We’ve posted before on the illustrator who worked with Andrew Bird to bring an additional layer of meaning to the new-ish deluxe album, Noble Beast. Following Bird’s storm of a show in Toronto a couple weeks ago (flabbergasting foot-tapping gramophone-spinning orchestrally amazing show) we bring Diana Sudyka back to Black Kettles for some insight into not only how Bird works, but how she works as a visual artist. She is a self-described “Chicago illustrator with a passion for all things feathered, and wild” and we wanted more of her! With our good fortune, we present an insightful interview with Sudyka’s considered responses to our meandering questions (interview begins after her work samples).
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you began as an artist?
I’ve always drawn from an early age. I don’t know if that consitutes as art so much as habit. I have too much art education: a BFA in studio art and an MFA in printmaking. I don’t know if that really constitutes as being an artist either. I have always identified myself more as illustrator and printmaker. The first medium to really inspire me was intaglio, and I still love it. After years of doing it though(I worked as a master printer for a Chicago artist for 5 years, and my grad work), I began to have health issues with some of the chemicals and nerve problems in my hands from working in such fine detail. So, I stopped for a couple of years and worked as a reference assistant at Chicago’s Newberry Library. All of its amazing print collections, manuscripts, and illuminated texts, were more inspiring to me than all of my schooling and art world experience combined. After working there, I realized I wanted to start making work again, and that’s when I began screen printing and making watercolors (both much easier on my hands and immune system!).
In your blog, The Tiny Aviary, your research and inspiration show an appreciation for accurately representing the natural world. But much of your work is quite surreal. How important is it for your drawings to be scientifically accurate, and is your process well-planned or more spontaneous?
That is something I am constantly trying to find the right balance between: being scientifically accurate enough, but getting a bit of the personal in too. I want to be scientifically accurate, but I also want to convey the essential character of that animal though my perception and connection to it. I think of all of the natural history illustration that I love, all the particular artists that I am drawn to, and it is not because they are scientifically accurate or have a photo realism about them. I like them because there is something so subjective, and slightly off about the renderings. For example: most people are familiar with Audubon’s representations of birds.
On first glance they are very realistic, and so full of life. But the more you see of his work (and the more you know about him), the weirder it gets. He killed almost everything he drew. When he drew birds in flight, they often looked more like footballs being hurled. Early natural history plates, especially really old wood engravings, can be unusual looking because people hadn’t quite figured out drawing perspective yet, and also, our connection and understanding of nature was a bit different than what it is now.
Anyway, my process as to whether I head in the scientifically accurate direction on something or the surreal, is pretty well planned.
What are your most prized working tools?
A box of Maimeri pan watercolors I got on a trip to Florence 15 years ago, an etching needle my parents got me for Christmas one year, and my sable watercolor brushes.
Do you think you could do the work you do, without the Field Museum in Chicago, at which you volunteer? Why do you volunteer there?
Volunteering with that community of people has been a tremendous influence on my work. I volunteer there because I love natural history, and I have a great respect for biologists. I mean, I don’t get crushes on people like Brad Pitt, it’s the likes of David Quammen, E.O. Wilson and David Attenborough that get me feeling warm and fuzzy. Being at the Field is a way for me to learn more about the things I love from people who have devoted their lives to studying them. It’s also very refreshing to surround myself with a different community (that I am not normally used to) every week. Most of my friends are artists, designers, and illustrators, which is great, but it’s good to step outside of that every once in a while.
Andrew Bird, whose new album you have recently done a magnificent job illustrating, says that he finds the space where he is able to be most creative on his family farm in Illinois. Do you have a “space” that similarly inspires you?
I go to the Field Museum. That’s one space. For a long time, I didn’t have much of a connection to the Midwest. I had been spending time out in the Pacific Northwest and would compare their forests and mountains of moss draped conifers, and huge ferns to Illinois’s seemingly much more humble natural offerings. I’d come home and get depressed. At a certain point, I decided I would find a way to feel a connection with the natural world here in the way that I did when I was out West. I read Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac”, which is all about cherishing and understanding places we, until recently, tended to overlook such as prairies, marshes, fens, bogs, oak savanahs. I began to educate myself on the flora and fauna of Illinois and went hiking on a regular basis to places like this county park near the Wisconsin border called Glacial Park. Glacial Park became that spot for me, and still is when I have time to go. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and has tons of biodiversity. In the spring and fall, the marshes and creek are full of migratory waterfowl. Sandhill cranes come through, and a couple pairs will breed there every season. There are rolling hills and morraines that were created by glacial till. It’s where I began to really cherish where I live. And it was from there that I really began to learn about Midwestern natural history and how precious our ecosystems are even though they aren’t the majestic mountains of the west!
Your work is really unique and I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but as an artist myself, I am curious – have you ever borrowed an idea?
I borrow all of the time. We all do. Designers/artists/illustrators: we’re all thieves. It’s the way in which you borrow, though, and how you incorporate certain themes, visual, musical and otherwise into your work that distinguishes the line between “stealing” and “appropriating”. And it’s a thin line, and everybody feels differently as to where that line exists. A couple of my friends were talking about Shepard Fairey recently, and you know, Fairey is someone that has made a huge career of appropriating the images of others. His work is tremendously popular, but I know many who harbor resentment for what they see as stealing.
Are there any artists/illustrators/authors/people who have been inspiring you lately?
Having some recognition from your work on Andrew Bird’s new album must feel pretty great, and hopefully it’s a real high for you. But how do you personally measure success? Could you be happy stopping now?
If that was all it took! Sure, working with Andrew was a great opportunity for many reasons. The obvious was gaining more exposure for my work, but it was a really great learning experience by working with such a skilled musician; especially a musician that puts a lot of thought into how his work is represented visually.
I measure success by by the fact that I pay my bills by doing something that I love, that I get to work with interesting people like Andrew, and for the most part, I am my own boss.
And last but not least, many of our readers are reaching for the kind of success you seem to have already: What advice do you have for up and coming artists?
Be disciplined with your time, and work consistently. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m not exactly young. It’s really just been in the last few years that I feel like I am getting somewhere, and part of that is because I learned to love what I do. I didn’t always feel that way, and my feelings about doing this used to be much more convoluted. I know this sounds trite, but I have found it to be true: you have to love what you do first, then work really hard.