Thursday, November 9, 2017

Interview with Artist Donna Z. Falcone (Part 2)

Interview with Artist Donna Z. Falcone
Part 2

Cover Art for A is for Azure Written by L.L. Barkat
and Illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone

Yesterday, in Part 1 of my in-depth interview with emerging artist Donna Z. Falcone, illustrator of the recently published T.S. Poetry Press title A is for Azure (2017), an alphabet book, I discussed with Donna her background as an early childhood educator, her career change, her personal views of creatives and art-making, and the media, tools, materials, and techniques she uses in her artistic practice. Today, Donna and I talk specifically about her artistic collaboration with author L.L. Barkat — how that project came to fruition and what it has meant to her — and how she created the ink-on-tile illustrations for the book. Donna shares some first reactions by adults and children to the book and also lets us in on her dream artistic project. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length. All ink-on-tile images are courtesy of T.S. Poetry Press or the artist.)

Maureen Doallas: How did your collaboration with writer and poet L.L. Barkat come about?

Donna Z. Falcone: After my mother Pat died (in April of this year), I shared with L.L. and a few team members at Tweetspeak Poetry some photos of artworks I had created as an act of prayer and meditation while Mom was in hospital 1,000 miles away. L.L. was inspired to create a children's book around these paintings. She worked up a few sample pages, which included a dedication to Mom, and once my travel and Mom's funeral were behind me, shared them with me. She wondered if I liked her idea [of combining my artworks with her text to create an early reader], and asked if I wanted to work with her to make the book a reality. Of course, as you know, I said yes. 

Consequently, my decision resulted in my painting Poppies for My Mother as She Lay Dying becoming the letter "A" in A is for Azure, as well as the cover selection. A second artwork, You Are My Sunshine, became the letter "T", for "Tangerine". [Paintings for all the other letters in the alphabet followed, as Donna explains elsewhere in our interview.]

The Letter A: Azure
(Selection from A is for Azure Illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone)

The Letter T: Tangerine Sun
(Selection from A is for Azure illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone)

MD: What about the project proposal appealed to you?

DZF: I was deeply moved by L.L.'s desire to create this book; by its dedications to my mother and L.L.'s daughters — these felt like art in my heart, with so many connections overlapping; and because the project was both beautifully conceived and excruciating to undertake. I sensed immediately that this project was going to become very important as I moved through a period of fresh grief, and that it would always give me a beautiful place to land when moving in and out of my aching for Mom. It's difficult to make sense of these two realities: one, that Mom would have loved this book and, two, that the book would not exist but for Mom's death and absence. The project forced me to walk with and embrace two completely incompatible ideas. That's very powerful, and it is unanswerable. That is life. That is art.

MD: What are some ways that you worked with the author to make the 58-page A is for Azure?

DZF: This collaboration was such fun! At first, L.L. asked me to upload all my images, which I provided on pages of thumbnail snapshots. From those L.L. selected the paintings that would work with her concept, matching each one to a letter of the alphabet. This step then showed us what letters were unaccounted for.

L.L. next sent me color swatches, each paired with a color name that coincided with the necessary letters of the alphabet. Many of these were completely new to me, and some were familiar but not as color names. This collection of swatches revealed a kind of "to-do list" of paintings, though with no particular subjects in mind. My goal was to "paint something beautiful"; L.L. would know the right painting for each letter when she saw it. It was a fascinating, creative leap of faith, our quest; I would paint something and e-mail the image to L.L., and she would let me know if it worked or not.

MD: For A is for Azure, you created ink-on-tile illustrations. Describe what that artistic process entails (for example, how did you learn of the process; what materials do you use; how much time does it take to create a single illustration using that process; what happens if you make a mistake).

DZF: The process is very fluid, which is not meant to be a pun. Because alcohol inks are so free-flowing, when I am using them, I have to think journey, not destination. During this project, I started to think of the inks as my friends and, on some level, resorted to asking them what they wanted to do. As my experience using them grows, I am learning how to use brushes to nudge the inks in a certain direction or to smooth out a line but, mostly, I don't use tools directly with the inks.

