Last month Jackie Morris‘ haunting book The Ice Bear was released in a new paperback edition. To celebrate this I asked Jackie to share a little of the background to this bewitching story, to share some the book’s secrets.
If you’ve already got a copy of the book you might want to have it to hand whilst you read what she reveals, so you can go back and look at the images with fresh eyes. And if you haven’t already found a place in your home for this piece of art between two covers, … well perhaps this post ought to come with a warning notice. There’s magic in and on the pages of The Ice Bear. Prepare to be charmed and enchanted.
“The Ice Bear began with an image in my mind’s eye. It was an image of a child, kneeling. Around the child there were bears, so that the child looked like the centre of a daisy and the bears were the petals. My job was to work out how to get the child there, and probably more important, how to get him out again. This is what books are about for me, asking and answering questions, and in the process discovering more questions.
The Ice Bear began with a friend, pregnant with her first child. Something went wrong. The baby stopped moving, at full term. He died. She had to deliver a stillborn child. A tragedy for her and the child and her husband. The way people reacted to this was a shock to me. Quick, rush over it, brush over it, hide it under business, do anything but face the pain. (Not Sophie and Jon. They couldn’t rush over it, hide it, they had to face it.) I wanted to do a book about a lost child, about loosing a child. This was a thread that wove into the book. Though few would know if I didn’t say and the book is dedicated to Rhoderic, and Sophie and Jon and also to Katie and Thomas who were born by the time the book came out.
The Ice Bear began with a wish to do a book about polar bears, and to weave into it transformation and a legend, of the trickster and the shaman.
The Ice Bear began when the flight of a raven began to stitch together ideas with its patterned flight in the Pembrokeshire sky, because all books are like rivers, fed by streams of ideas, coming together.
The book is part of a series of books I have written about animals, each with a cover that is a portrait of the animal, staring out from the book. The covers are strong, almost iconic, and the books are often given shelf space so that the whole cover is seen, rather than being placed spine out on a shelf. I am told by bookshops who put the in the window that they work like a charm to bring people in to the shop, and one shop in Edinburgh said that people often missed their bus as they crossed the road to get a better look at the Snow Leopard when that was in the window. There’s something about eyes looking straight at you that still holds a primitive magic over the wild parts of the human consciousness. When I paint an animal in this way I am not searching for the humanity in the animal. I am searching for the soul, the spirit of the creature.
Having ‘begun’ with an image the story then builds into a balance of words and images. Picture books are meant to be read aloud. The language needs to taste good in the ear, to look right where it sits on the page. A picture book is like a theatre, each page a stage set for that part of the story and in designing each page I often include parts of the stories that are only in the pictures. Once open I try to keep the words inside the pictures. I want the book to become a world where the pictures and the words tell the story. The composition is thought out right to the corners and often the corners and edges are where the main focus of the story is. (You can see this best in the picture where the child finds his mother bear. The image dominated the page but in the top right hand corner there is the figure of the father, charging in).
I paint on smooth paper, arches hot pressed, beginning with pale washes and then building and building with layers and then smaller details. The paints that I use are Winsor and Newton Artist Quality watercolours, usually tubes, and I use ceramic palettes. I know these colours quite well now after 25 years of working with them. I know when to run wet into wet and how much water to use. Now I use sable brushes. They carry the paint so well and a brush like a series 7, no. 4 will allow a wide wash but also can pull the finest line when handled right. And in the same way that writing is like finding the answers to a series of questions, so too is painting. I am constantly asking myself questions, about composition and colour and line and finding the answers is what makes the book.
In The Ice Bear the mother and the father each have a totem animal. The mother’s is the Arctic fox, and often when it seems that the child is alone on the ice you can see the fox is there somewhere, watching. The father’s is the owl, a fierce sky hunter. The boy’s is the bear and always will be. And raven, the trickster, a character who is perhaps a force for good, perhaps bad. He steals the bear child, but takes him to the hunter and his wife who have longed for a child. And when it is time he leads him back across the ice and joins the bear people with the human people forever. So is she good, or bad?
During the telling of a tale things can change. When I originally wrote The Ice Bear the raven lured the child out over the ice with small shards of sea glass. But I had wanted the book to be set long before glass was invented. The child becomes the first shaman, a bridge between humanity and the bear people. It was a time when there were no borders and people wondered the land without any border controls. There was no concept of ownership of land. The very idea would have seemed ridiculous. And so I looked for something else, something more timeless and lit upon the idea of amber. Amber is natural, not a manufactured thing. And I have a necklace of amber beads that if taken apart by a mischievous raven would look just like the broken amber heart in the snow.
The Ice Bear has been published now in many languages, French, Spanish, Catalan, Danish, Swedish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese. This is one of the things I love about working with books. Words found on a hill top in Wales can travel the world. I also love the democracy of books. Paintings in a gallery are expensive and usually bought to be hung in one home. Books can be bought, translated, and borrowed from libraries. They can be shared.”
My thanks go to Jackie for so generously sharing some of the stories behind The Ice Bear.
The House of the Golden Dreams (an art gallery featuring Jackie’s work): https://www.facebook.com/TheHouseofGoldenDreams
Jackie on Twitter: @JackieMorrisArt
Jackie’s blog: http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/