Les Artistes: Drawn to Story
Lafayette children’s book illustrator Denise Gallagher adds another chapter to her accomplished art career with her first solo, expansive exhibit at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum
For artist Denise Gallagher, whose professional career has pretty much been a fairytale while drawing and writing fairytales, this standalone exhibit of her children’s literature illustrations at the Hilliard Museum could be considered her storybook finish, her happy ending — although that designation isn’t entirely accurate.
Sure, this display — which runs until the end of August — is a joyous occasion, an honor. But there’s no finality to all this. Heck, Gallagher is currently writing and illustrating a middle school novel about a young violinist, the idea stemming from a sketch she authored while watching her son at music camp.
So this isn’t a finish. This isn’t an ending.
It’s … it’s … it’s …
“I mean,” Gallagher says before a pause for thought, “it’s really something!”
OK, that’ll work.
Popular characters such as Peg Bearskin, Bastien, BouZou and Slick Jim Jack— all of which Gallagher drew to life — cover the gallery walls of the A. Hays Town Building this summer, giving children full access to all of the heroes and villains they’ve seen at home or in classrooms for years. Beyond that, for Gallagher, the exhibit is also sort of unintentional confirmation that this former advertising designer who made the “scary decision” to venture off on her own years ago to illustrate storybooks did the right thing.
“The whole building is filled with my work,” Gallagher says. “Have you ever heard of Im-poster Syndrome? Where you think you’re just fooling everybody, and how did I get to this place? I almost had a panic attack about that.
“But really, it’s a big deal and I’m excited about it. I hope it’s something families can come and enjoy together, because I love to meet little kids who love to write and love to draw and love to be creative. And they ask the best questions, which makes my day — just sharing that passion for art and literature.”
Though the majority of children’s books are limited to 40 pages or less, Gallagher’s illustration process tends to last nine months — which is standard in that line of work. What’s cool about the Hilliard exhibit is Gallagher decided to include several of her initial character sketches, allowing patrons to see the entire artistic evolution from concept to completion, and the changes in color and design that take place along the way.
“My work has always had this playful, whimsical style, even as a graphic designer,” Gallagher says. “My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and I still have picture books from when I was a child, and I would climb into those worlds that those picture books provided.
“And I want to do that same thing for children today with the books I illustrate. To do that, you have to keep that childlike outlook on your world — which isn’t always a great thing in all aspects of your life, but it is for this.”
What a Character
Illustrator Denise Gallagher takes us through her Top three characters she’s drawn to life.
❶ PEG BEARSKIN of the book Peg Bearskin
“She was fun to draw because of the challenge. The author calls her big, hairy and ugly, so you struggle with, ‘What is ugly?’ And she has two beautiful sisters, but her sisters and vapid, uncreative and lazy. Peg is clever and smart. She Iis the hero. So even though she had furry arms and warts and crazy orange hair, I got to draw her with this sparkle in her eyes. Just a great character.”
❷ BASTIEN from her upcoming novel Bastien and Berlioz and the Teaspoon
“He’s dear to my heart, because he’s sort of based on my son, Oliver. Seeing him progress and grow as a musician led me to writing this story — an orphan boy who uses music to sooth himself, save himself and his friend, a dancing bear. And the music ties the whole story together. Bastien is skinny and wears hand-me-down boots that are too large for him, mismatched clothes. But he does the best with what he has — which is a great message.”
❸ BouZou from the book A Tip Tap Tale
“I was born in New Orleans and grew up in Metairie, and now I’ve spent half my life in Lafayette. So I kind of have a foot in both areas. And BouZou does the same — going back and forth from the swamps to the big city. Someone asked if BouZou is autobiographical, and I said, ‘Not really.’ Deep down, he’s just a hound dog that likes to sign in the swamps. He likes the simple things.”