Isabelle Arsenault – Illustrator

Let’s talk about illustrators. I’m a sucker for art. If I had unlimited funds and my own library, I would buy just about any book ten times over if I loved the new cover design and/or someone filled it with art.

This is why I love picture books. One of my favourite things about my trip to visit the niblings earlier this spring was reading books to the kids at bedtime. They loved it because they got more time with aunty Anne and I loved it because I got more time with the kids … and I got to read a bunch of kids books. One night, my sister-in-law (who is awesome, for the record) sent me down after bedtime reading with a handful of books that she loved because of the art. I was in heaven. They are all delightful in their own unique ways and I made a list of new-to-me kids book authors and illustrators to check out.

Isabelle Arsenault was not one of them, but seeing all that fabulous art made me think about illustrators, and it got me thinking: I review books all the time and I love art, so why don’t I ever talk about books based on their art?

Today, I would like to introduce you to the art of Isabelle Arsenault, an award winning Canadian illustrator based out of Montreal.


I first discovered her art through House of Anansi Press. I had a coupon from them and was planning on picking up a novel, but ended up picking a “kids” books called Jane, the Fox and Me, written by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I fell in love with the art immediately. I “read” the book twice before actually reading the words because I just loved the art. The story is pretty great, too, but it was the art that I fell in love with.

From: Jane, the Fox & Me
From: Jane, the Fox & Me


From: Jane, the Fox & Me

I love the roughness of the pencil and I loved how she easily transitioned from a rugged, almost sketch-like neutral or grayscale illustrations to beautiful, colour-filled spreads that felt like they could be in a gallery. I know that a lot of people would disregard Arsenault’s style as unfinished, but I think that it’s a triumph because it shows that you only need a pencil to make something beautiful.

Top: Cloth Lullaby. Bottom: You Belong Here.

I picked up a couple of library books that were also illustrated by Arsenault and found the same gorgeous work. You Belong Here (written by M H Clark) had the same mostly-grayscale motif and was full of beautiful pictures. Cloth Lullaby (written by Amy Novesky) was filled with colour and pushed the boundaries of imagination, which suited the content beautifully because it’s a biography of the artist Louise Bourgeois. I ended up purchasing a copy of the latter because I loved both the biography and the illustrations.

From: You Belong Here
From: Cloth Lullaby

There are many other books with Arsenault’s illustrations and you can buy prints of some of her work at Sur Ton Mur, a store in Montreal that celebrates and sells illustrations by several wonderful artists.

Who are your favourite illustrators? I’m always eager to find new artists.


Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

9781921372476I’m not entirely sure what made me decide to pick up this book last year. I like to write, but I don’t want to be an author. I guess I was just curious to read the book because I kept coming across references to it. It’s often noted as a book that’s very important for writers and very inspirational.

On one hand, I can see why people find it inspirational, but on the other hand, I feel like I learned more about the author than about being a writer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I’ve been inspired and changed by many books that were, on the whole, just autobiographies and a scattering of tips and life lessons.

The one part of the book that made me sit up and pay attention was her discussion about how perfectionism is like a cramped muscle:

I think that something similar happens to our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds – the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both – to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

I struggle with perfectionism. You’d never know it to see me or speak to me, but that’s because I tend to hide it well. I also default to “if it can’t be perfect, there’s no point in trying,” so people rarely see my perfectionism in practice. This “go big or go home” attitude is both ridiculous and immensely unfair to myself.

When I read this, I immediately recognized myself and many of my issues with moving forward with art. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I used to aspire to being an artist – studying art, doing art daily, etc. But, I let life get in the way and eventually found that my skills had diminished and I’d lost my path. Being a perfectionist, my reaction to this was to become despondent and to assume that there was no hope. So, I turned to other creative endeavours, especially hobbies that looked easy enough and still allowed some room for creativity. But, I was never satisfied and I could never stop thinking about how I had always wanted to be an artist.

