A chance meeting during a family holiday offered Northumberland-based artist Olivia Lomenech Gill an introduction to celebrated children’s author Michael Morpurgo in more ways than one.
Olivia, who lives near Wooler, met the War Horse author and former Children’s Laureate in Brittany, France, and went on to illustrate the book Where My Wellies Take Me that he has written with his wife Clare.
The book has already won a number of awards and now Olivia is waiting to see if her distinctive, scrapbook-style illustrations have won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, the only prize in the UK to solely reward outstanding illustration in a children’s book.
She said: “I am ashamed to say I didn’t even know Michael’s work at the time, but that probably shouldn’t go into print, it sounds like blasphemy!”
The book, which was the Morpurgos first joint effort, combines a collection of the couple’s favourite poems with the story of a young girl, Pippa’s walk in the Devon countryside.
Clare and Michael said: “The first moment we set eyes on the work of Olivia Lomenech Gill we knew there was something very fresh and unique about her painting. What interested us at once was how all her pictures told a story. So it seemed to us that she would illustrate stories wonderfully well.”
Although Olivia hadn’t illustrated a book before, her theatrical background and love of storytelling through her work stood her in good stead for the commission.
She said: “Having trained in theatre as opposed to fine art, my work has always been defined as narrative led or illustrative, just because I like working with an idea or story, as opposed to focusing on techniques and more cerebral or conceptual ideas.”
That said, Olivia admitted part of the appeal of Where My Wellies Take Me came from the fact it took her out of her comfort zone.
“Green countryside is not something I have ever tackled particularly, or wildlife, and in retrospect that seems ridiculous as I am surrounded by the most fantastic array of both where I live and work.”
During her research, Olivia spent time exploring the Devonshire village where the story is set and the surrounding countryside before returning to her Northumberland studio to create the first mock-up of the book.
“Though the poems relate to what Pippa sees and does on her walk, I felt it was down to the illustration to link or glue the two elements together.” she said.
Although obviously delighted with the awards and critical acclaim the book has received, Olivia says the anecdotal responses she has heard mean the most.
“Receiving news from teachers and pupils in schools who have taken the book literally, donned their wellies and gone out drawing and writing poems, well, what more could one ask for?”
The winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal will be announced in June and will receive a golden medal and £500 worth of books to donate to a library of their choice as well as the £5,000 Colin Mears Award.