She is unique as a collage artist, illustrator and author. What puts Jeannie in a category of her own is the way she begins with an idea that always has a significance and a message that only a great collage artist could communicate in this medium. She creates her works with varied materials usually collected in the setting that then becomes the subject of her art. I recall her saying many years ago that when she created 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' she went off and not only explored the Daintree Forest alone, she slept in it overnight under a plastic sheet to keep herself dry. It can take Jeannie years to produce a book. Her most recent work 'Mirror' took her five years. I review this work in detail below.
Once she has finished the collages she photographs them to create the page plates for her books. This usually leads to an exhibition of her art as well as a picture book. To see her collages as works of art is a great treat. I'd encourage anyone living in Sydney to take advantage of the exhibition of her art from 'Mirror' at the 'Museum of Sydney' that will be open until 10th October 2010. The exhibition will move to Melbourne in November, Adelaide in March and other galleries and museums throughout 2011 (details here).
Jeannie Baker's technique yields works of art that are stunningly beautiful (and quite small) which when put together into a book offer a visual experience for the 'reader' that keeps them coming back to the book. I never tire of reading Jeannie's books, or of reading them to children. When I read 'Mirror' recently to my grandchildren my eldest grandchild Jacob reacted with delight and excitement as he kept seeing new details in each image. The illustrations lead children to touch and stroke images because they look so real. This is partly achieved by Jeannie Baker's fastidious use of materials that are from the real object. For example, she used sand and authentic fabrics from Morocco in 'Mirror'. If she creates a bird it will often have real feathers.
You can read a full biography here.
A review of some of her work
'Mirror' (2010) Walker Books
Her latest work 'Mirror' is a wonderful place to start in considering Jeannie's work because I think it is her best work. The concept is brilliant, the quality of the images once again stunning, the book design groundbreaking and the wordless picture book created is, as usual, challenging at many levels. It is the concept and design that will first catch your attention. It is slightly more square in shape and it defies your efforts to open it in a conventional way. This picture book comprises two stories that are designed to be read simultaneously – one from the left, the other from the right (see below). As you pick up the book you try to open it from right to left only to have the book open at the middle to reveal two books, one that is read from left to right and begins in Arabic, and the other from right to left that begins with English. Page by page, we experience a day in the lives of two boys and their families - one from inner city Sydney, Australia and the other from a small, remote village in Morocco, North Africa.
Jeannie conceived the book while travelling alone in Morocco. It was while immersed in the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people and while experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the place, that she conceived the idea and knew she had to produce it even without approval from a publisher. As usual, it is Jeannie's passion for the idea of her work, and her skill as an artist in holding a 'mirror' to the world (pun intended) that produces a stunning and memorable work. I love this book.
While the two worlds portrayed couldn’t be further apart, she shows through the parallel lives of the two families, a simple and profound truth. While people live in vastly different places, and have different lives, we share much. While the families have different food, clothing and family practices, there is much that is the same. Family members love one another and depend on each other. A mother, father and children do different things each day than in Sydney, but they are more like us than we might imagine. And there is an additional truth - we are connected to them. With subtle use of images Jeannie is able to show connection, and the delight of the reader is to discover them. My grandson excitedly shouted as we read the book "Look, look, it's the same carpet. The carpet they were making (in Morocco) is the same carpet they bought (the people in Sydney)". Jeannie's message is that in many ways we are mirrors of one another even though different. This is a stunning book that will win many awards.
Update: 'Mirror' was awarded the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award for best picture book (joint award).
'Millicent' (1980) Scholastic
Hyde Park (Sydney) feeding the pigeons and talking to them. As she watched the old lady she often wondered what she was thinking. Through her simple collages and language she speculates about the lady's thoughts as she feeds them. She tells a gentle story of how she feels needed as she visits sees the pigeons each day.
One Hungry Spider (1982) Deutsch
This delightful about a spider (an Orbweb Eriophora) is another excellent example of Jeannie's work. This counting book while teaching the reader to count from 1 to 10 also tells the story of the spider, its catch day by day and the impact on its web. Like Millicent, the collage art is much more simple than Jeannie's later works that have greater complexity as works of art. But it contains many of the same wonderful qualities, simplicity, colour, varied textures and wonderful detail.
'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' (1987) Julia MacRae Books
'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books
This book saw Jeannie move from the natural world to the man-made world as she showed once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on, and as we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement. This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.
Jeannie Baker also wrote a wonderful short book 'Window: An Australian Outlook' (1991) published by the Royal Botanic Gardens to coincide with the release of the book and in association with the exhibition of the collages from which the book was made.
'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) Greenwillow
The book was produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).
'Belonging' (2004) Walker Books
In 'Belonging' we see Baker returning to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. But whereas 'Window' focused on our negative impact on the environment, 'Belonging' shows how a community can work to improve the urban landscape rather than just trying to escape from it. The images are stunning and once again, her point is well made. This book is sold under the title of 'Home' in the USA.