Songs of Love & Strength & Poetry & Pencils: An interview with Julie Mackey, Illustrator of ‘Songs of Love & Strength’

Join The Mum Poet Club Illustration by Julie Mackey

We have a cuppa with Julie to chat about her life by the sea in Whitstable, her beautifully-named children Walter, Arrietty and Felicity, and her wonderful artwork for our biggest publication yet, our Mum Poem Press anthology, ‘Songs of Love & Strength’.

When did you first become aware of art?

 As a child I was always living in my head and dreaming up stories. I’d write pages and pages of stories with no full stops, just on and on! Afterwards I’d Illustrate them. I remember teachers telling me to slow down and use actual sentences, but I had to get it out quickly before I forgot it!

I first became aware of the power of Illustration in primary school when we had a visit from the railway safety team. As part of the talk, we were given a booklet illustrated by Quentin Blake. Inside there were images of a child losing his head because he'd stuck it head out of the window of a moving train (back when they had windows)! Another child had been electrocuted because he’d run onto the tracks, and there was one where a child was swept away by a moving train.

The humour of Blake’s illustrations combined with such a serious topic was pure genius, and I remember realising that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I still think of it when travelling on the railway.

 What inspired you to start creating?

 A love of children’s books and reading inspired me to create. Picking up books like “Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak as a child took me to other worlds. I wanted to draw constantly and I met wonderful teachers and tutors who helped me along the way. I just knew that drawing made me feel wonderful inside and so I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

How did becoming a mother affect your practice / your inspiration / the things you create?

Becoming a mother definitely impacted my creativity in many ways. I feel braver after having children, and I think that confidence has definitely helped me to develop as an artist.

When you have three small children and limited time for yourself, you learn to make the most out of the time you have. Having less time to work actually made me much more productive and appreciate it more!

My drawing time is time for me. When everyone else is asleep I get to do what I love and I’m a better person for it. During darker times of postnatal anxiety having a creative outlet was a game changer for us as a family.

My children definitely inspire me and are a constant source of ideas from the funny things they say and do. They know exactly what they like and don’t like and are my very own little art critics. I admire the ownership they have of their opinions and their determined minds.

Strength Illustration by Julie Mackey

Do your kids enjoy art and illustration? How would they describe what you do?

My children love art and Illustration. There’s a lot we can learn from children in how they make.

Watching them place each mark or each brick, taking their time and overcoming obstacles when it sometimes goes wrong is such a gift. They love sitting down for a picture book and pour over the pages. Walter especially loves Jon Klassen’s books ‘Have You Seen My Hat’ and ‘This Is Not My Hat’. Arrietty loves ‘The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty’ book by Beatrice Alemanga and Felicity loves the Pip and Posy books by Axel Scheffler.

Walter (5) understands my job and often helps me pick which image works best. He describes what I do as ‘being an artist’. I’ve just asked Arrietty (4) ‘what does mummy do?’ and she replied my job is ‘buying toys’ which is a pretty cool job!

What's your favourite poem?

My favourite poem is ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver. I have recently discovered the poet Elisabeth Hewer, and now her poem ‘Here are girls like lions’ is equally my favourite!

What was your process for this project? How did the poems influence your illustrative decisions?

 In creating the illustrations for the anthology, I first read all of the poems and tried to create a kind of bubble of ideas from them. They are all truly wonderful! I honestly could have drawn something for each of them. I’m in awe of the talent and skills each poet has in articulating their feelings and experiences.

Initial sketches were drawn from ideas in the poems, married with scenes remembered from trips to the playground or parks. I tried to re-create that feeling of breastfeeding for the last time or meeting a new mum friend and realising you’re not alone.

For the ‘Love’ image I brought together a number of snippets from a couple of the poems. For ‘Grandparents’ I used the eyes of the grandmother, daughter and baby in the belly to bring them together. It’s such a beautiful poem.

After I’ve settled on final images, I’ll paint them using watercolours and gouache.

 Grandparents Illustration by Julie Mackey

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators / artists / your younger self?

 My advice to aspiring illustrators is to be a sponge in the world around you, and draw this back into your own work. Maybe the colours from your favourite film could be the colour palette for your next drawing, or you could include your favourite pair of trousers in your next image (I love to add in my favourite red cords!)

Don’t be afraid to try. Fear of failure is a horrible feeling I have struggled with but not doing what you love is far worse.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working on a children’s book project and a personal exercise project. This will be an artist book of objects made by using orange, yellow, red, turquoise and blue – all painted from five second sketches.

You can see more over on Instagram @julie_mackey_ and my website

Love Illustration by Julie Mackey

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