Interview with Gretta Johnson, illustrator of Tree With Golden Apples
1. To start out, can you tell us a bit more about your background in art?
I have always been a drawer and an image-maker from a young age, likely as a way to process things that are difficult to articulate, and as an adult, making pictures still fulfills this need. I went to Rhode Island School of Design for college and there I got to pour myself into drawing, and made my way into the Film Animation and Video department, with a focus on hand-drawn animation. The idea there I think was that I could really explore movement and the body through drawing, and develop some capacity for storytelling. Upon exiting school and entering a field in a very minor way, I soon realized that being an animator was a lifestyle that I wasn’t really willing to die for. It’s so physically demanding and there is such delayed gratification in its making, that I realized there was too much of it at odds with my nature. Sequential art and stories were still of interest to me, and I drew and wrote a few books that were published by very small presses and by myself, but as time went by I found myself just wanting to dive right into making paintings, and leave language behind for a while. The idea of making a children’s book or building a world to birth content out of is still an idea that I hold as something to work towards. For now, paintings are the most generative medium, and I feel like I still have so much to learn.
2. The illustrations in Tree With Golden Apples are gorgeous, can you tell us a bit more about your process for creating them?
Upon learning more about the nature of this book and Susan’s vision for it, I felt a real connection with the subject matter and felt it was a perfect vessel to marry a few realms of my personal work to create something that feels fresh and vibrant but also timeless. I wanted to base the world of this book on some idyllic version of botanical reality, but then sort of explode the images out from there. Hopefully, people will spend time floating around the page and enjoy the more ethereal qualities of the pictures.
3. Did you have to do any supplementary research for the project?
I spent a lot of time talking on the phone with Susan throughout this process. During our conversations, we would share references and go back and forth with our own image research and try to pull out the most potent images in each of the stories. For most of the stories, Susan would have me read the text and allow me to conjure the strongest image to work from, and oftentimes we were very in sync. While I’m working, I’ll often pull up images of the specific trees or flora that the story revolves around, but the images find most of their life in color and light, so getting each story’s tone correct was more important to me than factual accuracy or specificity. I do however appreciate the care that Susan and Ian have put into the science and core ideas under-girding each story, and I always tried to use that content to charge up the imagery.
4. What is your favorite kind of art to create? Do you have any favorite colors? Media?
I consider myself a painter and drawer. Most recently I have been primarily painting on canvas. As far as color goes, I do fall in love or become fixated on colors and lean on certain families quite heavily, until I feel the internal urge to move on. That said, I have found myself very drawn to the color green over the years and have heard it said that the human eye can detect more shades of green than any other color.
5. Who are some of your artistic influences?
I feel a strong connection to Charles Burchfield, an important American psychedelic naturalist, Hilma Af Klint, Philip Guston, the drawings of the Shakers, referred to as “Shaker Gift Drawings”, and I am constantly finding inspiration in the applied folk arts as well as my friends’ artwork. As far as book artists go, Tove Jansson who created the Moomins is very beloved to me, as well as William Blake and the many artists throughout time who have created those mind-bending illuminated manuscripts.
6. What advice do you have for aspiring artists who would like to get their work out into the world but don’t know-how.
I don’t have too much practical advice, because there is so much luck involved in the process of being seen, or maybe some kind of divine intervention. The aspect of my life that I’ve actively worked on, besides continuing to make work and doing the sometimes painful task of self-promotion via the internet, has been putting myself amongst friends who are working towards
similar things, fighting to keep a studio, continuing to invite people in and just being present. I would say just hanging in there and having friends is pretty solid life advice for anyone.
7. Are you reading any good books these days?
I recently finished Ulysses, which felt like a major accomplishment. My completion of it was dependent on a bet I had going with my boyfriend, that I actually wagered upon his teasing me that I wouldn’t finish. The book actually really shook me and I felt at times broken-hearted and penetrated by this deeply interior read on what it is to be a person and to have a spirit. Even though it was completed in the 1920s, I got flashes of timelessness and a sense that the human spirit has this primal fundament that we all share. I also didn’t understand what I was reading half the time, which was also cool. Joyce’s writing is so beautiful that you can let it wash over you to a certain extent and just go along for the ride.