I am fascinated by the way an ink moves and interacts with other inks on a tile. I do a lot of dripping and then move the ink back and forth by tipping the tile in one direction and then another, or spinning the tile quickly on my lazy Susan while I drip ink from its bottle. One of my favorite ways to move ink is with forced air — I created my own machine for just that purpose! It's a funny-looking gadget made from a reverse-engineered hand-held vacuum, a long rubber hose, and my mother's old cake tip! I created the grasses and stems in the book's cover image from the bottom up, using forced air to blow the ink across the tile. Oh, that was such fun!

Fire is another process that I like to use, though I get nervous telling people that I use open flames because they can be dangerous and I don't want anyone to try this process unsupervised. (Please, don't try this at home, folks! Not without proper training!) I created the poppies for the book's cover using flames on red ink. 

I don't worry about making mistakes. I use the unexpected turns a painting can take to learn more about the inks and the process I'm using, and my resistance to the inks' nature. 

Because the medium contains alcohol, it dries very quickly, which means I need to work very quickly. Maybe that's why I like the process so much; there is not a lot time for wringing of hands! Sometimes I think I am finished with a piece only to change it a dozen more times before I am really finished.

I imagine that the way I interact with the inks and tiles feels like paired improvisational dance must feel: if suddenly there is a leg in your right hand, well, you just keep moving with the music. The more synchronous you become, the fewer mistakes are made because every step is part of the whole.

When I paint a  tile that I don't particularly want to keep, I wash it off, although I am doing that less and less these days because I've learned that these are the tiles others want. . . as with bananas [see explanation below]. . . or the painting for "C", for "Cranberry". I washed off that tile as soon as I took a photo of it and, as it turns out, this became one of L.L.'s favorite pieces of mine. The expression "One man's trash is another man's treasure" applies perfectly.

MD: What influenced the style you used to illustrate L.L.'s text?

DZF: Because I didn't know what L.L. was looking for in each illustration, other than color, I felt free to just keep creating in my own style and, based on her feedback, adjusting. It was a leap of faith, to simply begin and see what happened on each tile. L.L. was very supportive of my process, which seemed to fit well with hers. My sense was that we both were seeking inspiration through our collaboration, trusting that the work would all come together if we stayed true to our own styles.

It was very important to maintain an attitude of playful exploration, as opposed to searching for a particular thing. In fact, when I was trying over and over again to re-create a particular painting of bananas that L.L. had seen in my old photos, which no longer existed, I found it impossible! The only existing image was blurry. But L.L. really loved those bananas and wanted them for the letter "Y", for "Yellow". After several attempts, frustration began to creep in—this was not a direction I wanted to go. . . in frustration, I mean. I decided to "let go" of the bananas for a while and play with the color yellow. When I stopped trying to "force bananas", the word "lemon" popped into my head and that color soon found its way onto a 6" x 6" tile. When I sent L.L. a photo of my lemon via e-mail, she wrote back within minutes, telling me she really loved  that lemon. Attached was a photo of the page for "Y": "Y is for Yellow. Hello, Yellow!" I have shared this little story with a group of kindergarteners, who thought it was very funny that a bunch of bananas could become, in fact, a lemon!

Sunflowers by Donna Z. Falcone

MD: How many illustrations did you create for the book? Did any particular color-word present a challenge to you as illustrator?

DZF: I created six new paintings. The painting for "Y is for Yellow" had us going bananas for a while but that for "I is for Iceberg" stands out as the most difficult to do. An interesting shade of blue, the color was hard to hold in my mind and difficult to find in available inks. The image for the painting for this page in the book went through several iterations, including several versions of nests of birds' eggs, an actual iceberg, dragonfly wings, and ocean waves. Eventually, a stream flowing through a pine forest caught L.L.'s imagination and I created "I is for Iceberg, an Iceberg stream." That was the last image we needed for the book.

