“Me and my sisters were obsessed with making things. We made little books to share and made up stories for each other and the house was always full of paper and painting materials,” she says. “We were all quite close together in age and just very industrious and always doing something – we were a bit like the Brontës.”
As a young child she loved reading books by the likes of Edward Ardizzone and Richard Scarry. It was a passion shared by her sisters. “We had a lot of books and we used to sit and read to reach other and the ones we really liked we just knew inside out and back to front.”
Black canvas of ideas decorates cathedral to artGillian’s father was an electrical engineer and her mother was a medical secretary before leaving work to raise the family. Their creativity perhaps stemmed more from her mother. “My father used to say ‘I couldn’t draw a bloody straight line’ but he was always encouraging of everything we did.”
Today, Gillian is an award-winning artist and illustrator who has worked with several leading children’s authors including former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen.
This weekend she makes her first appearance at the Great North Art Show, held at Ripon Cathedral. The exhibition features hundreds of artworks including paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures, by some of the best contemporary artists in the North.
Each artist shows six works and Gillian is pleased to be involved. “I went to see it a couple of years ago and was really impressed, there was such a variety of work and this year I thought it would be nice to be a part of it.
“You’ve basically got a cathedral as an art gallery and it sets off the work so well – the hues of the stone help create this great atmosphere. It’s a celebration of creativity and I think it’s a natural home for art.”
These are some of the most unusual Yorkshire buildings you can visit on Heritage Open DaysGillian’s own talent for art was evident from an early age. “When I was 10 my aunty Jean entered a picture of mine in the Doncaster Art Fair. To my utter amazement, not only did it win first prize – I won £5. I remember the noise and the almost terrifying sight of her bursting through the door brandishing the note triumphantly in the air. At this point I thought there’s got to be something in this and I guess from that day on I never looked back.”
She found encouragement, too, in her local school. “I was at primary school at a time when teachers really encouraged creativity. There were always plenty of art materials and the teachers used to say to me ‘go and do an Easter display,’ or ‘go and do a Christmas display and take six children with you,’ and we used to spend a week creating decorations for the hall. Everything was based around creativity – it just wouldn’t happen today.”
She went to Barnsley Art College before doing a design and illustration degree at what was Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s. “In those days you came out with your portfolio and you got on a train and went down to London and showed your work, that’s how you did it. You’d get appointments for five minutes and people would look at your portfolio and either it was for them or it wasn’t.”
She became a jobbing commercial illustrator until one of her long trips to London, to see Walker Books, paid off. “There was a really influential art director at the time called Amelia Edwards. She opened my portfolio and said she really loved my work but didn’t think she had any work for me, which was the response I often heard. But she asked me to keep in touch, which I did.”
Then one day in 1990 she rang Gillian and offered her a book illustration job. The book in question was The Good Little Christmas Tree which helped her career take off. “I then got a phone call to say that Allan Ahlberg was interested in working with me and I was like ‘oh my God, not the Allan Ahlberg!’”
Ahlberg was a doyen of children’s books. “He’d recently lost his wife Janet, who worked on a lot of the texts with him, and he just saw something in my work that he liked and asked if I would like to illustrate The Snail House and that began a collaboration which I thoroughly enjoyed,” she says.
“When I was working with Allan I’d show him my designs and we’d talk about them. I loved working on that. It was all there for me and it was just a dream to illustrate. Allan wanted to be involved in every aspect of the book down to the choice of the paper and the thickness of the book cover. At one point he even got down on his hands and knees and pretended to be a snail so we got the motion of a snail right.”
Children’s books like these, she says, are much more of a team effort. “It’s a collaboration. It’s like a staircase with the text being one step and the pictures being another one, it’s about building a journey and bringing your reader along with you up and down those stairs. In the case of The Snail House we did it almost like a comic strip, so even the youngest reader could follow the story.”
She later worked with Michael Rosen on The Bus Is For Us. “Michael Rosen is a really prolific writer and, in my experience, once he’d sent his script he was really confident about handing it over to the publisher and letting them get on with,” she says. “He’s a very busy man, he does a lot of work with schools, and doesn’t feel the need to be on every little aspect of building the book.”
Brother and sister follow family's dry stone walling tradition that goes back two centuriesAs well as book illustrations, Gillian also makes wood engravings and prints. “I went on this journey teaching myself about wood engraving and I love it. It’s such an intense process, there’s no room for much error, and lino cutting is a similar discipline in that you’re drawing with light, so you’re always thinking about where the light is which is important because where you make the cut is where the light is.”
This has brought her back to some of her childhood passions, such as nature and wildlife. “It’s incredibly rewarding to communicate something through your artwork to other people, and it can affect them deeply. I’ve had letters that have made me cry. People can be drawn into your work and in my latest lino cuts I’m trying to communicate something about the fragility of our environment.”
She’s exhibiting a couple of these in Ripon. “One of them is called Pewits O’er Cranberry Cross. I pass that spot nearly every day on the school run and in years gone by there were hundreds of lapwings nesting in those fields and I’ve seen them dwindle down to just four pairs this year. And when people see that picture they’ll say ‘oh I remember that spot.’ But if they’d seen it recently they would probably be a bit shocked.
“That’s why it’s important that we appreciate what we have and look after it, otherwise we risk losing it. So I hope my work touches people in some way and makes them realise that we have to protect our environment for future generations.”
The Great North Art Show is held at Ripon Cathedral. It starts today and runs until September 22. Entry is free. For more details go to www.greatnorth artshow.co.uk