This is the Planet Where I Live

Debra Frasier
Debra Frasi­er

When Debra Frasier’s first book was pub­lished thir­ty years ago, we were invit­ed to cel­e­brate the unique expe­ri­ence of each child born into this world. On the Day You Were Born has been a gift for babies, chil­dren, and fam­i­lies ever since. It’s often read out loud annu­al­ly dur­ing birth­day cel­e­bra­tions. Min­neso­ta’s Shore­view Pub­lic Library fea­tures the book in a wall-sized art instal­la­tion warm­ing the hearts of patrons, who are remind­ed of the joy in this book.

This year, Debra hon­ors our world, includ­ing the crea­tures who live here, the places we live, clouds in the sky, the fields where we grow foods that sus­tain us. Illus­trat­ing a book writ­ten by K.L. Going, This is the Plan­et Where I Live, Debra Frasi­er works with col­lage that exu­ber­ant­ly cel­e­brates our con­nec­tions to every­thing on this earth.

When you receive a man­u­script, do you know imme­di­ate­ly how you will express the book with your art? Does a pic­ture spring to mind?

Oh, good heav­ens no! That’s the point: NOT KNOWING! That’s the fun. That’s the jour­ney, the learn­ing adven­ture! After agree­ing to illus­trate a sto­ry that some­one else wrote, I imme­di­ate­ly get a blank jour­nal — large, spi­ral. I make a front piece page and begin the search for glim­mer­ings in the dark. I look for visu­al cues, places that are draw­ing my atten­tion in response to my query of the uni­verse: What does this book look like? No judg­ments. I’m just on the look­out for some­thing that flash­es a tiny spark … maybe a mag­a­zine pic­ture, an Insta­gram post, an over­heard com­ment at the bak­ery. It all goes in the Jour­nal. This is how I learn what the book will look like. I will always be using scis­sors, paper, and glue, but how? Will I make the paper? Paint it? Col­lect it? Pur­chase it? I’ve been crit­i­cized for my “style” being all over the map, lack­ing con­sis­ten­cy, but hon­est­ly, that would bore me to tears. It’s the search, the frus­tra­tion, the tries, and the unex­pect­ed com­bi­na­tions that I love.

Debra Frasier interview
Books that helped me

You didn’t write this book, so what con­sid­er­a­tions are dif­fer­ent than they would be for a book you’ve written?

This is the Planet Where I LiveIt is tra­di­tion­al for the author and the illus­tra­tor not to meet, so the illus­tra­tor remains free to envi­sion the book with­out con­straints, to see the sto­ry fresh­ly through their own eyes. But when I am writ­ing and illus­trat­ing, we talk to each oth­er all the time — and the Jour­nal has been fill­ing since incep­tion with the par­al­lel chan­nels of words and images. I pre­fer that. But every once in a while a man­u­script comes along that star­tles me enough to turn my head and stare, deeply. Kel­ly Going’s man­u­script was like this.

Can you share with us your ini­tial deci­sion-mak­ing process for this book? Out of all the mate­ri­als avail­able, how do you decide on what you will use?

I know that I will be col­lag­ing with paper for each project I do. But the vari­ables inside that choice are infi­nite. For exam­ple, on This Is The Plan­et Where I Live, I spent about a year exper­i­ment­ing with cre­at­ing “paste papers” to use in the col­lages for this book. (Paste paper is a Japan­ese tech­nique for col­or­ing paper that uses a goopy paste of rice flour and col­ored with pig­ments, sort of like fin­ger paint­ing for adults.) In 1992 I had illus­trat­ed William Stafford’s poem, The Ani­mal That Drank Up Sound, in this way. But the papers turned out to be too heavy, too thick, for the light­ness this book need­ed. I stum­bled on an Insta­gram post of some tex­tiles from Uzbek­istan that threw off so many sparks for me that I end­ed up print­ing about twen­ty of these posts and putting the images in my Jour­nal to study. It was so lucky because the post­ing site moved on to ikat tex­tiles from Afghanistan next and has nev­er gone back to those live­ly images from Uzbek­istan! Lots of things influ­ence a design deci­sion but this was a big one, right up there with my Tai Chi teacher’s ran­dom com­ment: “Do not for­get that this is the plan­et of all things that sprout.” That was not just a spark — that com­ment was a fire for me!

Debra Frasier interview
Ear­ly, paint­ed, text tests, not used

Once you decid­ed on col­lage, how did you go about orga­niz­ing images so you could assem­ble them into artwork?