It wasn't until A is for Azure was published that I finally saw L.L.'s beautiful words assembled with every painting. To this early childhood professional, the book was perfect. As an artist, I was thrilled. As a grieving daughter, I found it such a tender tribute. 

MD: Of all the illustrations you created, which are your favorite(s), and why?

DZF: My favorite painting is H is for Heliotrope. The colors are striking and the tile, a 10" x 14" vertical tile in "real life", has a majestic look to it. A trio of heliotropes standing tall, with one off to the left, possibly only having just bloomed. . . it reminds me of the artistic women in my family: my mother Pat, my sister Peg, and me. Three in a row. . . I'm not sure who that is peeking in but I think it's I, since my mother and my sister have been artists for as long as I can remember and I am what is called "a late bloomer".

The Letter H: Heliotrope
(Selection from A is for Azure Illustrated by Donna Z. Falcone)

The painting for the letter "A" in A is for Azure — is another favorite, because it started the whole project and began as a prayer for Mom just two days before she died. To me, this is her painting, as is "T is for Tangerine". The latter was painted hours before Mom died. . . I still 1,000 miles away. I felt that I could be with her in art and maybe, in a way, I was.

MD: The alphabet book includes, among other supporting materials, a color key. What makes the color key, an unusual addition, necessary?

DZF: L.L. took great care to provide children with novel and beautiful words representing many different colors. Those words may be unfamiliar to most of us (they were were to me), and the subtle differences among the various shades of a color, let's say yellow, are important. The colors brass, yellow, and xanthic are all related, for example, but definitely are not the same. The key provides parents and children with necessary guidance in how to pronounce each word and encourages readers to seek out the subtle color differences, all this in one place. Precision matters; it adds another layer of authenticity and challenge to the experience of reading the book. People have made a point of telling me how grateful they are for this page at the end of the book, for putting to rest any guessing about how to say a word.

MD: There are innumerable children's alphabet books on the market. What makes A is for Azure stand out from other such books, including those you might have used or recommended in your earlier role as educator?

DZF: As I mentioned, A is for Azure is an alphabet book to experience, not simply read. For example, there are color-coded letters embedded in the text on every pair of pages. Children instinctively grab the color from the first letter of the color word, which is also the first word on the page, and scan the opposite page to find its match.

MD: How did your background as an early childhood educator best serve your work on this project?

DZF: My love of children is what served me best. Since the author's concept was her own, it did not influence me. I was not aiming for "children's art"; I was simply aiming for "beautiful".

MD: What was your first reaction on seeing the book in print for the first time?

DZF: When my copy arrived in the mail, I opened it via "LIVE on Facebook". I was overwhelmed by its beauty and the synchrony of each and every page. When I read the dedication to Mom, I cried.

Another thing I did "LIVE on Facebook" was pronounce incorrectly the word "azure". When I realized my mistake, I was mortified. . . but only for a few seconds! I laugh now when I tell this story, because it really illustrates the need for that color key at the end of the book.

MD: Have you witnessed children's reactions to the book, and especially to your illustrations?

DZF: When my sister shared the book with my four-year-old great-nephew, he had the most satisfying reaction: he turned the pages one by one, saying "ooooooo" followed by "wow!" Yes, that is the best review ever!

When I read the book aloud to a first-grade class, the children became very excited every time we came to a letter that was at the beginning of their own name. One little boy proudly informed me that if the word "denim" started with a "v" it would be "venom"! Those children were very excited.

MD: If you were trying to persuade children's parents to purchase the book, what would you say?

DZF: I would assure parents that this is a book that even they will learn from, so reading it will not be boring! I also would tell them that their kids will be so empowered by knowing all the really cool color words. Just imagine whipping out A is for Azure at Grandma's, turning to the page with the word "xanthic" on it, and pointing to the image of a yellowish golden moon.

MD: What have you learned from your collaboration on A is for Azure and how might that influence any future artistic project?

