Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Illustrating, with Clelia Scala

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Clelia Scala

Alice in Plunderland (BookThug) is the newest installation in Steve McCaffery's Chiasmus Project, which sets out to "queer the classics". Working with such venerated source material, the project needed exactly the right visuals in order to come together. Enter artist, mask maker and illustrator (as well as erstwhile Executive Director of Open Book), Clelia Scala. Clelia provided surreal collage visuals for Alice in Plunderland, creating with McCaffery a witty, absurd take on a classic tale. In this version for instance, Alice chases a pink-haired Bank of Montreal employee down a man hole rather than following a white rabbit with a pocket watch. The dark world of Plunderland is far from Wonderland, riddled with theft, drugs and gangs, but the story retains its exploratory adventurousness and humour. As McCaffery riffs on Carroll's text, Clelia uses John Tenniel’s original, beloved illustrations to create a new, surreal landscape for Plunderland.

Today we're speaking to Clelia as part of our On Illustrating series, where we get to explore the visual side of book creation. Illustrations make or break the way we experience a book, and we love to speak with the talented artists and illustrators who create them.

Today Clelia tells us about how she approached Tenniel's original artwork, an uncanny dream that influenced her as an artist and some of her all-time favourite illustrated texts.

Open Book:

Tell us about how you and Steve McCaffery came together to work on Alice in Plunderland.

Clelia Scala:

Jay MillAr of BookThug asked if I’d be interested in illustrating Steve McCaffery’s book. In 2012, I made a series of collages for I Can Say Interpellation by Stephen Cain, which was published by BookThug, and I think Jay thought my collaging would be a good fit with Plunderland. It was an amazing opportunity for me. Steve is an important contemporary writer and I got to play with John Tenniel’s original Alice illustrations. It was a dream project.

OB:

Collages aren't commonly used as illustration in book form. What drew you to the collage format and what are some of the opportunities and challenges of working in collage?

CS:

Steve’s re-imagining of is remarkable in the way it maintains Lewis Carroll’s rhythms, sentence by sentence, yet tells a wholly different story about Alice. BookThug wanted the illustrations to compliment this approach to Carroll’s text by re-imagining John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations, so collage made sense. Collage allows an artist to take apart familiar images, reshape them and juxtapose them in new ways. When making a collage, I sketch out a rough idea and then go on an image search, so one of the great challenges is finding all of the images for each collage. There’s also a high risk of x-acto knife injuries.

OB:

McCaffery has put an irreverent, witty and decidedly modern spin on a beloved classic. How did the iconic status of the original Alice in Wonderland impact your process when illustrating McCaffery's text?

CS:

I found it challenging to re-shape Tenniel’s illustrations. They are already perfect: witty, surreal, amusing. I mean, how do you make something new and unusual out of a fish in a wig? And, as you say, they’re iconic. I focused on working McCaffery’s text into the structure of Tenniel’s images, kept Tenniel’s Alice as Alice, and, when possible, tried to incorporate his anthropomorphized animals or to find similar, sinister versions of the same animals.

OB:

You also do work in an unusual art form: mask making. Tell us a little about how you approach mask making and how that experience impacts your other artwork.

CS:

When I was a kid, I had a reoccurring dream about people’s faces changing into the faces of beasts. I think I’m still trying to work that out in my mask making. I’ve always been drawn to the uncanny, and the surreal, and with my work — masks and other — I try to convey an unsettled, dreamy feeling.

OB:

Tell us about your workspace when creating collages. Do you have any rituals in terms of what you eat, drink, listen to, or wear while working?

CS:

For collage, I work on a large wood table that looks onto my pretty tree-lined street. It’s been cold and I live in an old house, so I wear many layers, usually topped by an ugly-but-warm grey cardigan. It’s my warm version of a smock. I generally work in silence and I always have coffee on hand.

OB:

What are some illustrated texts you find particularly creative or innovative in terms of artwork? Are there titles you would recommend to readers looking for exciting illustrated texts?

CS:

Stéphane Jorish is one of my favourite illustrators, and his Jabberwocky and The Owl and the Pussycat are both strange and wonderful. In fact, the whole Kids Can Press Visions in Poetry series is worth checking out. George Walker’s woodcuts for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are brilliant. I am in love with every illustration that Isabelle Arsenault creates, especially for Virginia Wolf, Jane, the Fox & Me and My Letter to the World. Edward Gorey is always interesting and darkly funny. I should wrap this up, so I’ll just reel off a few more of my favourites: VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell, Une Semaine De Bonté by Max Ernst, and Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.

OB:

What are you working on now?

CS:

Honestly, I’ve been going flat out since the fall, making masks for the Niagara Artists Centre’s STRUTT Wearable Art Show, making puppets for Castlemoon Theatre’s production of Chester, and making collages for Plunderland. I now need to feed my brain with good books, art and movies. And I’ll also get back to work on an alphabet book that I put on hold some time ago and try my hand at some sculptural book art.


A mask maker, sculptor and collage artist, Clelia Scala’s work has appeared on stages and in galleries, shops and television in Canada and the United States. Her collages can be found in Alice in Plunderland (BookThug, 2015) by Steve McCaffery and I Can Say Interpellation (BookThug, 2011) by Stephen Cain.

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