Animalia: Portraits in Poetry & Pencil is a collaboration between artist Tom Mielko and author Erin Graffy. The book contains 23 animal graphite portraits by Mielko paired with 18 of Graffy’s poems. Mielko is best known for his seascape paintings employing his signature style: romantic realism. Graffy is the author of a series of wry “guidebooks” titled How to Santa Barbara; her most recent book of history, Old Spanish Days, was the recipient of three national awards.
How did the idea for Animalia come about? Tom Mielko: Erin and I had no idea we were going to do a book until Anne Luther saw the original drawings of graphite on clayboard. Erin asked me to send some images to her. The rest is history.
Erin Graffy: Tom and I have known each other for years. I have his first book, Tom Mielko: An Artist’s Journey, and have been to his exhibits featuring his celebrated paintings of landscapes from Nantucket to Santa Barbara. About a year and a half ago, a mutual friend — artist Anne Luther, who also works in art and antiques — sent me some of Tom’s latest passion: these black-and-white renderings of animals that he started doing about a year earlier. This was an utterly new genre for Tom and in a whole new medium. My reaction to his art was quite visceral. I immediately told Anne these drawings should be in a book and I would write poems to go with each one.
Talk about the process of collaborating. What were the biggest highlights and challenges?
TM: I can’t think of any challenges. We worked so well together and never had any conflicts.
EG: What I found fascinating was that the animals were drawn realistically — they were not at all cartoonish. My poems all flowed right from the drawing. I would study the animal and say, “What is that animal thinking or saying to himself?” And as I kept writing and conceptualizing the book, I would make suggestions on what animals to add: a reptile, more birds, and the anteater, etc. I was actually looking at the book as a whole and wanted different types and textures of animals. Tom had already completed a pair of gibbons, but I asked if he could give me one in motion, swinging from the tree branch. So that was the kind of collaboration we did. Frankly it was such fun, fun, fun — a joy for both of us — that it never seemed like work at all.
Who do you see as the readership for the book?
EG: Because we began this book just as a happy collaboration, I was honestly contemplating this was for adults. The board-book format lent itself to a children’s book, so I joked that it was a kid’s book for adults … sort of like Warner Brothers cartoons are “for kids,” but adults get the inside jokes and puns on a whole other level. Ultimately, what Maurice Sendak once said probably applies here: “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”
TM: From what I’ve heard, adults like the book just as much as children do.
Any plans to work together in the future?
TM: Right now we are beginning the second book. We have to keep it under wraps until we finish the project.
EG: Tom and I had finished an interview a few weeks ago. And I said to Tom, “I know we are only beginning to launch this book, but a future idea just popped into my head. So — no rush or pressure — but down the line, you know, for future reference, if you ever wanted to do another project …” He loved the idea so much that the next week when I spoke with him, he said he was already starting on it. So you might be seeing another collaboration a year from now!