While the book didn’t leave much of an impression on me, this paragraph did because it became the catalyst that started to move me forward. I started to sketch more (now daily, where possible), I started to look for and take art classes, I started to evaluate what I needed (and wasn’t getting) from the art classes I was taking, and I started to remember how great it was to make art. So, I guess the book had it’s intended effect on me. Sure, I’m not planning on quitting and heading to art school, nor am I interested in becoming a professional artist. But, I make art, I aspire to learn more, and I finally feel comfortable calling myself an artist again.

Book review: The Strays by Emily Bitto


“More than thirty years later, the scars still sleep on my wrists.”

I seem to really love fiction relating to art and artists and The Strays, by Emily Bitto, was no exception. I loved the story, I loved the language, and I loved the way art was part of the story.


On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are attempting to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work with them at their family home. As Lily’s friendship with Eva grows, she becomes infatuated with this makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

Looking back on those years later in life, Lily realises that this utopian circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham’s art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace. Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent. [Source]

Lily, the first-person narrator, is the bored only child of ordinary parents. She’s drawn to Eva and Eva’s family from the start and seems to live very much in their shadow. She allows their lives to happen around her and to her, quietly observing and absorbing everything. But, as the family starts to fall apart, she becomes more entangled and, later in life, she is forced to bare the weight of her actions (or, inactions, as the case may be).

“ ‘An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognizes them as arbitrary.’ ”

It’s a fascinating story and it’s told beautifully. I loved reading about the art and about the artists’ perspective on art, the art community of the time, and the need or desire to expand beyond the more conservative art that was accepted and expected at the time.

The family dynamics were also interesting. It was clear, from the start, that the parents loved their children, but didn’t seem to know how to put aside their own lives and art for the sake of their children. This isn’t to say they were bad parents – they both clearly loved their children. But, each of the girls suffered from neglect in some regard or another.

“… and sometimes Eva and I sat up together and watched, quiet amongst the laughter of adults like stones in midstream.”

It was interesting to see it from Lily’s perspective because she’s a passive observer while the family builds up and eventually collapses. But, later in the book, she’s the center of the story. It ties in nicely with her own perspective of being an outsider wanting in and, eventually, finding more clarity through revisiting her own life and her own broken relationships.

“I will wake tomorrow, I thought, and this night will be inside me.”

This is one of favourite reads this year (possibly of all time) and I’m very tempted to buy a copy to keep.



Art in books

In my last reading update, I included a number of picture books. As I have a habit of going to Audreys Books and seem to make it down to the kids section fairly often, I tend to skim or flip through several  kids books each month. But, last month, I sat down and properly read several kids books, taking the time to enjoy the stories and admire the pictures.

If you read the update, you may have noticed that I kept commenting on the art in these books. The story is only half the treasure. I’m a big fan of books with interesting, innovative, or pretty art. Some of my favourite childhood books had lovely and detailed paintings, but others had unique styles, bold colours, or slightly odd images. As an adult, I still love kids books and have purchased a few for myself after falling in love with ones that I bought for my niblings. They’re like art or coffee table books for me.

I’m the same way with graphic novels or comics. Often, I will stop (or never really start) reading something simply because I can’t connect with the art. Or, I’ll stick with a comic or graphic novel for longer than the story deserves because the art is beautiful or interesting. For example, I tried really hard to quit Bird Boy because the updates were often sporadic or really far apart. I eventually compromised with myself – I could keep the link, but I wouldn’t follow it regularly until the updates were more frequent (which they seem to be now, so I need to catch up and start following it again).

The things is – and this seems to surprise some people – the art doesn’t have to be “good.” That is, it doesn’t have to look like it was created by someone who spent years studying figure drawing, or be pretty, or be realistic, or look exactly like what it’s supposed to represent. Sometimes, the artist’s style is very interesting or the style works well with the story or mood. And, yes, sometimes, the story stands on it’s own, so it doesn’t matter that the art isn’t “perfect.”

When I look at the art in books, whether for myself or for my niblings, I’m looking for something that adds to the story, but also for something that makes me stop and admire the images. I adore a number of artist who have rough, crude, and even “ugly” art because their work is unique and interesting. And, I think this this is part of what makes me an artist. I have an eye for the interesting, for the unique, and for the work behind even the simplest cartoon. And, I think it’s really important that we continue to support and encourage all forms and styles of art in kids books – kids need to see that a dog can take a million different forms and colours. It will help them understand creativity and interpret other people’s perspectives.

