Q1. Interviewer: How did you get started in book illustration? Is it something you studied or something you figured out on your own or through some other process?
D. McNevin: I kind of went the long way around. I got hurt to work and it wasn’t looking very good. I had things in my head, if or when I retire I’d love to go to art school or take art lessons. I kind of messed around with it when I was a kid, but when my daughter moved out, I just took her bedroom and I just went in there with a cup of coffee and a pencil and I kept going. But I woudn’t let anybody see my work; it was all pencil. And a friend came in and saw it, and Rollie would take my work out, and nobody believed a waitress would be able to [do this]: “What’s she doing being a waitress if she can do this?” So it kind of went that way, by fluke or by golly. It’s trial and error, and then like I say, I was really, really lucky. The women’s network and the women’s community here, they kind of encouraged me on and one thing just kind of led to another and I met Laurie [Brinklow] and then Terrilee [Bulger] and David [Weale]. David was a big influence on what I did: it made me a real illustrator. He’s got a mind; I used to tease him and say “Just put it on the back burner and percolate and it’ll come out later on.” He’s got some lovely stories. And that’s where I went from there.
Q2. Interviewer: Can you talk a bit about your artistic process? Do you begin with an idea that you then shape into art or do the thematic ideas in your work emerge from the process of creation?
D. McNevin: I had chatted over with Terrilee or Laurie, sometimes the author: I’m used to working with the authors. And things would be going in my head as soon as they tell me stuff. The odd thing is I come up with the last page before I come up with the first; I know how it’s going to end, I just don’t know how I’m going to get there. What I start off with is not necessarily what I end up with; it kind of takes on a life of its own. There will be a sentence there or a word. I kind of think my job is to be a hook for him. He’s already described his creatures, and he’s done his story; my job is just to kind of take you along and give you a picture or give you a little idea. Not to tell his story. That’s my goal anyway. I might have coffee with the author or chat with Terrilee and she’ll say “Sounds good, go ahead.” They’re very good about putting reins on me. I’ve been lucky that way. And I see them now and go “I wish I’d done…” but I think everyone does that.
Interviewer: Could you clarify who Terrilee and Laurie are for our audience?
D. McNevin: Laurie Brinklow was the publisher for Acorn Press. Terrilee Bulger is now the publisher of Acorn Press. I’m sorry. I serve at their majesties’ pleasure!
Q3. Interviewer: What is your preferred medium to work in? What do you like about illustrating? You’ve illustrated lots of people, animals, and landscapes—do you have a preference among these?
D. McNevin: I like pencil, I like watercolours. I’ve had a picture hanging up and somebody asked me, “What did you do that in?” I said, “Well, that’s watercolours.” And he said, “No, no, you can’t do that with watercolours.” So I said “Okay.” But I don’t know any of the rules, per se, so I don’t know what the rules are. I’m getting smarter at it, I’d like to think, but I just do it and it comes out.
Well, I’ve had some good people in my life, like when I got hurt at work the compensation sent me to retraining and they sent me to commercial design at Holland College, and that was all computers and I wasn’t computerized. I’m quite content to let that be where it is with the younger people and so I just mostly absorb stuff and I made some really good friends and some good contacts there that I’m still friends with now, so that was my biggest bonus. Nigel had asked me, he said, “Why don’t you teach a class, like come in and teach a class?” And I said, “Because I don’t know how I do it.” I couldn’t explain how I do it. It just comes out and I’m not going to mess with that theory. But it’s not anything I can say “If you do this and you do this,” but when I go to the schools with the kids, I give them shapes, and I don’t try to teach them to draw; there’s really good art teachers. There’s really good women and men who have studied hard to do that. I just give them the love of it I’d like to think. If you like to draw and you like to read books, you’re an illustrator. You just take it out of your head and put it onto the paper. And I have been really, really lucky with the school system, and then like any art projects or anything like that that’s for the teachers and people who spent a lot of money to get that education. I don’t. I just like to know there’s no really wrong way to do it if you like it and stay at it.
I think any project that I take on, if it’s difficult, I like that at the time. I put them away. I take a large, large drawing paper and do like little fairies and little gnomes, like Celtic, and little people in caves and trees that are shaped like things, and like Irish folklore going all through it, and finally the page fills. That’s doing my own stuff kind of thing, but I kind of enjoy it all.
