Ashling Lindsay's Brave New World of Illustration
Having been shortlisted for an Association of Illustrators award, the Belfast-based artist is destined for big things
Illustrators must convey an author’s vision to an audience by transforming words into a visual vocabulary. In doing so they must both translate and transcend the text. It's a precarious art form – there are so many boxes to tick, so many people there to pass judgement before anything is signed off or any payments made.
When illustrators get it right, they can fire the imagination and bring a story to life. I have my personal preferences. See Quentin Blake’s grotesques that people the pages of Roald Dahl’s classics, or Gustave Doré’s rich, beautiful and haunting prints that give Danté’s underworld in The Divine Comedy all its shadowy splendour.
The Association of Illustrators has long rewarded those illustrators who have managed to make everyone happy, and its annual awards are arguably the most prestigious in the industry – for good reason they have been dubbed the 'Oscars of Illustration'. Those shortlisted are chosen by high profile professionals, and in each category established artists are honoured alongside unknowns.
The fact that 22-year-old Belfast artist Ashling Lindsay was shortlisted for the 2013 AOI New Talent Award for Book Illustration when she was still studying graphic design and illustration at the University of Ulster is really quite remarkable. That this year the AOI chose candidates from around the globe for the very first time makes Lindsay's achievement all the more impressive. Here is a talent on the rise.
Sitting in her Belfast studio, Lindsay works with great discipline in the grip of a summer swelter. With her pale blonde hair dyed a light shade of pink, and a stoic expression on her face, the diminutive artist is a vision of unflappable cool. Broach the subject of the AOIs, however, and she is transformed with wide-eyed awe.
'I didn't believe it,’ she admits, beaming with glee, recalling the moment she learned that she had been shortlisted. ‘Do you ever get when you’re doing work but you don’t feel like you're getting anywhere? That’s how I was at the time when I saw on Twitter that the shortlist had been published. I then went into my emails and saw the congratulations, and it was as if I had stepped into the Twilight Zone!’
It's an apt reference – there is more than a little of the Twilight Zone present in Linday's work. Many of her illustrations use simple imagery and limited colour palettes, creating an atmosphere that is both bizarre and otherworldly. ‘Everyone likes to see a bit of strangeness,’ Lindsay asserts. ‘It definitely helps to give your work a bit of an edge. I think kids really respond to things that are strange. They're a wee bit twisted,' she laughs.
It was Lindsay’s image based on a scene from Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopian novel, A Brave New World, that drew praise from the AOI judges. In Huxley’s novel, the powers that be manage the behaviour of individuals and impose order over society through the use of eugenics and drugs. All those who live beyond the borders of Metropolis are damned as savages.
In Lindsay’s illustration, the silhouette of a helicopter in the corner of the page is dwarfed by imposing trees that form a forest below. There is an overlay of what appear to be leaves covering much of the image in a ghostly patchwork of flora. It provides an interesting parallel, reflecting Huxley's argument that any attempt to control man’s nature is a battle that cannot be won.
It is also a deceptively simple image that sums up the themes of Huxley's book in one single panel, without the addition of any words or quotes from the book. It's a clear example of Lindsay's maturity as an illustrator – there is an intelligence in her work that belies her years.
‘That piece didn't take me that long,' she recalls, 'but the research took two weeks. I hadn't read the book, so I read it I really liked it. If I'm reading any kind of novel, I write notes or draw pictures on the sides. Before I even thought about what I was going to do, I had loads of illustrations everywhere and it just came all by itself. Actually when I’d done it, I couldn't believe what I had done, because it didn't feel like it took any effort. It came really easily.’
Lindsay’s images are reminiscent of the work of another Northern Irish illustrator, Oliver Jeffers. The author and illustrator of bestsellers such as Stuck, This Moose Belongs To Me and The Incredible Book-Eating Boy marries text and illustrations with an offbeat humour and sensitive, emotional narratives. Like Lindsay, Jeffers – who is now based in New York – prefers to keep his panels uncluttered, and often uses collage to achieve the desired effect. Lindsay cites him as an influence.
‘One of the things I admire about his work,’ Lindsay confirms, 'is that he gets really complex ideas across in a very simple way. There’s a real cleverness in how Oliver works with the underlying story and the illustrative narrative.'
Lindsay should get used to having her name mentioned in the same breath as Jeffers. Being nominated for an AOI award has seen Lindsay receive a boost to her confidence and also to her career, with more prints being sold from her website, commissioned work rolling in, her first original picture book nearing completion (see image below), and an invitation by Dog Ears Publishing House to host an event in Derry~Londonderry on World Book Day 2014 having arrived in the post.
Lindsay may be just starting out as a professional illustrator, but she is undoubtedly an artist to watch. Yet she deflects such praise with characteristic humility. 'At the minute I’m just exploring new styles,' she says. 'I'm not sure if I have my own yet. I'm always experimenting and trying to do something in a way I've never done before.’
Before I leave her to her work, and while I have her attention, I cannot help but pitch an idea for a storybook. Having spent the previous two nights watching The Last of Us and reading World War Z, I ask Lindsay if she might be interested in illustrating a children’s book involving a cute kitten-loving girl who takes up a shotgun and protects the world from the undead?
‘Little girl. Kitten. Shotgun. Zombies, eh?’ I offer, increasingly desperately. There are a few chortles of awkward laughter and then… That cool expression again. Lindsay clears her throat, smiles politely, and takes up her pen. After all, there are bigger and better things to be getting on with.