Whether you have kids in your life or not, I challenge you to take the time to check out picture books on occasion. Find one that make you stop before you turn the page, than take a moment to enjoy the art.




I have an art-a-day calendar at work. It has a varied collection of art in different forms and from different eras. Most are easy to at least appreciate, a few have found themselves hidden behind my water bottle, and several have made me wish that I could leave it for just one more day. It occurs to me that a good way to acknowledge and document some of the ones I enjoy the most would be to share them. So, here’s last Friday’s, which I adore:

La Plage de Saint-Clair, 1906-07
La Plage de Saint-Clair, 1906-07 (oil on canvas) by Cross, Henri-Edmond (1856-1910); 65×81 cm; Musee de l’Annonciade, Saint-Tropez, France; French, out of copyright

La Plage to Saint-Clair, 1906-07, by Henri-Edmond Cross, a French painter and printmaker who’s most acclaimed as a master of Neo-Impressionism. The colours in this painting were the first thing I noticed. They’re rich, vibrant and span the rainbow. I think it also stuck out for me because, while watching some videos about landscape quilting, I’d been reminded that one of the methods used to create depth is to use more vibrant colours in the foreground and more muted colours in the background. This painting illustrates that with the vibrant tree and slopes in the front, and the pale hills in the back.

But, mostly it was the colours.

I’m a sucker for colours.

Giving up on art: my personal history

Yesterday, I read a book called “The Artist in the Office – How to creatively survive and thrive seven days a week,” by Summer Pierre. Within the first few pages, I knew this was a book I needed to read. I posted this on Instagram the other day, but I that I had more to say (or, perhaps, I had more to more to admit).

Making it meant … the ability to do art full time … Until then, I wasn’t a real artist. As a result, I felt ashamed and invisible next to the people who enjoyed their jobs. I wasn’t a real employee and I wasn’t a real artist.”

I let my own dreams be squashed mid-year grade 12.

I don’t recall anyone specifically saying that art was a useless career choice, but I do remember being encouraged to aim for “real” degrees and “real” jobs. When I applied for university, I applied to biology programs and didn’t even bother with a minor in art. I think that my art teacher and dad were the only ones who ever questioned my decision, but I was a people pleaser and lacked to courage to stand up to all the perceived naysayers.

For years, I used excuses to make myself feel better about not being a “real” artist: art won’t get me a stable job that pays well; I’m a busy student and need to focus on my studies; I have a “real” job and need to stop dreaming because I’m an adult now; I should be doing job related training when I have free time, not art; I’ve lost what skill I had, so I’m no longer an artist and should give up on that dream; etc. Eventually, I just gave up. There was no point in doing something I loved if I didn’t have the time or the skill.

One could argue that I gave up on myself in grade 12, but I still did art – doodling in class, hand drawing overhead sheets (this was back in the later 90’s and my small school still used overhead projectors in all but the larger classrooms), and even hand drawing graphics for friend’s projects. Quitting on my art (and, by extension, myself) came much later. I don’t know exactly when, but I know some of the contributing factors. With my mother dying and my father more-or-less out of the picture, I felt like I needed to be responsible and get a real job (it didn’t help that some pretty influential people in my life agreed). While my art had been encouraged when I was young, I no longer had that extra boost that I needed (most of my family seemed to think that art was just a hobby). I’d also just finished a degree that I had been passionate about, only to find that it was a dead end for me as I wasn’t willing (or, realistically, able) to lead a life of scrounging for contract work – I had student loans to pay and I no longer had a home (mom would have let me live with her for more-or-less-free at least until I was established enough to get regular contracts, but she’d died before my degree was even finished). All this combined with a few years of general bad luck, left me as a sad husk of my former self with nothing to show for it other than I career that I would quickly become bored with in just a few short years. [I should note that grad school happened between mom dying and my career starting– it was a good, but mostly artless, two years for me and I don’t regret getting a library studies degree.]