Q4. Interviewer: How does your work as a book illustrator fit into the overall body of your work?
D. McNevin: Anybody knows they’re not your bankroll. But they’re my validation. I like doing them, I like meeting with the authors. When you’re reading their stories and you have to read them two or three times, you’re kind of walking through their heads and seeing where they’re going with this, and I like that part of it. I enjoy putting a good product out. I like to see their face go “Yes! This is what I meant!” I might give but I get a lot out of it when I’m doing it; it’s fun for me. When you’re sitting at the drawing table, that’s where you’re focused and everything is still there: the kitchen is still dirty, and you still have to do stuff, and if you were upset you’re still upset when you come out of it, but you’ve got that little space to go. I really like that part of it too. And when kids say…I recently had to do a lot of hospital time and the nurses would go home and tell their kids that they had the girl that drew this and this and this, and they’re all excited, so we send autographed books home and stuff. It’s just a joy. It’s more than I ever expected in my life. I was 50 when I did this, so that was a bonus.
Q5. Interviewer: You have been working as an illustrator for over 20 years and have produced a substantial body of work in that time. Can you talk a bit about the broader community of illustrators on Prince Edward Island? Who were/are your mentors/influences? How do you situate yourself in the artist community?
D. McNevin: I don’t go out a lot, but I have really good acquaintances. Everybody is working, you’re busy doing stuff. But I love the Island work. Like Karen Gallant, I love her work. I like Vian Emery, she’s a print maker, and Hilda Woolnough. I started off thinking “Who is this woman?” At the end of it I thought “What a great lady.” After you get to know her, she’s not your first impression. I have women artist friends, we paint; Elizabeth and Debbie and Morag and I were like the group of 4, and we just do stuff. No reason to make a fortune or anything. If you go sit and talk with somebody that does what you do, you come home a little bit later on and it livens you up. If I go to the Dublin Pub, I get all kind of Irishy stuff that I wanted to. But my friend down the street, she’s a potter, and another lady over here she’s a potter and an artist and so it’s kind of like like goes for like. And you might gossip about all kinds of other things, but you come back to the things that you love in the long run. Say “What if we did this? What if I made a painting and you used your pottery to make something and we could blend it on the canvas?” You know those kinds of ideas that when everybody else works at other jobs you wait for a while before you have to do it. But you’re keeping in. I don’t go to parties and groups and all this kind of thing. I never ever did; even when I was a kid I was kind of a loner. But it’s not that I don’t appreciate them or enjoy their work. Like I really enjoyed working with Hugh [MacDonald] and he was just an excellent person because hey, he’s a writer. And Diane Morrow, she’s a wild woman, I’d love to work with her sometime, like do some of her work. I think I know some really neat people..
Q6. Interviewer: How often do you go into the schools? What are your views on drawing, especially with kids?
D. McNevin: I have schools that are ready anytime if I want to go back. I just take a big sketch paper or they have one of those flip charts and felt-tip markers and we talk about writing books and reading books. Then I take shapes, like a circle, a square, and this is what you can make from it. One time I was doing something, I had my back to them, and I thought they’re all gone, the room was so quiet, I thought they sneaked out. And they were all just the little heads were down, and their little faces turned up. You put stuff in there and you have to be careful, like give them the good stuff. Then they go on because their mother wants this art lesson. Kids all love to draw, but what I like to get is it’s here (points to head) and it comes out here (holds out her hand) and it’s yours. There’s not wrong way to do it, there’s not stupid way to do it. You just draw what you like. They’ll say, “Well I want to be able to draw like you!” And I said, “When I drew, when I was a kid, this is how I drew. Same as a piano player, even when you can play the piano you still have to practise.” And that’s worked out very well. Vernon Rivers School, I’d go back there anytime. We have a project, when a book comes out, The ABC’s, one of their teachers there is a good friend of mine. We’re going to balance it all in. As long as it’s getting books in hands of kids, I’m happy.
Q7. Interviewer: There have been big changes in the world of illustration and publishing in the last couple of decades. Could you tell us a bit about how things were when you began and how things have changed between then and now?