I end­ed up using French Can­sons papers — strong, flat­ly col­ored, slight­ly tex­tured on one side, and eas­i­ly pur­chased at my local craft store. I keep the large Can­sons sheets on my stu­dio walls, pressed to a met­al strip with a strong mag­net for each sheet. This lets me eas­i­ly snip off bits to try. I also made a “poster” of each avail­able Can­sons col­or, each sam­pled in a strip, and attached with remov­able tape. This poster is a very impor­tant tool for try­ing out col­or choic­es. Plan­et came to require the accu­mu­la­tion of hun­dreds and hun­dreds of tiny pic­tures of “the things that sprout” and I man­aged those in small plas­tic box­es, labeled and stored as you would 4×6 inch pho­tos. This proved to be a fab­u­lous sys­tem. If I need­ed yel­low flow­ers, I’d pull out the YELLOW box.

Debra Frasier interview
Can­sons paper strips board
Debra Frasier interview
Can­sons paper board in action
Debra Frasier illustration
Can­sons paper strips used on the Ani­mals page

How do you edit what you’re doing?

Well, you have hit on the gold­en secret of col­lage — if you wait to glue until the end of build­ing an image, it is con­stant­ly being edit­ed as you cre­ate it. Many times I just sweep every­thing off and start over. This is why I love this method! I would not call myself a great illus­tra­tor but I CAN edit until I get some­thing near my idea of RIGHT!

Did you work with a computer?

I do not work with a screen in the build­ing of the orig­i­nal images. Each pic­ture exists in full size, made from scis­sors, paper, and glue. At the end, when the book’s pic­tures are fin­ished, my hus­band, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er James Henkel, takes them into our main­te­nance room where we have a copy stand with lights set up. (It is very dark in there!) Togeth­er we shoot a pho­to of each illus­tra­tion. This trans­forms my paper-col­laged pic­tures into dig­i­tal images and they can now be opened in Pho­to­shop. Col­or accu­ra­cy to the orig­i­nals is degrad­ed in this step, but Jim and I work togeth­er to try to get a match back to the orig­i­nals. (This was a very dif­fi­cult step in this Planet’s cre­ation, and we are not sure why as we’ve used this process in every book. Mys­tery.) The cor­rect­ed dig­i­tal images are sent to the publisher’s design­er, who then lays in the type for each page. This is a HUGELY impor­tant role in the book’s final look. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly lucky to have Michael McCart­ney, at Beach Lane Books (S&S), work­ing with me on this step. He was not only bril­liant — he was also incred­i­bly patient! Just look at this book’s cov­er: beau­ti­ful! Michael did that.

Debra Frasier interview
Debra at work

Is there a point at which you begin to con­sid­er the read­er, the per­son absorb­ing the text and illustrations?

The read­ers and the lis­ten­ers are with me from the very start. I have had the priv­i­lege of mak­ing pic­ture books for three decades plus. Now par­ents who heard On the Day You Were Born as a child read it to their own kids. My role is to bring the shoul­ders togeth­er of fam­i­ly, or a class­room, all lean­ing in, all wait­ing to be trans­port­ed through the lift­ing of a cov­er. I find and make the sto­ry but it is noth­ing with­out this lean­ing in to lis­ten, noth­ing but a pile of paper. So I always have this image of where we are head­ed with me as I think about the mak­ing of a book. I don’t let their judg­ments enter in, but I let their even­tu­al delight car­ry me through. I am very, very slow at mak­ing books. For me, it takes years and years for each one. With­out the image of the read­ers with me, with the goal of that lean­ing in and lift­ing the cov­er togeth­er, I would nev­er make it.

Debra Frasier interview
Cut­ting a rain­bow person

You are a thought­ful and shar­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er and video­g­ra­ph­er. How are these part of an illustrator’s tool­box? Why do you take pho­tos of the book in the making?

Because every book is a mys­tery for me as to how it will turn out — and because I build the Jour­nal I men­tioned to help me make sense of the clues along the way — I am as sur­prised as any­one else as to see how it came out! (I want your read­ers to know that I ALWAYS doubt if I can pull it off when I start.) When the book is done I love to tell the sto­ry of the process of this unfold­ing mys­tery, hop­ing it will reveal some clue that will be help­ful to some­one else’s process. I have been so helped by my years at Pen­land School of Craft where I met hun­dreds of fierce­ly inde­pen­dent mak­ers who taught me, through their process pre­sen­ta­tions, that there are a zil­lion ways to do any­thing — and I could learn my own way. It’s part of my pay-it-for­ward work with kids, espe­cial­ly. Every project starts tiny. This is such an impor­tant con­cept to grasp ear­ly on. Life chang­ing. Tak­ing pic­tures along the way helps make the sto­ry of the adven­ture real.

