Interview with illustrator, Anna Steinberg

Live Canon editor, Rebecca Hare, interviews illustrator Anna Steinberg about her work. Anna has illustrated two Live Canon collections, My Shrink is Pregnant by Katie Griffiths, and Agony by Mark Huband. Both are available to buy here: http://www.livecanon.co.uk/store

1. How are you finding pandemic life, both as an artist and a person? What have the last few months looked like for you?

The Agony commission came early in lockdown. It was great to have a substantial project when so much had come to a halt. Much of my teaching work was stopped, and I love that work, but it was good to have full focus on this commission.

I’ve quite liked the simplicity of staying put. Being freelance is a good training for working alone and managing unpredictability so maybe the change was less dramatic for some of us. I also lecture in professional practice and am pleased that the talks have translated to Zoom effectively, so some of my work can continue.

It’s also been a good chance to read fantastic thick books (The Goldfinch and The Ten Types of Human) that I wouldn’t have wanted to heft around - in normal times I did all my reading on trains.

2. You've recently beautifully illustrated Mark Huband's Agony: a Poem of Genocide. How did you go about creating those illustrations?

I read the poem methodically and made notes for each page of any imagery / concepts that came to mind. And did a lot of googling of places, and characters mentioned, much of which I had no knowledge of. It’s hard to pin down a process but I think having done that, the ideas ferment in the head. And I can remember a moment, on a run in the park soon after, that an approach came to mind for Chapaghjur. Initially I’d imagined something very abstract, but then thought of a street scene, to represent normality, but corrupted by cutting and re-assembling.

For Prinsengracht 263, I was struck by the sense of people disappeared, and wanted to depict the lost people in the negative space of a crowd. For El Dorado I had an idea of creating a beautiful pattern that could be a piece of jewellery, but close up you’d see it was made of bodies. That illustration had to be a compromise, as I couldn’t get that perfect balance of beauty, complexity and hidden horror. I’m happy enough with that final image though. The ‘perfect' one, even if I had been able to do it might not have worked within the set of images. Some of the images don’t relate specifically to a particular part of the poem, but to the overall theme.

I wanted my figures and environments to be fairly non specific rather than depict a particular ethnicity, time or place. Partly because the theme of genocide spills out beyond a particular time and place, and also because the range of the poem is so diverse in time and place that more details could have been visually messy. I wanted the images to be varied enough to be fresh, but also coherent as a set.

3. You've also wonderfully illustrated another Live Canon book, Katie Griffiths' My Shrink is Pregnant. What was the same, and what was different, in illustrating these two poetry books?

An aspect they had in common was that I had a lot of respect for the writing, both of which had depths and impact. And I think the approach in terms of generating ideas of what to depict from the text was similar.

The approach was different in terms of media. For Shrink I wanted to create ink blots - Rorschach-like - that also depicted imagery from the poem. It was a struggle to get genuine ink blots, that also hinted at skulls / rubber ducks / oven gloves so there were a lot of out-take blots.  

More recently I’d been creating images in a different way, scanning in sheets of inked paper, and collaging them digitally. That’s what I did for Agony.  

4. Is illustrating poetry different from creating other artworks? How?

I think with poetry the images need to be particularly sympathetic to the text, both the subject matter and the tone. And maybe explore the layers of the poem, rather than reiterate the words.  

I remember noticing that early on with My Shrink is Pregnant. I was doing sketches of images Katie was evoking, and it occurred to me that she had that bit covered already, and drawing it would feel like crashing in on her work, and maybe being an obstacle between her and the reader.  

5. Can you tell us how you became an illustrator? What inspired you?

When I was at art college I’d thought about specialising in fine art, but moved towards illustration because I liked the idea of responding to a brief and having a problem to solve. I like the discipline of illustration and the demand that it’s accessible and communicative.

6. What is your favourite piece of visual art?

For lasting impact I think The Sultan’s Elephant was wonderful. It’s street theatre by Royal de Luxe. It was a massive puppet elephant walking in central London. It was an uplifting wonder and felt anarchic in that it closed the roads to traffic.

7. And what's your favourite poem?

Recently I found a recording of Maya Angelou reading Still I Rise. That’s a wonderful one. 

8. What are you working on next?

I’ve been invited to submit a piece of work to a group exhibition celebrating trees. I love trees in real life but have struggled to find a way to depict them. So that’s my challenge.

And this work has pushed me into new approaches which I’m excited to explore and develop - thank you Live Canon, it’s been a real pleasure working with you and your poets.

Anna studied at the Kent Institute of Art & Design and specialized in illustration at Bath College of Higher Education. She’s now a freelance illustrator and lecturer with a particular enthusiasm for alerting students to good professional practice.

Her artwork The Cokeney won the Poster Prize for Illustration silver award in 2019. You can find her at annasteinberg.co.uk and instagram.com/annasteinbergillustrator