D. McNevin: Not for me! In the sense that I’m really happy with Acorn Press, I like working for both the publishers. If I was younger and was building up something maybe, but I’m quite content with the calibre of work they give me and the care they give me. But I do know there’s a lot of great books coming out now, and kids’ authors. I remember when I went to Halifax, David [Weale] had the Ann Brimer award for his book, and I went with him because that was my baby. When we were there, they were talking, saying there should be an award for an illustrator. And now there is which is good. So it’s coming along that the calibre of the work that’s out there, the calibre of the writers out there, you don’t have to go for books made in China or anything. There’s a lot right here and people are looking at it, so I’m really happy with that.
Q8. Interviewer: For the most part, illustrators are handed a written text and asked to illustrate it. Can you talk a bit about the process you go through in deciding what to illustrate and to what degree, if any, you collaborate with the writers whose work you illustrate?
D. McNevin: Once I know the size of the book and the style of page, whether it’s portrait style or landscape style, and the amount of pages that I have, then I try to break all the words down to see where they’re going to go in, say, 26 pages. Just where the words are going to be and what’s the key word in it then? Where’s my hook that I’m going to work off? Without ruining his or her momentum, I pick it out of that. Then it’s like each page kind of tells me what it wants. That’s how I do it to set it up. As I’m going along I might turn around and say “No, I need that, so we’ll change this.” But it’s pretty well locked in by the last page in that then I just have to make it come out to that. I want to read a book, the first page and the cover’s got women and fairies in the attic, and they’re looking at books, and the window’s open and there’s books flying out. So all through the pages there’s a book here, or just leaving the page, or just leaving until you get to the very end. Some things will just call. I’m not trying to sound all presumptuous here, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. And I usually will put the work on the floor when I’m through for the day or the night, and I put it down and then I come upon it like “Oh, okay, no that’s not it.” Or the whole body is tipped wrong, and I may have to do it again. It kind of just takes on a life of its own, and I enjoy the ride.
Q9. Interviewer: Do you prefer illustrating chapter books or picture books?
D. McNevin: The chapter books are more of a challenge though, because if you’re going to put anything, that’s an awful lot of words to make one little piece of work out of. But there’s more fun in doing the picture books. And I try to keep in mind little hands. What I used to do when the kids were smaller and my friends’ kids were smaller, when I was drawing something, I would give them the drawings and the parents would say “No, no, just watch.” And sometimes the kids would pat the work, and feel it, and sometimes they’d even put their tongue on it to taste it. And I would go by that: that’s what I want them to do. I want them to feel the work, and smell the page to see, that’s kind of my reward that they get it. And my little friend would go “Ohhhhh” and she’d rub the book and pat it. Then if she just didn’t look at it, like “Hmm, yeah.” So I would say “Well, what is it you don’t like, Jen?” “I don’t know.” “Well, why do you like this one?” “It makes my eyes happy.” “There, that’s what it’s all about.” And she was only a little one at the time. She 26 now and she loves to draw and paint, and my granddaughter now, she’s a wonderful little artist, and I get to do it again with her. And my daughter loved to draw when she was little, so that’s kind of I think trying to impress them, and that’s a hard job sometimes.
Q10. Interviewer: Your publisher is advertising your forthcoming book, An Island ABC, as “avoiding predictable icons such as A is for Anne of Green Gables” but which will “appeal to PE Islanders both at home and away.” What can you tell us about it? Are you familiar with Erica Rutherford’s Island Alphabet (Ragweed) and the more recent Sleeping Bear Press alphabet book by Hugh MacDonald, illustrated by Brenda Jones? How will your book compare?
D. McNevin: When I knew I was going to try this, or do this, when Terrilee and I had talked about it after, I wanted to write a book. I tried not to look at the other books for a long time, as they come out, because I didn’t want to be influenced, because they’re good, and I wanted my own stuff on them. Now that I am far enough into it, my social life is at Indigo. I love going out there and the books. I did Bubba Begonia book for Gerry [O’Brien] and that was in pencil, also, and he lets you get a little silly with that because it’s that kind of book. But I wanted something with the 150th birthday coming out; I wanted something that wasn’t touching on the other people because I know what goes into their work. I wanted a kids book but I wanted it that if you send it to your friend out in BC they’d look at it and go “Ohh, I want to go home for the weekend!” You know? And in all my books I try to keep an island feel to the book because I want you to be from away, living away, like be from the island but working away, but look at it and see and have the feel of it; not so much how it looks but I wanted that feel to the book.