In retrospect, I think that giving up on art was, in many ways, a desperate attempt to not feel sad and angry about my wasted talent – if I wasn’t doing it, then I wasn’t being reminded of how I’d once had dreams of being at least a part time artist – someone who might work a day job, but go home to create art that was “real” and “good.”

At one point (I can’t remember exactly when or even what triggered it), I tried quilting and stitching. I had embroidered in the past (I was a creative kid, so I embroidered jeans pockets and such), but quilting was new to me. At first, I loved it and I was convinced that I’d found a creative outlet, but I started to get bored with it. I loved the pretty fabrics, but mostly I just wanted to study their patterns. I loved the ingenuity of some of the quilt artists, but I didn’t have the patience to do the same sorts of quilt projects. It was more or less the same for stitching, though on a smaller scale as it’s easier to complete a small stitching project (not to mention easier to take to work, tidy up, etc.).

Meanwhile, things weren’t much happier for me in the career department. I work a cubicle job. I’m a business analyst and I’m fairly senior on the scale, so my work often involves collaboration, advising clients, researching, etc. It’s not a bad job: I’m paid well, I have great benefits, and my boss is a nice guy. But, it can be very boring and it’s very far from anything that I have any love for, commitment to, or interest in (I was interested for the first year or so, but then I realized that I’d hit the end of what I needed to learn and was forever doomed to relearning the same concepts with different buzz words).

I felt bad for complaining (not that my guilt stopped me). There was nothing awful about my job; it was just the wrong one for me. I tried to shift my job back to actual librarianship, but had the bad luck of looking just when the library job market seemed to be taking a pretty big swing downwards. I tried to find similar work in other departments, hoping that having to learn their business and such would at least give me something new to learn. Again, the job market was on a downturn. I eventually found a new job within my current department that was at least a little different. It was good for a while, but it’s gotten boring again. I miss doing work that felt like it mattered or that required learning new things fairly regularly. My learning is pretty much limited to business skills at this point (project management, etc.) and it’s all dreadfully boring.

So, last year, I finally found myself in that terrible place: I didn’t fit at work and I didn’t fit in art. I was in the same place the author describes on the page I shared above.

I know there’s not much I can do about my career right now. I’ll keep my eyes open for something new or more interesting, but, as mentioned, I’m far afield of anything that interests me and I suspect that may mean having to make a pretty major career shift. I could do that, but I’m not willing to until I have greater stability (more money saved, etc.). Such is the life of someone who can’t rely on another person’s income for groceries :)

Art, on the other hand, is something that I can do something about. While I haven’t done anything huge, yet, I have been taking small steps. I bought myself a membership to the art gallery so that I’d go more often and not just when they have The Group of Seven or other favourites (the gallery pales in comparison to most of the others I’ve been to, but it’s better than nothing). I’ve also been doing a lot of reading, especially art related books and comics or graphic novels – basically anything that will remind me of what I used to know about art and inspire me. I’m also sketching a lot more often. It may not be every day (yet) and it may just be a tiny thumbnail of something I saw on a walk, but, right now, I’m trying to focus on habit versus skill. I plan to start taking some classes later this year (if nothing else, I have a couple Craftsy classes that I purchased ages ago, but haven’t yet watched).

This book, is one of the art related books I’m reading. I picked it up on a whim. I can’t remember where I read about it, but I’m already glad that I found it. It has some good insight and a wide variety of ideas for creative things that you can do at work (during your breaks, of course). It also acknowledges that some people do better with a day job (as opposed to being a full time artist), which was nice to read as I will likely always have a day job.

She touched on the false idea that your work has to matter in order to amount to anything (i.e., in order to have “worth”). This both makes us feel like we have to have large amounts of time set aside to get anything accomplished and stalls our progress (think of all that time preparing but not doing).

