Charmaine Ledden-Lewis makes her debut into the illustration world, capturing the vivid beauty of the Australian Outback, in Bruce Pascoe’s new children’s book Found. As the 2019 recipient of the Kestin Indigenous Illustrator Award, Charmaine was given the opportunity to flex her artistic skills and captivate readers in an emotional story of separation that read quite close to her heart.
First of all, congratulations on the book, this must be a really exciting time for you. How are you feeling now that your work’s out there?
It’s really surreal. I suppose that’s a bit of a cliché but it’s pretty fantastic to love children’s books your whole life, share children’s books with your children, and then to see your own children’s book out in the world. It’s magical.
You won the Kestin Indigenous Illustrator Award. Can you tell us a bit about the submission process and what you had to consider when applying?
I heard about the Kestin Award through my teacher librarian mother and my teacher librarian sister-in-law, who both thought that it would be something that sparked interest, and when I read about it I was instantly hooked.
The award provides a brief which you need to visually interpret, which in my case was about a little calf, and we were given a snippet of the beginning and a snippet of the end. I don’t know quite how to explain the sense of sadness that I got in those simple sentences, but it was instantly a story for me––about a calf that had been separated from its family––that sort of resonated with my family history as well. So, it was something that I was compelled to try and capture in paint.
In regards to the submission, I worked on two paintings which was the award’s requirements and sent them off, and then waited a couple of weeks which felt more like a couple of years. Then I heard back that I’d made it to the final round, and then I got a really lovely phone call one afternoon saying ‘Guess what, we’ve selected you’, which was magical. I don’t know if that quite describes it but it’s a brilliant award, it’s a brilliant initiative.
Can you tell us more about the award?
It’s the brainchild of Magabala in conjunction with the Kestin family, Harry Kestin in particular. They set out in hope of trying to promote Indigenous illustrators in the workforce. They then decided ‘hang on a minute, let’s do unpublished Indigenous artists and illustrators. Let’s promote people from grassroots up’. I think that’s what’s uniquely special about this award; it gives people the opportunity to break into this industry.
Part of winning the award was that you received a mentorship. What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt that have really made a difference to you and your work?
The mentorship was fascinating, your eyes become very open to just how much work is put into a children’s book. It’s not simply just an author and illustrator coming up with an idea and then fleshing it all out; there’s a whole team of people who are guiding the idea, shaping the idea––it’s really a collaborative effort. And I suppose not working in a creative team before, I found that really interesting. Of course, with the nature of the book, I had to switch my head into visual literacy mode and not fine arts mode. So, it’s almost like…I don’t really want to describe it as advertising, but you’re selling a story through pictures. You’re doing that in the art world as well but this is a completely different audience, this is children, and if there’s a demographic that’s a part of our community that’s so fundamentally perceptive to the visual world, it’s children and how they interpret that. It was really lovely doing that, and having two small children myself it was wonderful sharing that experience with them. I suppose it was really lovely as I began work on the book. Sort of trialing various concepts on my children and seeing whether I could elicit the response that I was after or conjure the emotion that needed to be in that part of the story. I had some guinea pigs with me.
You’ve mentioned before that this book is quite personal to you. Can you tell us a little of what this book is about and how this has played into your family history?
Definitely. It’s very much allegorical in nature. I recently learnt that Bruce Pascoe set out to write a lovely tale about finding a calf on his farm and finding a home for it. And then I went into this Stolen Generations analogy. Possibly because that’s my family’s history and a lot of people ask ‘how do you connect to country and connect to culture?’ It’s really difficult, it’s incredibly difficult when that culture was denied generations before me. It’s not something that we’ve had the privilege of sharing through our family tree; it’s something that we know, but it was taken. I suppose in this book, the calf epitomises the journey that my family lineage has undertaken. However, the ending brings so much hope because the calf finds their mum. And I like that it was an uplifting ending because there’s always hope.
It’s definitely such an important story that needs to be told, and introducing it in a children’s picture book is a really great way to open such conversations and discussions.
