Remember how last month the first Picture This post was going to be about Patricia Polacco? I thought I’d be able to write a succinct overview of Polacco’s work along with numerous insights into the underlying themes consistent throughout her body of work, with picture scans and a timeline of her life up to this point. I went to my local library and checked out most of her 50+ picture books, successfully analyzed Mr. Lincoln’s Way and The Blessing Cup, and then I choked. Her picture books highlight the role of women as authority figures, the importance of kindness, emphasizing traditionally feminine art forms, and so much more that it’s staggering to even approach her bibliography.
Instead of working on an article, I went into total denial that I ever said I’d do it and decided to try a different angle the next month. Rather than tackling prolific women children’s authors such as Patricia Polacco or Margaret Wise Brown, I’m going to focus on less widely known creators. By spotlighting newer writers I can help promote them as well as give exposure to books we haven’t all read thousands of times already. With that word of explanation, let me bypass the original plan and instead introduce you to the brilliant work of Suzy Lee.
Lee has lived in Seoul, South Korea, London, U.K., Houston, Texas, Singapore, and now lives back in her hometown of Seoul. She studied painting at Seoul National University where she received her BFA. Later she began to explore visual art in books and received her MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Arts, London. After graduate school she began to publish her own picture books, and each piece she has released has been vivid, enlightening, and stunning. Her body of work mainly focuses on the functions of human imagination, curiosity, and internal emotional life through mostly wordless depictions of fantasy.
In The Zoo a young girl enters an almost entirely monochromatic zoo with her parents. The scenery unfolds to reveal expressionless people making their way through the zoo, unsmiling despite all the ingredients being present for a wonderful day: balloons, ice cream, and loved ones. The crowd stares into lifeless, grey cages, but the little girl sets off on her own and pursues the one colorful life form around: the peacock. Here the pages begin to shift between stark visits to the different animal exhibits to bright, cheerful panels of the girl playing with the animals.Her parents panic at her disappearance from their dreary day while she is off sliding down a giraffe’s neck. She is finally discovered sleeping on a bench, but even after waking up back into the black and white day, the fantasy of the animals is still alive with her. Her experience carried real meaning and brought her true joy, regardless of its existence in the real world. The narrative begs the question of whether something you dream is real or unreal, and that is something to take up with your friends while you sit around a campfire, preferably looking up at the stars.
Mirror is an exploration of a young girl’s experimentation with her image. She goes from the realization that she has a reflection to playing with the possibilities of her actions. She shifts from peeking at herself shyly to creating Rorschach images as her two sides merge into one. At this point she begins to dance and the drawings are no longer inverses of each other, and they posture independently. Her reflection’s disobedience provokes her into pushing the mirror. It shatters and turns the opposite page into blank space, and she collapses into the same position she was crouched in on the first page. This can be interpreted in many ways, my personal favorite being that the consequence for not allowing herself to behave spontaneously is to isolate herself from others. The drawings are done with black charcoal and a slight yellow watercoloring for her dress. As she embraces her reflection the page erupts into wild black and yellow watercolor splashes, with several shades of yellow worked into the picture. When the two images move through the mirror, it reverts to utilizing negative space and a simple shade of yellow for the dress.
Shadow follows this same color scheme of black, white, and yellow, but with the techniques of pencil and spray paint in addition to charcoal and watercolor. A girl’s imagination allows a garage full of shadows from various odds and ends to slowly morph into a jungle scene. She is chased into the scene created from her own imagination by a shadow fox, who is then left trapped in the non-shadowy world. He cries, and the girl and her gang of creatures embrace him with a group hug. The black and white penciled garage from the first page has been altered into a thrilling spray painted yellow and charcoal black, until the colors are inverted by an injection from the real world. Hearing that dinner is ready bursts the illusion, and the girl turns off the light to leave the room. The shadows no longer exist in the physical world without the presence of light, but then you see that they are jumping and dancing throughout the garage. Her flight of fancy brought them to life, even if they are not technically living creatures.
The final work from Lee that I’d like to explore is Wave. Once again, our protagonist is a young girl in a black, grey, and white world constructed with charcoal, except this time nature rolls in and out of each page with blue, watercolor waves. First she and the seagulls are standing near the ocean (read: life), calmly observing the water. A wave suddenly crashes, almost sprinkling them with water droplets, and they flee. The girl retaliates against the small scare with aggression and lunges at the water, which swirls at her once more. Except this time it doesn’t provoke a reaction. She appears bored and reaches out to the receding water and begins stepping into the wet sand until the water comes back. And she begins splashing. For the first time in the book she is smiling and all of the birds are in excited flight. The surface remains calm (as life generally remains calm for children when they first begin to challenge themselves), and then an unexpectedly large wave rushes at her. As it gathers strength she races back to the shore and escapes, where she then tests her luck and taunts it. It of course crashes down and leaves her soaked, but now she and her bird friends get to examine the seashells left behind in its wake. She collects a few to remember the experience and says goodbye to the water. Such a deceptively simple story encompasses what childhood is all about: facing things that seem scary, having fun while you do it, and making memories.
Suzy Lee’s work leaves me in awe. She’s able to portray childhood in a way that is recognizable to us all, and in stories that can be related to any other stage of life. Her depictions of the vitality that creativity imbibes into our surroundings are compelling, and her artistic talents utilize the dramatic contrast of black charcoal with mixed mediums such as paint, pencil, and spray paint. I look forward to seeing what new formats Lee will explore in future releases, and can’t wait to read the upcoming Ask Me coming out later this year.