When Words and Pictures make Magic

Poetry Ireland News November/December 2013

Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to work in the project team for the Laureate na nÓg / Children’s Literature Laureate. It has always been great fun; we’ve been blessed with two wonderful laureates thus far,Siobhán Parkinson and Niamh Sharkey, both of whom have blazed a trail for the extraordinary work currently being done by children’s writers and illustrators. But by far the most exciting project to date comes to fruition this November when Pictiúr, the largest ever exhibition of Irish children’s book illustration, visits for a two month residency at IMMA (Royal Hospital Military Rd, Kilmainham, D8).

When a new Laureate is appointed, they spend time identifying the themes they’d like to pursue during their two-year term of office. As an author and picture book-maker, Niamh Sharkey was anxious to find a way to put the spotlight on the wonderful work being done by contemporary Irish illustrators, who are worldrenowned in their field, winning prestigious international awards and working with some of the finest publishing houses, both in Ireland and overseas. The idea of a touring exhibition soon evolved; Niamh Sharkey chose the illustrators she wanted to include, and each of them suggested a selection of illustrations from which the final choice of 42 was made. It didn’t take long to identify an itinerary. Pictiúr spent the first half of 2013 touring Europe as part of the Culture Connects International Culture Programme to celebrate Ireland’s Presidency of the European Council. During its visits to the Festival for Young Readers in Vienna, the Bologna Book Fair, the European Parliament and the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe, it was seen by more than 25,000 people.

Then, in the second part of the year, Pictiúr began an Irish tour with support from the Arts Council’s Touring & Dissemination Scheme. A selection of the work was exhibited at the Draíocht Arts Centre in Blanchardstown, and then the full collection premiered at the Galway Arts Centre for the Baboró International Festival before the completion of its tour at the newly reopened IMMA in Kilmainham. The exhibition opens there on 14 November, and will remain until 12 January 2014. Pictiúr features 42 pieces by 21 illustrators including Oliver Jeffers, P J Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and Steve Simpson. The work is extraordinarily diverse in both content and style, from the surreal visions of Jeffers to the painterly attention to detail of Lynch and Fitzpatrick. There are beasts and dragons and lunar-travelling cows, naughty dogs and venturesome penguins, not to mention bunnies with anxiety complexes and little girls who find ways of touching the stars. Poetry illustration features strongly in the exhibition. Paul Howard, a Belfast-based illustrator, has two examples of his work from Michael Rosen’s anthology Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection (Walker Books, 1998). Howard’s ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright’ is a mesmerising study of the Blake big cat, crouching in the long grass while waiting for his prey. Alan Clarke, who, along with Corinna Atkin, illustrated the poems that appeared in O’Brien Press’s 2004 anthology, Something Beginning with P (edited by Seamus Cashman), selected one of those illustrations for inclusion in the exhibition. Clarke’s ‘The giraffe who lived in a shoe’ accompanied Dermot Bolger’s poem ‘The first giraffe to be forced to live in a shoe’, and is a charming exploration of scale as the leggy giraffe towers over the tiny, hill-becalmed boot and puzzles about how exactly he is going to fit in there. In her excellent introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Valerie Coghlan comments that Something Beginning with P is ‘a remarkable volume … (which) stands out for the quality of its illustrations – as well as its excellent selection of new poems by Irish poets.’ Let’s hope that this exhibition brings renewed attention for that wonderful publication.

I have been lucky enough to accompany Pictiúr to all of the venues it has so far visited, both in Europe and Ireland, and I have been constantly struck by the extraordinary impact it has had on both children and adult visitors. Children quickly lose themselves in the narratives of each picture, which have been carefully hung at child-height for ease of access. In Vienna, I watched a group of 12-year-old boys head straight for Oisín McGann’s Forbidden Files: Wired Teeth cover illustration and examine intently the tortured child’s howl as if they could resonate with what he was going through. In Brussels, I observed busy MEPs striding down the corridor of the European Parliament, only to be stopped in their tracks by one of the illustrations. Whatever matter of policy that had been preoccupying them was momentarily forgotten as they wandered, intrigued and charmed, through the exhibition.

So you can imagine our excitement now that Pictiúr is back in the country and opening at IMMA. During the show, there will be a series of related events including a panel discussion, a family friendly day and a book clinic. There are also plans for a special poetry reading to celebrate the exhibition. Pictiúr is located in the vaulted area approaching the itsa@IMMA café; further details and a full programme can be found on imma.ie. 

Nessa O’Mahony is a freelance writer and teacher. Her fourth book, Her Father’s Daughter, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2014.

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