Wilkintie – Magical markings

June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, May 9, 2009.

A kid-friendly collection ushers Dan Rule into a world of seaweed monsters and singing trees.

Niels Oeltjen’s face lights up when “the collection” is first mentioned. He pushes his glasses back up his nose, he fidgets excitedly, a broad smile creeps from beneath his beard. “Did you see it?” he urges. “It’s in the hall, like, the whole bookshelf!”

What is a pleasant memory for most of us has grown into something of a quiet obsession for the Melbourne-based artist – who works under the moniker of Nails – and his partner Carly Heargreaves. Their rambling assembly of chiefly pre-1980s illustrated children’s books is perhaps the most prominent feature of the couple’s art deco flat in Fitzroy North.

“They were really my gateway into art,” says the 32-year-old Oeltjen. “My parents exposed us to really beautiful books from Germany, and so I was always fascinated by it, and we’ve just continued to collect them. There were so many incredible artists working at the time, and children’s publishing was really the domain of people working in fine art.”

The couple’s new art project and business, Wilkintie, aims to re-create such a space. Now in its sixth month, the enterprise, named after a rare, Australian desert hopping mouse, involves them commissioning leading illustrators from all over the world to make exclusive one-off artworks for children, which Oeltjen and Heargraves later reproduce as beautifully crafted, limited-edition letterpress prints. The works are then made available for sale on their website, individually or as part of a monthly subscription service, and posted off around the globe to children and art lovers alike.

“It’s just that idea of art for everyone,” explains Heargraves, 30, who has a background in contemporary dance and publishing. “People always think about art in one particular context and that’s in a gallery and for adults.”

“We wanted to produce something that was regular and could involve kids in the experience of having something to look forward to every month,” says Oeltjen. “Something that was a surprise and would spark their imagination, and hopefully, something that they would communicate with their parents about …

“The idea was to engage the kids in this ongoing process and then at the end of it, they’d have this cool little collection.”

Among the collection are works by rising star of the French illustration community Chamo, internationally respected Californian artist Tim Biskup, celebrated Chicago illustrator and installation artist Cody Hudson, psychedelic Dutch artist Merijn Hos (aka Bfree) and Finnish designer and artist Klaus Haapaniemi, who has previously designed prints for fashion labels such as Diesel, Levis, Marimekko, Dolce & Gabbana and Cacharel.

“We just wanted to basically pick 12 of the best illustrators we could find,” explains Oeltjen. “It was really about picking people who already had that really imaginative, childlike quality in their work.”

Where children’s books once drew on the direct pitches, ideas and input of some of the illustration world’s finest practitioners, today’s landscape seems comparatively conservative. Instead of the fanciful watercolours of Quentin Blake and wondrously personable monsters of Maurice Sendak, we find shelves filled with generic, flat-panel illustrations and safe, uninspired storylines.

“We kind of just thought that the state of illustration for children had declined,” says Heargraves. “One thing that struck me when I was working in publishing was that the decisions about illustrations and whatever were all made by one really small group of people. It just seems that they don’t look outwards to see what other people are doing.”

“Those great, crazy ideas aren’t really pursued any more,” adds Oeltjen. “Like that Eric Carle book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar; nobody would come up with an idea like that any more for the fear that it would be knocked back. We wanted to make something that would have that kind of magic to it.”

Oeltjen’s Brunswick studio reveals some of that magic in process. Set among a cluster of neighbouring studios in a former Lebanese bakery, the space is strewn with letterpress printing plates, curious sketches, objects and half-finished paintings. The first seven Wilkintie prints hang handsomely on the wall behind his worktable, his own piece for the series – a stunning, puzzle-like arrangement of mermaids, ships, beefy sailors and a devastatingly cute “little seaweed monster guy” titled It’s the Seafaring Life for Me – among the spread.

The piece, he explains, harks back to compositional ideas he developed as a child growing up in alternative communities in Tasmania. “I used to do these drawings that were kind of like these little adventures within themselves,” he says. “I’d start in the corner of the page and draw a castle from above, then I’d kind of move along and there’d be a hill and a road, then I’d get distracted a bit and then just draw random things,” he laughs. “I’d turn the drawing upside down and start drawing something else completely different.”

Heargraves, who grew up in “the opposite kind of community” in suburban Adelaide, hopes that Wilkintie can help spark children’s creativity in a similar way.

“While some kids, like Niels, are kind of nurtured into art and creativity, others have to sort of use their intuition,” she says.

“Sometimes all you need is one person or one thing to really inspire you in your life – like someone you know who is an actress or a painter or a musician or whatever – and it really strikes when you’re little and it can kind of change everything.”

Dr Barbara Piscitelli, a director of the Australian Collections Council and one of Australia’s most senior researchers, archivists and policy advisers on early childhood visual arts education, agrees.

“Art isn’t just a process thing for kids,” she says. “They also really admire the work of artists themselves and they really get a lot out of contact with artists.”

She understands children to be far more receptive to challenging visual signifiers and imagery than we perhaps give them credit for.

“I’ve done a lot of research over the last 10years observing kids observing contemporary art, and you know, kids love contemporary art,” she says. “They don’t have any hang-ups about reading all kinds of images, whether it’s installation art or large and very strange abstract paintings or hyper-realistic stuff. If we allow them the chance, they read it all and they’re extremely curious about it all.”

It’s a theme that resonates with several of the artists involved. Thirty-two-year-old Chamo, whose wonderful retrospective circus poster (aptly titled Circus) was the second Wilkintie print to be released, believes that art for children should reposition them as the legitimate, intelligent audience they are. “Children are often considered as if they weren’t a proper public deserving proper artworks,” she says from her home in Paris. “This project treats children like any other viewer and brings them real artworks.”

Brussels artist Gwenola Carrere, also 32, created the sweet, quasi-surrealist Singing Tree as the fifth print in the series, and sees art as playing a role in not just creative, but emotional development. “Giving children access to art is helping them breathe beyond the everyday routine,” she says. “It’s helping the development of their own imagination and sensibility and it’s one of the first ways to face big emotions.”

Heargraves and Oeltjen – who are expecting their first child later this year – frame their ambitions for Wilkintie in somewhat simpler terms. “We just hope that the children are enjoying the pictures and they grow up with memories of them and it sort of inspires their imagination,” says Heargraves.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been a couple of hiccups along the way. “Oh yeah,” says Heargraves, smiling. “One of the artists put a little cigar and a martini glass in their illustration,” she giggles. “Don’t get me wrong, it looked gorgeous.

“But as you can imagine, that was the one time we had to do a little bit of editing.”

wilkintie.com

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