How is sub­mit­ting illus­tra­tions for a book dif­fer­ent now than it was when you cre­at­ed On the Day You Were Born thir­ty years ago?

I have worked with the same edi­tor, Allyn John­ston, for all of my years in pub­lish­ing. This makes a dif­fer­ence in that she under­stands my hands-on, no-screen way of work­ing, and sup­ports it. (My dum­mies — prac­tice books — are made of real paper, with real paper images!) So I’ve been able to keep my image mak­ing process the same in those 30+ years. I just love scis­sors, paper, and glue. (Know that I have learned to use Pro­cre­ate — a draw­ing pro­gram — on my iPad, and love play­ing with that, so I am not a com­plete Lud­dite. But for books, I want to keep it real. Scis­sors. Paper. Glue.)

The next part I am going to answer with some detail for the his­tor­i­cal record! It may be too bor­ing for any­one else:

In 1990, when I fin­ished the art for On the Day You Were Born (1991) we shot the orig­i­nal col­lages (scaled much larg­er than the trim size of the book) on the same copy stand I use today, but the end result dif­fered. In 1990 we shot on film, and from that 4×5 film, gor­geous, accu­rate col­or “trans­paren­cies” on film were our goal. Those trans­paren­cies were then scanned and made into dig­i­tal files.

The orig­i­nal art was actu­al­ly sent to Sin­ga­pore and “on-press col­or check­ing” was a part of the print­ing process. Under spe­cial lights, adjust­ments were made as the press­es thun­dered to match the orig­i­nal art to the sheets com­ing off press. Out of the Ocean, my 1998 book, was print­ed in Mex­i­co and I was able to see this book on-press, and watch the very tal­ent­ed press check­ers use the chal­leng­ing orig­i­nal art to adjust the press’ ink flow. That was an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence. Miss Alaineus, A Vocab­u­lary Dis­as­ter, (2000) was my last book to use trans­paren­cies (and we used an 8×10 film cam­era for pho­tograph­ing that art — gor­geous arti­facts!). Now we go direct to dig­i­tal when we pho­to­graph the col­lage art. The orig­i­nal art no longer accom­pa­nies the press­es as dig­i­tal files can be proofed from a few test pages and adjust­ments made there as col­or match accu­ra­cy is now great­ly improved.

One ques­tion might be: why not just scan the orig­i­nal art?

  1. When scanned, cut paper col­lage edges cause shad­ows that I find unac­cept­able in the print­ed image.
  2. I work very large and a scan­ner to accom­mo­date this scale is both hard to find and very expensive!
Debra Frasier interview
Debra Frasier’s studio
Debra Frasier interview
Debra in her stu­dio with the fin­ished artwork

What are your hopes for this book?

I think the author Kel­ly Going said it well when asked where she found the inspi­ra­tion for this book:

Joseph Camp­bell wrote, ‘we need myths that will iden­ti­fy the indi­vid­ual not with his local group but with the plan­et.’ This is the quote that inspired the text for This is the Plan­et Where I Live. If you replace the word “myths” with “sto­ries,” you can eas­i­ly see how this quote inspired the book … the more we begin to see all peo­ple as our peo­ple, the clos­er we’ll come to achiev­ing peace.

When I read this man­u­script I imme­di­ate­ly sensed what Kel­ly did — that here was a chance to make the pic­tures for a sto­ry I des­per­ate­ly need­ed to hear right now — a book that deliv­ered a vision of a world where all of us are con­nect­ed. I hope this book can help teach­ers and fam­i­lies lean in and see that too. Here it is, in glow­ing col­or, a sto­ry for our time, a sto­ry that weaves us all together.

Resources

Debra Frasier’s website

K.L. Going’s website

Debra’s Paper Camp (grab some paper, scis­sors, glue, and a cup of tea)

Sign up for Debra’s Scis­sors Paper Glue, her once-month­ly, four-items each time newslet­ter with a delight­ful video how-to.

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Heidi Hammond
Heidi Hammond
1 year ago

Thank you for your won­der­ful descrip­tions of the way you work, Debra. Your pho­tos were so inter­est­ing. I am look­ing for­ward to read­ing and see­ing This Is the Plan­et Where You Live.

David LaRochelle
1 year ago

It’s such a beau­ti­ful book; I look for­ward to when I can leisure­ly pore over each illus­tra­tion. It’s inspir­ing, and mind-open­ing to hear how oth­er artists work. See­ing your stu­dio was also inspir­ing; it made me want to start cre­at­ing some­thing now. Thank you, Debra!