DZF: It's important to do the things we don't know how to do. It's also important to seize opportunities when they arise instead of waiting for the perfect time and proper mood. Taking such an approach gives me a lot of courage and freedom; it's an invitation to think bigger than I'm used to thinking.

MD: Can you share any information about your next art project?

DZF: I have just been invited to offer a full gallery show at a local museum and art gallery. The show  [see Save the Dates! below] is to be titled "From Azure to Zaffre" and will feature all the art from the book in either its original form or as gallery-quality reproductions.

Zaffre Feathers by Donna Z. Falcone

While it's true that I have no idea how to put on a gallery exhibition, it's also true that I never knew how to be an illustrator before this project. If we always only do the things we have done before, we will never do anything new! Life is too short to be landlocked by my own insecurities. The only way I have found to overcome my insecurities is to challenge them by doing the very thing I never thought possible.

MD: Imagine and describe your dream art project.

DZF: I have unlimited funds and unlimited space. I create alcohol ink images that are transferrable to large panels of clear glass and hang the panels in front of an enormous window. The light carries the images downward, where they appear on the floor, or over to a clean white wall. As the sun crosses the sky, the images shift and move. All the colors of the inks call out for light—that is where the magic is.

(Ironically, the inks are not light-fast, which is why, in this dream, the images are transferrable.)

Imagine! If I could fill a room with that kind of light. . . well . . . I would probably cry.


Donna Z. Falcone hails from the small town of Spencerport, New York, which she describes as "up north on the Erie Canal, complete with towpath and a lift bridge." She and her husband Joe, who met in graduate school, are the parents of two sons and caretakers of "our rather large dog 'Gruffy' who suffers from the delusion that he is a Pomeranian." They have moved their family hither and yon—first to the warm(er) clime of North Carolina and then to Tennessee. After five years in the South, in 2000, they decided to relocate again, and packed up their belongings and headed to northeast Pennsylvania, where they spent the next 16 years until, faced with an empty nest but a still-to-fill dog bowl, Donna and Joe headed off with Gruffy to plant a few new roots in South Georgia. Their now-grown children are content to "hold down the fort" in Pennsylvania.

Donna's work in early childhood education spanned 30 years and four states. In 2009, when Lyme disease and multiple co-infections "brought my career to a screeching halt," she turned to her "earlier love of writing" and gave her dreams of becoming an artist room to develop and grow. 

In addition to creating visual art with "a playful splash of alcohol inks and paint," Donna has published poetry in Poetry Nook (Vol. 3), When Women Waken (see "If Hearts Had Handles", Issue 3), Every Day Poems, and Her work also has appeared alongside that of other artists at the Websites for Inanna House (see "The Works of Donna Falcone", November 2013), Makes You Mom, and Tweetspeak Poetry blog. Now "living far south of Atlanta," Donna takes "my chocolate dark, my coffee light, and my tea touched by stevia. As for wine, please make mine Merlot," she adds.

Donna blogs at Painting Goodbye. Also see The Brighter Side: Living with Lyme.

Donna Z. Falcone on FaceBook

Sign up for the artist's newsletter, Inky Updates from Donna Z. Falcone. She'll be offering demos, classes, and more.

A is for Azure at TweetSpeak Poetry

Save the Dates!

Donna's solo exhibition, "From Azure to Zaffre", is planned for September through December 2018 at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College's Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village, Tifton, Georgia, part of the University System of Georgia. Planning for the exhibition, which you won't want to miss, is underway. It promises to be a very special event for children.

On Zazzle. . . .

A variety of products bearing some of the artist's and author's favorite images are available to purchase from the Zazzle Store, including:

2018 A is for Azure Calendar



Playing Cards


Also of Interest. . . 

Stuart Taylor, "A is for Azure: Tifton Artist Works on Children's Book", Tifton Gazette, September 21, 2017

L.L. Barkat, "Learn to Read! Beautiful Art for a Predictable Sentence Chart", TweetSpeak Poetry Blog, August 4, 2017

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