifesting itself now as I recently read it again. I have a very specific image in my head as to how I want this to look but can't decide yet on the best way to achieve it. Sometimes the personal work is much harder than the commissioned work - it feels more like a child or something precious.

Friday, 16 October 2009

one day your print will come - a giveaway

I have finished all my current pet portaits, completed the Juno illustrations and don't have to meet with the puppet people until next week. Some usually very elusive time working on my own illustrations and playing my harp beckons... Plus, I have tickets for Crooked Still on Sunday night (a mini celebration in itself - the cellist is amazing!!!).
So, to celebrate this short-lived and most unusual artistic freedom (and the fact that I won the puppet design pitch for 2010), I have decided to have a fabulous print giveaway!

The prize:
The very first print of The Jumis Tree painting, inspired by my trip to Latvia in May, numbered and signed.

Want to enter?
Post a comment with your name AND your favourite item on either my illustration site or the Painted Forest.

Want some extra credit?
You can do either of the following, just make sure you leave me another comment for each one!

1) Follow my blog.
2) Blog about this giveaway, and leave a link to my blog.

Contest ends 05 November 2009 at midnight! Good luck!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

oscar II

Almost finished....
(this one is closer in colour than the one below - that pic was taken in artificial light while the one above was taken in daylight)

Saturday, 10 October 2009

woody wilson

I'm still working on Oscar's pet portrait. Oscar passed away recently, and the photo that best captures him unfortunately has next to no detail. Instead I'm concentrating on rendering the light and shadow. I think it makes for a poignant portrait but of course it also makes it just that little bit trickier...

Meanwhile, new arrival Woody Wilson is settling in and is determined to be friends with Rufus the fat cat (whether he likes it or not!). And, after a week of studiously ignoring all attempts to speak to him or pet him, Rufus seems to have finally come round and is speaking to me again! It will be interesting to see Wilson grow - Rufus is not a small cat so I'm desperate to know how big this Maine Coon kitten is going to be when he grows up! I will post updates.

These are Jack's lego Roman legionnaires. They are wearing cloaks and armour cunningly fashioned from my masking tape before I retrieved it!

Wilson again, just because he's cute!!!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


I've been winding down the pet portraits lately but I still get the occasional commission. This is the initial sketch for a portrait of Oscar, a chocolate lab.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

more owlies

Another fabulous fabric find... dontcha just love ebay!


Ah! Finally, at around midnight, I got the two roughs done. The scary blank white paper is always the most difficult part, especially when it's a commission. For my own work, I don't have enough time in the day to work up all the roughs and doodles that litter my desk on every conceivable paper surface! I wish I did! Now I just have to make these into finished illustrations and that's the easy bit!

Monday, 28 September 2009


I've been wandering randomly around the internet for at least an hour (ebay, facebook, youtube etc) instead of producing the roughs for the two illustrations I have to get finished for a magazine deadline on Friday... If there was an award for the world's biggest procrastinator, guess who would get it?!!!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

new addition

This little guy, or one of his siblings, will be joining us very soon... In two weeks we will have the unenviable task of choosing only one from a litter of Maine Coon kittens. I wonder what our marmalade fat cat Rufus will make of it all?

I have a week off from my music job next week but two dog portraits and two Juno illustrations to complete for Friday. In between I have to find some time to spend with my sister and my three small nephews, two of whom I have just met for the first time since they were born three and two years ago! They arrived this week from New Zealand, the last time she came over was when Jackson (now 4) was just 5 weeks old.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

papier mache

How I wish I had more time to devote to my own personal work (or even my blogs!) right now... It occurred to me that the little drummer boy from the Lantern Walk illustration (for last autumn's Juno) is just crying out to be made into a papier mache model. This is definitely a project I'd like to get started on - as soon as I'm finished the design work/pet portraits/and much, much worse... decorating my house...!

Still, now that the boring painting, sanding, cleaning etc is almost over, I'm almost ready to get started on the fun stuff. Like making a cushion out of this fabulous owl material for J's little wicker chair. What a find!

Saturday, 29 August 2009

I spy and detecting in the snow...

Maybe it's because I can feel the approach of autumn, who knows, but I am revisiting Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. It is not an easy read (especially with a small boy of my own) but it is beautiful all the same. Combined with my other book de jour, the amazing A City in Winter, I have an idea for an illustration...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

designing (not illustrating)... boo

Lots of design work is keeping me from working on my book... (but is paying the bills)

Not too bad, at least they're all music or arts related - nice people to work with and interesting to do (plus I get to find out what's on first!).

Monday, 17 August 2009

playing cowboys (girls)

I squeezed a western riding lesson into my hectic schedule last week, and I'm hooked! I visited Leaf's ranch near Alford and got to ride the lovely Cody (the spotty horse above). Fun!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

the growing boy is... growing!

All my creative energies are going into the Growing Boy roughs at the moment. I've been trying to work up a couple of finished visuals as well as the thumbnails to see how the pages are going to fit together.

I haven't decided whether to do just one more colour spread then concentrate on more detailed sketches for each page, or whether to work up the whole book in colour. I'm not sure whether presenting a publisher with a finished book is a good idea, as it might look a bit inflexible (I know from experience that the roughs can change quite a bit from the first visual to the finished artwork!).

Perhaps it's better to show a couple of finished illustrations but the whole book as a rough with my final text. Any advice from folk with more experience of submitting picture book manuscripts than me would be much appreciated!

Monday, 3 August 2009

Beltane no more...

A blast from the past. Fires of Bel was created for I Colori del Sacro exhibition 2007 and has just been bought by a mystery man who saw it in the Italian touring exhibition. So it will not be returning to Scotland when the exhibition ends in November...

I'm waiting now to hear if the Jumis Tree will be selected for the 2009 exhibition, and I have already had some enquiries for the limited edition print (I have the first print, as the original is in Italy). The organisers produced the most fabulous full colour book (complete with spot UV varnish!) for the 2007 tour, I will try to remember to post some pictures of it as it was filled with wonderful illustrations from all over Europe.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

blowing away the cobwebs

Just back from a riding lesson on gentle giant Travis, the laziest horse in the world! Here he is above (but not me riding him, the pic is from the riding school website, as I keep forgetting to take my camera with me...). I've been feeling kind of fuzzy-headed all day, but now I am awake! A beach ride looks fun though, I might book myself on to the next one in August.

Meanwhile, the first Growing Boy colour visual is beginning to take shape...

Monday, 20 July 2009

the intrepid snailhunter

Today I took Jack to my old childhood haunt. The village of Fetteresso is about 20 minutes walk from our house but it feels like a journey back several decades. When I was a little girl I used to cycle here almost every day in summer and, although I drive past it frequently, I hardly ever take the time to wander through the village. The Old Inn is the house I always wanted to live when I grew up - very strange to go back as an adult (and I'd still like to live there!).