I think it’s really important to get into that audience as well, to get these truths about our country and the citizens of our country, First-Nations people. Get those stories across, because I know it was something that was never in my line of sight or in my peripheral when I was growing-up. I think there’s a big change, a very significant change happening in our country at the moment and it’s a positive one. And where better to start than with the next generation?
I’ve seen a lot of change in the education system with how they approach Australian history. There’s a lot more self-awareness and it’s texts like this that really solidify that change.
Yeah, and I suppose it’s about bringing awareness and I think you mentioned before, it’s just talking about it. I think in the past it’s been something that’s shameful and so the country just doesn’t want to acknowledge that these things happen. And then we’ve got change with Kevin Rudd saying sorry and those sorts of things. Then there’s books like ‘Sorry Day’. So, I think it’s brilliant and really important that books like this start to come out for that next generation as I said before.
It’s acknowledgement. Acknowledgement of significant events that happened in the country rather than denying, ignoring. I think it’s that acknowledgement. You can’t really stand in Australia and call yourself an Australian citizen if you don’t acknowledge what Australia is and what has happened in the past.
What’s next for you? Do you have another project that you’re working on?
I do, I’ve pitched a couple of books to my editor recently and we’re working with Magabala to develop those concepts further. So hopefully I’ll have some more books out in the market in the years to come.
Is illustration something that you’ve always wanted to pursue or did this develop over time?
I’ve always enjoyed art. I’ve loved art since I was a child. As I said, I’ve loved children’s books, picture books in particular, and especially being a mum, I suppose the two things joined naturally. This opportunity arose and it was almost like a lightbulb like ‘Why haven’t I considered this before?’ It’s definitely something that I was interested in, but it also seems like such a competitive industry as with most creative industries, and it’s perplexing wondering how you go about entering into that industry. Which is again, why the Kestin award is so brilliant.
Can you tell us a bit about the process that brings author and illustrator together? And how should one get in contact if they’d like to work with you?
An editor or a publisher will look at the skillset of an author and the manuscript of an author, and then they will look at an artist and think ‘Yes, these two powers combined will produce something really wonderful’. Somebody shared their [idea with me] recently, that it would be interesting to see several artists interpret Bruce Pascoe’s text for Found. It would be interesting to see what various artists come up with in terms of concept. I suppose you could say that for any book, and I guess that’s why it’s so important that publishers are good publishers and they have a good eye for things and editors alike. So, if somebody wanted to get in touch to do a book, my recommendation would be to approach a publishing house and start from there. If people wanted to get in contact with me directly, I’ve got a website I’ve just established.
Do you have any advice to young artists who may be looking to break into the illustration industry?
Work with heart and transcend inhibition and just keep trying. The right thing will happen, the right thing will come along. Your audience may be your family or it might be the world. It doesn’t really matter if you have a story or something you need to convey that’s important. I think we’re all artists and too many people say ‘Oh I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t paint’ and that’s rubbish. I think it’s something that was intrinsically part of our first language, [it] was to communicate with other people through pictures. And I know in my culture that was record keeping. And definitely song lines and stories, but pictures as well.
Finally, what books are you currently excited about as a reader?
I am loving Cooee Mittigar which is another Magabala publication and it’s Darug, which is the land that I’m living on. It’s not necessarily my ancestors’ but it’s Blue Mountains land. It’s really cool and it explores language which is great. And Tohby Riddle’s The Astronaut’s Cat is just fantastic, in that it’s got this eerily parallel storyline to isolation and what the cat does in isolation. It came out during the first wave in New South Wales of lockdown. I bought it for my son and it was just so deep, it’s got so many levels to it and it strangely explored isolation as we were experiencing it. That book is really grabbing me at the moment. Oh, and my youngest is in love with No Way Yirrikipayi by Alison Lester, and it’s just a really funny tale. And again, it incorporates language as well. It’s just really cute and really funny about a crocodile trying to eat everything in its path and a snake comes along and eats it instead. It really appeals to my son’s sense of humour.
Found was released on 1st August 2020, and can be purchased from Magabala Books.