Speaking of preparing but not doing, she comes back to this problem several times in the book. Inspiration is good, but there comes a point where you just need to start doing things. I know that I’m bad about looking and looking and looking and looking, but never doing. As the book noted, looking, reading, getting ready will eventually become your life if you don’t include the actual art making. I don’t want that to be my life (not completely, anyway, though as a librarian, research is something that I enjoy). I know that I’ll have to keep that in check and remind myself to “do.” I’m letting myself read as much as I want right now, but I have a cut off date for when I have to start taking classes and actually making art. I’m also making myself work on a daily sketch habit. I’m not quite there yet, but I sketch most days for at least a few minutes.

I’m very glad I read this book, if only because it made me think about when and why I quit art. I have two other similar types of books that I will read next and I hope to find a few more resources to help encourage and inspire me.

Do you have any art resources that inspire you? Blogs? Galleries? Books (self-help, reference, graphic, or even novels)? I’d love to hear about them and about how they inspire you.

To keep or not to keep old art

I’ve been thinking a lot about old art (paintings, sketches, etc. that I did in the past). A lot of what I’ve been dragging around with me over the years is from as far back as high school (over 20 years ago) and I think that they’re weighing me down, both physically and mentally.

From my mid-twenties to early thirties, I was predominantly focused on school, being poor, and my mother dying. During that time, I let art take a back seat. No, actually, it mostly ended up in the trunk. Yes, I did bits and pieces of art on occasion, but mostly I was too busy, too poor or too sad about letting my skills wane.

After graduating and starting my career, I thought that I would jump right back into being an artist. For a while, I sort of did – I used to make all kinds of crafty things and decorations for my cubicle. But, I really struggled with things like drawing and painting (two things I did a lot when I was in high school). Each time I tried to do anything serious, I just ended up frustrated and melancholy about how much skill I’d lost.

Tropical beach
One of my favourite random crafts.

Instead of doing something reasonable about it (like practicing), I simply lingered between looking for the book, class, inspiration, or what-have-you that would suddenly propel me back into life as an artist, or, spending my time reminiscing and moping about how I used to be quite a good artist. Neither of those are particularly useful and neither of them allowed me to move forward.

The other day, I decided that it was time to get rid of an old high school painting. I was really proud of it when I completed it and loved it more than any other piece I’d ever done. For reasons I can’t remember, I put it away in my portfolio for a time (I think we had just moved) and mom sneaked it out to get it professionally framed. It was one of the loveliest gifts she’d ever given to me and I’ve always given it a prominent position on my walls. But, it’s old and the paint has faded considerably. Now it just feels like a dim memory and a reminder of one of my only life regrets: not allowing art to maintain a prominent part of my life.

Dancing girl - art piece I did several decades ago
The painting mom framed for me. It’s gorgeous, except that the colours used to include deep and vibrant purples that are now just faded browny-purple.

In other words, seeing it no longer gives me joy. So, it’s got to go.

I also have some other old art: a few old sketch books (mostly from the last decade) and a scrapbook full of little mementos (doodles, small pieces of art, etc.). The sketchbooks aren’t anything special and I’ve never gone back to look at them. My high school sketch books had been impressive beasts that told an interesting story of my projects and progress, but I let them go ages ago. These sketchbooks are disjointed and inconsequential to me.

But, the scrapbook is a whole other kettle of fish. It feeds my moping. Instead of being inspiration for what I could be again, it’s become a reminder of regrets, what ifs, and moments when I felt painfully low about my “lack” of skill (read: need to practice).

It’s weird to think that I’ll be almost erasing my artistic past (I’ll keep my pictures of finished pieces), but I think the sketchbooks and scrapbook need to go – I think that I need to allow myself to be unburdened and see where it takes me. I don’t know if I’ll pick things up again or just allow myself to move on to other creative things, but I do know that I’m tired of carrying the weight of these regrets and I’m ready to start fresh.

But,thinking about this made me curious: do you keep your old art? Do you ever find that failed projects weigh you down? Do you think I’m completely nuts to have thrown away art?

Edit: I did get rid of everything and then promptly spent a couple of hours doodling and sketching over the weekend. So, I guess this is something I needed. I’m glad I had the courage to allow myself to start fresh. 

Are DIY posts bad for creativity?

