Housed in the Mitchell wing of Australia’s oldest library, State Library of NSW, “Imagine. The Wonder of Picture Books” is on exhibition from 9 July 2022 to 9 July 2023. The magnificent Mitchell Library was established in 1907, following a generous gift and bequest by David Scott Mitchell, one of Australia’s greatest cultural benefactors and collectors of Australiana, who gave his incomparable collection of books, manuscripts, maps and pictures about Australia and the Pacific to the people of NSW.
“Imagine. The Wonder of Picture Books” exhibition is a delightful celebration of children’s literature, and coupled with its comprehensive online resources (more than a dozen interviews, virtual excursions, lessons and learning activities) becomes a state-of-the-art hub for inspiring the love of reading, writing and making art. I hope the Library chooses to permanently feature these resources of the “Imagine” exhibition microsite.
“Imagine” was curated by Sarah Morley who has worked extensively with the Library’s archival and printed collections. Her focus includes manuscripts, rare books and children’s literature and Sarah’s expertise expands collection acquisition, access, promotion and interpretation.
The exhibition showcases over 100 items, including the originally published illustrations, preparatory drawings, storyboards, digital sketches, films and picture books from celebrated and much-loved Australian creators. The exhibited works come from various collections. Some were lent to “Imagine” by the exhibiting artists, others on loan from National Center for Australian Children’s Literature, and many drawn from the State Library’s own rich holdings which include works donated under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. One of the outstanding recent donations was by Margaret and Max Hamilton who run “Pinerolo Children’s Book Cottage”. Two magnificent Shaun Tan oil illustrations were lent by the State Library of Western Australia, whereas some magnificent May Gibbs’ illustrations, a manuscript and dummy books were provided by the Norcott Society and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance. The First Nations atists featured in the exhibition include brilliant works by Bronwyn Bancroft, Dub Leffler, Jasmine Seymour and others.
Generations of Australian authors and illustrators have been inspired by this country’s unique character and history, and their stories have informed, entertained and delighted countless children. The best of them work their magic in a gentle non-preaching way, and these books are the ones that stay with readers for the rest of their lives.
“Imagine” is organised into display spaces and clusters reflecting and responding to the themes, values and concerns that play on everyone’s mind today: our natural world, family, belonging, making choices, courage and adventure.
Below every display of illustrations, sketches or storyboards, the corresponding book is secured to a low stand, which allows even the youngest hands to comfortably flip its pages. I loved that element of the exhibition design, and I could easily see how well-thumbed each book was, what better outcome would you want from this show than inspiring children to read dozens of books throughout the exhibition space and in a dedicated reading corner!
The exhibition features a wonderfully insightful 15-min film featuring some of my favourite Australian illustrators speaking about their inspiration, technique and how they got started. Where do your ideas come from? What inspired you to become an illustrator? What was your favourite picture book growing up? What advice can you offer to young authors and illustrators?
Stephen Michael King thinks that anyone browsing his journals would find that for every good idea, there are a thousand stupid ones. Matt Cosgrove suggests that ideas are ephemeral and can come from nowhere and everywhere, so it’s important to keep a notebook to capture them before they evaporate. Talking about his technique, Matt spoke about people looking at his Macca’s white fleece and thinking it must not take very long to draw, but if one looks closely there are 12 different colours in it – pinks, purples, greys, browns, there’s siennas, ocher and black – all these adding depths to the fluffy ‘white’ of the fleece.
Bruce Whately discovered that when he works with his left hand, it’s guttural and emotional, whereas his right hand is about realism and dexterity. Stephen Michael King reflected that his practice often pushed the boundaries of any rules:
I ignore the rules and splash staff around. And I get really excited about just lobbing a bit of paint, I don’t know what marks it’s going to make or how far it’s going to run or what it’s going to do. I love the wetness of it. It’s got like a spiritual energy, I guess, in so many ways.
Advice for aspiring illustrators boils down to what Bruce Whately succinctly summarised as “Basically just do it. And don’t worry about whether it’s good or bad”.
More artists’ reflections could be found in the online resources area of the exhibition. Here you can listen to Stephen Michael King reflecting on his use of the visual language of colours to convey moods, Bethany Macdonald explaining why she had clothed her paper boy into the words of his own story or Matt Cosgrove revealing how the tilt of the eye-brows can inform a character’s feelings or emotions. Bruce Whatley talking about his illustrations for “Fire” (written by Jackie French) where the terror of a bushfire is seen through the eyes of a cockatoo:
Last but not least, the activity corner of the exhibition has plenty to inspire young (and not so young) aficionados of illustration art – pencils, paper and step-by-step instruction posters titled “How to Draw a Marching Ant” and “You Can Draw Macca the Alpaca”. My partner took a leaf out of Stephen Michael King’s book and ignored the rules and instructions, not knowing what marks his pencil was going to make. His pencil made an endearing double portrait of us two, both bald despite owning heads full of hair…
We have thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this exhibition and encourage anyone who is in Sydney to see it, be it with or without your kids.