So Anne had been good to me, book-wise and things, and I’m not putting it down, but I thought she’s got a powerful machine behind her for publicity and I thought when they put Acadian and I thought huh…that’s an A…and then this summer when the Centre put on that production I thought I’m going the right way. (Picks up a drawing) This is when they were leaving and this lady she’s from here, and I’m gradually getting it. I’ll leave this empty and then just the little story part I have, not a long story, but just enough even if it perked your interest, and you said, “Oh I must have a read.” And mostly it’s the Longfellow one that I’ve done, but some of the reading from the confederation, the work that the guy did I put some of that in it because that’s pertaining to here, pertaining to him and the Centre, and that’s basically where that came from.
I wanted as many people from here as I could use, their faces, and I’ve asked them and like I said, this here lady, this Acadian lady is Evangeline. She is a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and she was working on me one day, I was out there for something. And I said,
“You look Acadian, do you have any pictures?” She said, “I have my grad picture.” I said, “That would be nice.” And I told her what I was doing, I asked her, and she said “Oh you don’t want my old picture!” And I said, “Oh yes I do. I tried to use what I can. (Picks up another drawing) This is the lighthouse. Everybody loves lighthouses. And it made me draw water that I’m not used to drawing so that had to be, and this one I just liked the look of this and this is at North Cape, with a few little things left off, but this one (picks up another), the Veterans on PEI, I think we have good care or I had thought we are very proud of our Veterans, let’s put it that way. I’m not trying to make a political statement, but I know on Remembrance Day that place is full up there at the cenotaph, and I know that we care and I love sitting and listening to the old guys talk about the war. And they still cry and that was a lot of years ago. You know that was the biggest thing that ever happened to them. So I did…this is in the process of being done (holds up another drawing). I have the veteran, and this is Mr. Martin, that’s my friend’s father, and he was a World War II soldier. The cenotaph up-town, I kind of turned it around and I have the guys in the statue, they’re saluting the Vet for all they do and for keeping the fire lit from this to now. There’s a whole new younger generation of Veterans coming, so we’re never going to not have it. But I really like the idea of these guys, if they could talk, to say, “Good on you.” And that’s where that came from, and of course the poppies.
But some of the letters I’ve blended together on this one (holds up another). ‘P’ and ‘Q’. there’s quilts and preserves, and everybody is used to smelling chow being cut in the kitchens in the fall and things, and so that’s kind of a little bit of a blend of preserves, quilts…the quilts in this connotation I’m using as, it’s kind of like we’re a quilt of all kinds of people blended together. And your heritage and where you’re from and “Who’s your father?”, and “Are you one of those crazy McNevins from Argyle Shore? “No, they’re nice up there; they’re nice people on Argyle Shore.” This kind of thing. But that’s how…I found a family history that I never knew when I started this. They said, “McNevin, what McNevin are you?” And I don’t know them past dad, but I knew them all when I left, you know! And this is kind of going to be a blend of that. The last line of it is something like “And the best part is the smell of pickles cooking on the stove.” So we’re trying to keep going in the sense that it’s for the kids, but it’s for the kids to know where they came from, too. Like for the letter ‘E’ I want to do ‘Exploring Tidal Pools’. So the kids are out and they’ve got clam shells and sea urchins and sand dollars and all this stuff because that’s what they do. My daughter, she still does that; they go looking for shells and things. I hope I’m staying within the guide-lines; I have to really try not to go too far away from the kids part of it. But I think I’m in there. I’ll get a phone call if I’m not!
And this one here (looks at another one): my husband wrote a song “Gentle Land of My Home”. It’s quite a beautiful song, and he had made a bet that he could write a song about Prince Edward Island that didn’t have mud, Anne of Green Gables or any of that. And so what this song is about, it’s a young fella that left to sail, like an adventure way back. One of the lines is “fill those sails; fly me home”. And this is where I’m going with this, he’s telling the story. Another line is “come, I’ll tell you a story of my youth, of green fields…” and it describes the island perfect. So that’s going to be for the letter ‘G’, because it’s just beautiful and speaks of real love of place. They’re all half-finished but I want to get all the ideas down, it’s like I want to get them all out before I forget something.