Edit: Geen Geenie added a new perspective to this conversation by discussing the potential effects of prolific free tutorials on the value we place on professional crafters and their products. It’s very interesting and you should read it. 

The one and only magazine that I truly love is Uppercase Magazine. It’s a celebration of all things creative (art, crafts, writing, you name it). In one of the recent newsletters, Janine (the magazine’s creator) stated the following:

Stay away from DIY posts and Pinterest!

These days, it is too easy to get bogged down into the perceived perfection of Pinterest and the tyranny of step-by-step craft instructions. Today’s the day to unplug from these distractions. Comparing yourself to others and following directions can be so detrimental to genuine creativity. Use your own ideas, your own resources, your own ingenuity… you will make something that is from you and your heart.

While I’m a huge fan of online instructions and tutorials, I think she makes a really good point. Too often, we are led to believe that everything has to be perfect and done exactly the way things are laid out in the instructions. In some cases, veering from the instructions is a recipe for disaster. But, I feel that we should allow ourselves to trust our instinct and experiment on occasion. Not only does this help us to learn through trial and error, it also allows us to stretch our creativity skills.

I used to just wing things all the time. The first quilt top I ever made was in high school – I knew nothing about quilting and had to use a sewing machine that would only cooperate for mom. I also played with mixing media (using whichever tools/media produced the colour or texture that I wanted), making things with no instructions (clay sculptures, paper mache shapes, etc.), and generally making shit up as I went. But, I haven’t done that in ages.

I know, for me, part of the problem is that art stopped being a habit and my go-to means of relaxing. After years of never having time for it, I lost my confidence in my abilities (my drawing skills have definitely suffered in the past two decades), so it became a source of stress. Instead of just playing, I got upset if things weren’t perfect. So, I turned to patterns I could follow.

And, this is where I contradict what I said above and tell you about how great following instructions can be: Sometimes, you just need to do something that doesn’t require you to be an expert. If nothing else, it helps you to learn the basics. For quilting, following instructions for the first few projects I did gave me the confidence to play and make things up as I go. For cross stitch, I’ve found that, while I know I could do my own thing, I actually really love to follow a pattern, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking of projects I could design on my own.

So, don’t be a slave to Pinterest or other how-to sources, but at the same time, try to appreciate and use them when needed. I do miss the old me, who just tried things without learning about the craft, but I’m also glad that I have the means of finding a million and one tutorials online. I think, though, that I need to play more often and allow myself to just make things without looking for perfection.

Day 22: Trees

I’m doing a photo challenge for the month of November, despite it being from August 2011, I’ve decided to use this list for my daily prompts.

At this time of year (and on drab days like today), trees aren’t very exciting. Heck, except in the river valley, we don’t have that many trees (nothing like you’d see in Ottawa of Halifax). I could have easily found some lovely Christmas trees to take pictures of, but I decided to do some doodling instead (it’s a nice way to spend the morning break). I think these would make neat quilt blocks, so I’m glad I took the time to doodle.

I should point out that, I would use far more versions of green, but I only had a few pens and green highlighter at the time.

Trees! These would make cool quilt blocks. #photochallenge #doodles #trees

The one with the red dots was menato to be an apple tree, but the shape is wrong, so I’ve decided that it’s a sour cherry tree.

I can't decide which is my favorite #tree #doodle

Day 14: Flowers

I’m doing a photo challenge for the month of November, despite it being from August 2011, I’ve decided to use this list for my daily prompts. 

Flowers are easy to find in the summer (when the photo challenge prompt list was intended to be used). Not so much in November if you live somewhere where winter happens (like Edmonton, which is at about the same latitude as Hamburg or Manchester). I shouldn’t complain, as Edmonton is South of the centre of Alberta. And, we have more provinces and territories even further North than the top of Alberta. How people live up North, I don’t know. The cold and short (in some cases, lack of) days would do me in. They are clearly made of tougher stuff.

Anyway, point being, I had to be a little creative. Fortunately, I planned on heading to Deserres, an art store, after work. While there I found some lovely flowers:

Made a little trip to Deserres, where I found lots of pretty flowers #photochallenge