Meet the Artist: Tatjana Mai-Wyss
Tatjana Mai-Wyss, who illustrated the story “Animal Hats” in the January issue of BABYBUG, can usually be found working in her sunny studio in South Carolina. She lives with her professor husband, two daughters, a dog, and a cat — plus two dwarf bunnies, who camp out in the back yard. She was born in a small town in Switzerland, which often inspires her work; it’s airy, playful, and full of movement. We chatted about how she developed “Animal Hats,” the urge to create, and the best ways of introducing children to art.
We see a lot of adorable BABYBUG artwork, but your illustration of “Animal Hats” may take the cake! What inspired the artwork? Can you describe your illustration process?
The first step of the process is, of course, to read and reread the story. I also like to read it to my kids, who are a little old for BABYBUG at this point, but are still full of good ideas. My younger daughter Nora actually drew a full set of illustrations for “Animal Hats” while I was still thinking about my approach. This project was a bit unusual in that as I read it, I imagined the girl growing older and out of each hat. As I sketched out the scenes, the idea kept rolling and it wasn’t until I was ready to submit the sketches that I realized I hadn’t followed any of the editorial guidelines. I made another set of sketches according to the instructions, and surprisingly the editors chose some from the first set and some from the second. They fit together nicely in the end, and the result was maybe a bit more unexpected. I still make my final art the old fashioned way; I transfer the sketch to nice paper and work with pencil, watercolors, and sometimes collage.
When did you first become interested in art?
I’ve always loved making things. When I was little, one of my favorite possessions was a large box my mom made me (covered in red and white gingham paper). I could store all my collected treasures in it (match boxes, ribbons, yarn, tin foil, and paper scraps) and pull them out when I felt the itch to make something. My other passion was books, and illustration combines reading, drawing, and making perfectly. I love being an illustrator. I still collect all kinds of treasures and am compelled to make something every day (even if it’s just a loaf of bread).
What role did your hometown play as you grew as an artist?
I grew up in Switzerland (and New Jersey) and moved quite a bit as a child. Maybe coming into new situations made me notice details others might take for granted, but I have a lot of very clear, happy memories of childhood, and I think that comes out in my drawings.
What do you like about illustration for children?
I think children and I share a love for details and a desire for accuracy when it comes to the story. I love picture book illustration because of the possibility of creating a whole new story with pictures, one that complements the words but may lead them in a new direction, introduce other characters, or even create a small parallel narrative in the pictures.
In your opinion, what’s the best way to get a child interested in art?
I think it’s important to give kids opportunity and supplies to make art, and help and instructions only when they ask for them. Exposure to books, pictures, nature, and the outdoors will help develop their creativity.
Did you have any favorite picture books when you were a child? How about now?
Some favorite books I remember are all of Richard Scarry’s books, A Bell for Ursli (A. Carigiet/S.Chonz), Zeralda’s Ogre (Ungerer), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle), and Bread and Jam for Francis (Hoban). My family jokes that my favorite books are all food-related. I could never decide on a current favorite. I love having access to books and amazing illustrators from all over the world through the internet, though the variety is a bit dizzying. Some classic family books we’ve happily been rereading for 10+ years are Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, as well as Goodnight Gorilla and 10 Minutes till Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann.
How will you celebrate the new year?
We will probably take the dog for a long walk, make a fire, eat fondue, and set off sparklers on New Year’s Eve.