Q11. Interviewer: What is different about the process of writing and illustrating your own books, like Treasures and your current work in progress?
D. McNevin: Oh well, it’s like a cat having one kitten: you want to change it and you want to do this, and then I never knew about editing! And that’s fine because they made it better; as long as they make me sound brilliant, I’m fine! I was very proud of that because that was my first on my own, and to me it was a step forward for me. So with this one, there’s not a lot of text, but it has to have some. I’m trying to keep, whatever the text is, to keep that letter as consistent in the text as I can.
Q12. Interviewer: Can you comment on what it was like illustrating Gerry O’Brien’s chapter books about Bubba Begonia, given that the first two works in the series were illustrated by Brenda Jones? How did you piggy-back on what she’d done?
D. McNevin: When I was approached with it, and I thought, “Ohh, I don’t want somebody else’s work…what’s she going to think?” It was Laurie the first time, and I said, “Does she know I’m doing this?” Because to me it’s tacky. And she said yes, she had gone through it with Brenda, and she had wanted the artwork to stay consistent. It was in pencil, and I was lucky because it blended well. But it was like…did you ever wear someone else’s shoes? Or know that somebody had your shoes on, as soon as you put them on? It was that kind of feeling to get the figures right. Like I had to have her books in front of me all the time, and of course all the new characters, I had to make sure they blended with who she had because I liked her characters and I liked the story and I didn’t want to insult her. So you had that riding on you too, you want to do a good job for her too. She enjoyed the thing, and so I haven’t heard it was any other way.
Q13. Interviewer: You live and work on Prince Edward Island, arguably the most storied and visually represented place in Canada. What does it mean to you to be an island artist? How do you want to portray the island and islanders? Can you also comment on how your depictions of place are influenced by the intended audience of child readers as well as the ever-implied audience of Island tourists? Have you lived in Charlottetown all your life?
D. McNevin: I don’t want it to look like we’re a bunch of doofuses, running around in rubber boots and not a thought in our head except a song or a guitar or a boat or something. They’re hard-working people, great stories, and a real lover of the Earth, especially the older ones. Some of the stories that they tell, some of them are funny, some of them are sad. David [Weale] is doing a good thing: he gathers them up. I like it for the sea. I try to make all my drawings PEI-ish, so you get a drift of home; I want you to be homesick when you’re looking at them, or I want you to come and see what it’s like. But at the same time, it’s a story; there’s a lot of problems, a lot of everything else, but everybody else has that. They don’t want to buy kids book to read about it. My friends joke at me; I don’t do cute. It’s kind of hard to explain, I haven’t really thought of it in the way like that.
It’s just what we are, and we can’t make up this stuff. If you come here and you see us, this is what you see. In the summertime, everybody’s working. I’d love for people to come here in the wintertime and just see what goes on. We live and we survive when the tourists go home, but there’s a lot of tourists; a lot of people who come here as tourists and live, so there has to be something right going on. It’s a lovely place and I’m proud of it for all its little nooks and crannies. I have nightmares about waking up and living somewhere else. I don’t know, maybe if I was young, starting off a career or something I would have to think seriously, but… There’s a joke about when someone went to Heaven and met St. Peter, and he took them all on a trip through Heaven and he showed them all the wonderful wonders of Heaven. And way way over in the very farthest corner of Heaven, he looked at all these people that were so sad, and they were all behind locked gates. And he said, “I thought this was Heaven?” And St. Peter said, “It is.” “But look at those people, they’re so sad, and you’ve got them locked away.” And St. Peter said, “Oh, that’s the Prince Edward Island crew, we have to keep them locked up: every time they’re let loose they head for home!” And that’s kind of where it is. To me, I just love the place; and I like to put, it’s easy of course, because it’s what I know . But I’ve thought different times if I moved to Halifax I’d just be so far out of my turf. Because what I like to draw and do is here
When we were kids we lived out in the country; I’ve lived in town. My dad was in the Navy and when we were kids we travelled all over. I came here for the Easter weekend, 53 years ago we were going over home, and I never left after that. It’s a lot of 52 years, but I still don’t want to go. I guess I just love the place. But Nova Scotia is a close second, I have to say. I lived in Nova Scotia when dad was in the service, and I love it. It’s like here, only bigger and bolder. The water, and the weather and all that stuff, I liked that.
