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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Meet Joanna Blitch: Illustrator of Special Edition of Youth and the Bright Medusa

Meet Joanna Blitch: Illustrator of Special Edition of Youth and the Bright Medusa

Illustrator Joanna A. Blitch
From "Paul's Case"
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Last winter, we conducted a search to find the ideal illustrator for our centenary publication of Youth and the Bright Medusa, Willa Cather's 1920 collection of eight stories, and her first publication with Alfred A. Knopf. Joanna A. Blitch of Greensboro, North Carolina, was selected from artists from around the country who submitted their portfolios and pictorial visions for each story. 

"Joanna's concept image from 'Coming, Aphrodite!' won us over immediately," said Executive Director Ashley Olson. "We were struck by the simplicity of the Sumi ink medium and by how thoughtfully Joanna had captured a fleeting moment from the story."

After many months of project planning and execution, our edition will be released this fall with Blitch's evocative images. We asked Blitch to share more about her artistic vision and process for these wonderful original illustrations.

First of all, what is your favorite image from the collection and why?

Right now, I'd say the image of Paul burying his boutonniere, from "Paul's Case." I loved combining the details—the suit, the fingers, the snow—with the emotional weight of that moment, his last goodbye to the life he dreamed of.

Where do you live, and how do you like to work?

I live in Greensboro, North Carolina. During quarantine, as my husband, daughter, and I are sharing a small house, I work whenever there is a little quiet and mental space! My personal work is a bit looser and weirder than the YBM illustrations. Lately, I like to start by drawing an outline in white paint, then drawing over that with layers of ink, watercolor, and pencil. My favorite work happens when I can stay just ahead of thinking about it—when I'm just responding to what's happening within the drawing in front of me, without trying to control it.

What brought you to your art medium? Is it a natural skill, or did you develop it through formal training or school? 

I've always loved drawing and making things with my hands. My degree is in fine art. For me, development is ongoing—the more I engage with my art, the more I enjoy it, and the more I enjoy it, the more I engage with it. You have to be tough and critical with yourself, but you also have to be able to distinguish between the mental voice that constantly says, "This stinks, everything I do is awful," and the one that quietly says, "I am capable of doing better." Having a person whose judgement you trust, who will give you honest feedback, is also vital.

How did you hear about this opportunity? Why did you decide to submit your portfolio? 

My mother is interested in Cather and her work. She sent me the call for illustration proposals that the Foundation put out and suggested I enter. I thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity. I went right to the Greensboro Public Libary and checked out YBM. I think I had the book checked out continuously from November 2019 to May 2020. I read and reread those stories—I was constantly looking back to see if I was remembering details correctly.

What does your creative process typically look like? Was it different for this book? 

In terms of Youth and the Bright Medusa, I did a lot of research to get the details right. I consulted books on historical fashion, and looked at images from auction houses and museums. I went to an exhibit of the work of early 20th century illustrator J.C. Leyendecker at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem. Those paintings, and that preserved home, gave me lots of vital clues about how people in Cather's time dressed, lived, and carried themselves. My goal was to create richly detailed images that wouldn't date too quickly. I worked in ink on paper, because it reproduces well. I love the immediacy and the element of chance involved in working with traditional, as opposed to digital, media.

Were you a Willa Cather fan beforehand? If so, what was the first book of hers that you read? 

I'm new to Cather. I would like to read more.

Were the stories easy to illustrate? Why or why not? 

I would say easy, in the sense that they teem with visual images. Cather writes with very concrete details of place and time—carriages, streets, furniture. She gives you a sense of her characters by describing the clothes they wear and the art they have in their homes. Her writing also utilizes very cinematic, dramatic visual moments of plot. I saw them very clearly as I read. The question becomes, which one works best on the page?

What brought you to the images that you chose to illustrate for the book?

I tried to pay attention to the mental visuals each story conjured up. I sketched the ones I felt were most interesting and most emblematic of each story. I submitted my favorite of these sketched ideas for each story and received feedback. For some of the stories, the committee loved my initial concept and I just developed that into a finished piece. Sometimes they asked me to try different approaches, and we would go back and forth until everyone felt we had reached the best image. They were extremely supportive and helpful through the entire process, and I appreciated their deep knowledge of Cather and her work.

Was this your first book project? Any other art or book projects on your drawing board? 

I wrote and illustrated a children's book that I would like to shop around.

Have you been to Red Cloud or Nebraska? 

No, unfortunately I never have! I would love to visit Red Cloud and the Willa Cather Cather Memorial Prairie, though.

Were there any particular things—images, places, plots— that spoke to you, whether or not for illustration?

I was really struck by Cather's love for music and singers. Her knowledge and appreciation of music runs all through those stories. Devotion to music is the animating force that drives so many of her characters. A place in the world of art, especially music, is the dangerous, irresistable "Bright Medusa" that lures and haunts them.

What is your takeaway from this project? 

Go ahead and apply for things! When you take a chance and put your work out there, amazing things can happen. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I appreciate it!

[September 2020]

You can pre-order Youth and the Bright Medusa on our website HERE and a complete set of eight, enlarged limited edition giclee prints from Blitch's illustrations HERE.