Jackie Morris is an illustrator, living in a small cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast. She recently collaborated with the author Robert Macfarlane on the book The Lost Words. The book rallies against the vanishing of words from the language of children words like acorn, bluebell, conker and kingfisher. Made up of exquisitely illustrated spells (spells rather than poems) the book is designed to be read aloud. The hope is that each spell might reawaken both adults and children to the wonders of the nearby wild. We spoke to Jackie Morris about her inspirations, motivations and the processes involved in illustrating such a book...
Tell us about the process of illustrating the book...
It was written by Robert and illustrated by me, but whenever Robert speaks of the book he talks of how we wrote it together. I don't think that in all the twenty five years I've been working as an illustrator of books have the text and the images ever been melded in such a way. My original thought for depicting the bluebell, for example, had been to paint an eyeful of these blue flowers. The text, however, demanded a more liquid, poetic solution to this word - "to drown in blue".
Do you draw from life or memory?
Always from both. Most of the work was drawn from life, from really looking, as if for the very first time at each thing, plant, animal, creature. Trying to see the subtle shape of a thing, the place it takes up in the world. But that is how all painting works for me. And I have many books of photographs that help, and stuffed creatures that live in my studio. Whenever I try to paint something I am trying to catch a bit of the soul of the thing, be it a bluebell, a wren or a stone.
Your cottage sits on the Pembrokeshire coast, what is the wildlife like there?
I am surrounded by wild. Brambles in my garden, snowdrops that mark the turn of the world towards light. Wrens stitch through the tangles of thorns, blackthorns grow wild. Overhead there are raven, chough, jackdaw, and if I am lucky buzzard and kite and even a harrier now and again. Snipe, woodcock, lapwing, lark, all live here. And fox, badger and bat. Spring is marked by the coming of wheaters and summer turns towards the autumn with the pupping of seals on the beaches. And then there is the sea, with porpoise, dolphin, and now and again whales. So very much life, even in the smallest rock pool, to see, if you look.
Where do you find your inspiration?
In the tilt of a wing, the space between the fox and the hare, the fall of light, the flow of the sea. In the hunting of a hawk and the stoop of a falcon and a snake, warming itself on a rock. In the song of a bird, the folklore of the world, in song and in story. In the patterns of the sand on a wind blown beach, the texture of the sky on a moonless night.
What do you hope the book will achieve?
The Lost Words has already re-awakened some to the wonders around them, enabling them to see again the nearby wild, because even in cities there is so much of the non-human world. I hope it will be a catalyst for the enquiring mind, for creativity. The book is a protest against the turn of humans away from the wild. I also hope that it is a harbour for those who can no longer get outside. It works for all ages, brings families together, prompts memories. I hope it will lead a child who has never before noticed the bright song of a little brown bird stop for a moment and listen to its whirr and churr. I hope it will help people to understand the value of a wild wood filled with bluebells.
The book is out in the wild now, but it isn't alone. Many have found homes with people, and now it is moving into schools. We have a wonderful set of teaching notes that make lesson planning easy for our hard working teachers. These are hosted on the John Muir Trust website, and they have been wonderful champions of the book. I hope it also sings to the souls of the many many young people who already know and love the wild. Because there are amazing young champions out there and I hope their work will be strengthened by our book and bring new people to join them.
Photograph by Jay Armstrong for Elementum Journal