Q14. Interviewer: David Weale’s story The True Meaning of Crumbfest was first published as a short story, then told on radio, then put into picture book format, and then animated. What is the story of your illustration choices for the picture book version?
D. McNevin: The picture book was first. When I met with David and he told me the story and I had a couple of manuscripts; that was a fun one to do, I enjoyed doing that one because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And I was looking up stuff and doing things and when the book came out, it was so popular, then when they were going to make a cartoon series from it, I was asked to submit my characters as possible characters. Thomas, in the book, he was a mouse and they lived in the house, and I gave them things they would find in the house, like spools and things, and little pieces of things. And he had a red robe, so I put that on Thomas; that’s what he had, that was his sign. Then the critique was “A mouse won’t wear a red robe.” And I said. “Okay, but they won’t talk either when they come in from the outside...” But then when the cartoon came out he had overalls and a hat and all this stuff, and I said, “Well artistic development.” It was way past me to do it, so I wasn’t angry, but I just kind of laughed at how they got to there. I didn’t see it while I was working on other things; I didn’t want to be influenced. Then I saw it on TV and then I looked and said, “But they didn’t want Thomas to wear the glasses.” He had wire-framed glasses on and a piece of red cloth around them to signify his status. “No, that wasn’t it.” But I did enjoy doing the book with David. They kind of gave me my head and let me go with it. Like I said, that was the first real book I had ever done. Then I did all the other ones and it was working with him again and going, sitting, talking with him and just listening to him. I would go to his shows, and he’s a great story teller, and that’s just kind of, wound myself around him.
Q15. Interviewer: Crumbfest is now out of print but has been re-issued as part of a Nimbus Christmas Anthology. Obviously the layout had to be changed and only a selection of illustrations could be included. Were you involved in any of those decisions? Do you have any comments about this version? [Jan. 2015 note: Crumbfest is back in print]
D. McNevin: I didn’t have a whole lot of the illustrations left. I gave her what I had and what friends had. I did get a really nice copy of the book, and the cheque. But I was pleased with it. Sometimes the company you’re with determines how people see you. It was the same when I was doing my art. Everyone said, “Well why don’t you put it in that restaurant?” I never thought I was too good for that, but the first time I had a show was at the Dunes. Peter was pleased, and I was pleased, but the thing with me was when people first see you, that’s how they will perceive you. I wanted them to see me, like I said I wasn’t stuck up or thought I was better than anybody, but you know the old saying “You are who your friends are”? If I was in that book, I was with good company. And I was quite proud to be able to stand with the big boys. I was fine. I was glad to be there, so that’s how I look at it anyway.
Q16. Interviewer: What happens to your original drawings once a book is published?
D. McNevin: I sell it or I give it away. I like to give the cover to the publisher because I say someday they’re going to be in a big office at the end of the long hall, and I’d like all my pictures on the wall going down the hall. But sometimes I will give to the author if there’s one, or if there’s one that’s really personal to him. I’ve given them as Christmas presents; I’ve sold them. One of my pictures I put out in the room where kids get chemo, in Pediatrics. I have different things, like I’ll put it in the hospitals or that. My friend, her daughter, she was at palliative care, so after she passed away we put one there from Wilma to the staff. Things like that so they do go, or I save them. It’s hard to save, but then sometimes someone wants to see them all, say, “Where are they?” I have all of Bubba Begonia here; we haven’t given them away yet!
Q17. Interviewer: Do you ever experiment with your style? What are your future plans?
D. McNevin: I haven’t wanted to change my style; I’m happy in it. But for my own work, I do mess around with things. I have a thing going I really want to do with pen and ink, like fine, fine pen and ink. I want to do some more pencil stuff, and there’s a tub around here, one of those storage tubs, and it’s full of stuff. My friend and I were going to do some pottery, build pottery; there’s things I’d like to do with that. And I really would like to do a painting with her, her and I. She’s a wild woman, she does some wild stuff. Do it on a big canvas. But I have books; sometimes these ideas come into my head and I have to write them down or I’ll forget. Try to get them done before I die, you know this kind of stuff! But I’m enjoying the illustrating and I’m enjoying the people that you get to meet. I’d have never met David Weale or Hugh MacDonald, or Margie Carmichael. Margie and I are great friends; we’ve come out as great friends. It’s all good.