Off the Page, with Gracia Lam and the Spot Illustration

Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.
Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we’re chatting with illustrator Gracia Lam, whose work has been published in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, More, Corporate Knights, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and others. At last year’s National Magazine Awards, Gracia won both the gold and silver awards for Spot Illustration for two pieces of work published in Maisonneuve, the first illustrator ever to achieve that distinction.

NMAF: The spot illustration holds a special place in the makeup of a magazine. Diminutive, often playful, sometimes underrated in comparison to larger elements of artwork. What do you think makes spot illustration such a fundamental component of a magazine story? 

Gracia Lam

Gracia Lam: I think that spot illustrations are a splash of colour within a sea of text, constructing direction or a break for the reader’s eye. Within a confined space, it is carefully conceived to enhance the content of an article. It assists in the creation of tone and mood, and is used purposefully to amplify a reader’s senses and experience.

NMAF: You achieved an unprecedented feat at last year’s National Magazine Awards, winning both the Gold and Silver medals in Spot Illustration for two different works published in Maisonneuve. The jury awarded gold to your spot illustration accompanying a story called “The Elite Yellow Peril,” which is a very evocative work. What was your creative vision for this piece, and was it created specifically for the text or did you have a broader idea in mind when you created it?

Gracia: I often describe my two-dimensional pieces of illustrations as a short film. In film, the story is narrated through multiple frames and over a time period; my illustrations reveal the climax of a story in one frame.

My vision for the “The Elite Yellow Peril” was to create a connection with the viewer that is immediate and impactful. To achieve this, I created an illustration with imageries and representations as closely related to the text as possible.

NMAF: The article that featured your Silver winning spot, “The Tar-Sands Trap” dealt with the highly controversial, nationally debated topic of the Keystone XL pipeline. As a spot illustrator, how does your level of awareness on the associated story influence your creative process? Before you begin working on an illustration, how does your familiarity with the topic guide your conceptualization process?

Gracia: When working on any assignment, I allow the story to directly inform my creative process from conceptualizing initial sketches to final colourization. During the first read through of the assignment, I take notes and highlight bits and pieces of writing that round up the theme.

For “The Tar-Sands Trap” article, I needed to familiarize myself with specific elements of the story such as its location, the visualization of its landscape and environment, and the pipeline.

When the Art Director gives me complete freedom, I approach the conceptualization process with how I think the mood should be represented—which is to portray the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as a danger to the community.

NMAF: Your work has appeared in a large number of magazines, including many National Magazine Award-winning publications. Is there a “Gracia Lam” style that is boldly consistent throughout your work in various publications? And what is the process of adapting that style to align with the vision of the art director or of the textual part of the story?

Gracia: My visual language is created using mixed media, combining hand painted and drawn elements along with digital execution. I love to delight the audience with wit by reimagining everyday objects, mundane environments, and familiar situations with visual puns.

The process of adapting that style is mainly through practice. I am grateful that throughout my career I have been given many opportunities on various topics and stories from business and finance articles to science and health stories. These challenges allow me to identify my strengths and edit out my weaknesses, so each project contributes to the gradual tightening and refining of my work and portfolio.

NMAF: You swept the Spot Illustration category at last year’s gala, taking home both the Gold and Silver awards. Before that, you had been nominated three times since 2010. Winning both top spots within a single category is no small feat. Can you describe the difference in transitioning from nominee to two-time winner? What effect have the awards had on your career since last year’s ceremony?

Gracia: I was absolutely blown away by last year’s awards and want to thank the judges who recognized my work. I have always been excited to be nominated alongside many known names in the field—many of which are my peers and idols. The transition from nominee to winner is humbling because winning any award from the NMAs had been a goal. Since the awards last year, I have been working proficiently to improve on each piece to be on top of my own game.

Gracia Lam is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator, born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto. She likes to reinvent everyday objects and mundane environments.. To view more of her work visit GraciaLam.com

Special thanks to Leah Jensen for conducting this interview with Gracia Lam. To view more nominated and winning work, visit the National Magazine Awards online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.

Check out more of our Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award winners, including illustrators Byron Eggenschwiler, Roxanna Bikadoroff, Jillian Tamaki and Selena Wong.

The nominees for this year’s National Magazine Awards will be announced right here on the NMA blog on May 4. This year’s awards gala is June 5 at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. 

Check out the new issue of Prism International

The Winter 2015 issue of Prism International (Vol. 53, No. 2) is hot. Yes, we’re especially fond of the National Magazine Awards winners seal that adorns the cover, acknowledging writer Pasha Malla‘s silver medal for fiction (“The Actual” from Prism 51:3) at last year’s NMA gala.

The new issue features creative non-fiction by National Magazine Award winners Ayelet Tsabari–recent winner of the Sami Rohr prize–and Liz Windhorst Harmer, among others. And an impressive menu of short fiction and poetry, including a piece by NMA winner Alice Major.

You can find the new issue in select bookstores and literary newsstands, or online from the Prism store.

Best Canadian Essays 2014 features NMA winners

BestCanadianEssays2015The 2014 edition of Best Canadian Essays has been released this month from Tightrope Books, edited by Christopher Doda and Natalie Zina Walschots.

Like previous years, the book of Best Canadian Essays 2014 features many National Magazine Award-winning writers from last year’s gala, as well as earlier years.

Sarah de Leeuw’s incredible story of abnormal childbirth, “Soft Shouldered,” featured in Prism International magazine, received an Honourable Mention in One of a Kind at last year’s gala.
Margo Pfeiff has won four NMA Honourable Mentions since 2001, and her essay “When the Vikings Were in Nunavut” was published in Up Here magazine, which won five Honourable Mentions at last year’s gala.

Dan Tysdal’s fiction piece, “Year Zero,” was published in the multiple NMA-winning magazine, Prairie Fire.

D.W. Wilson has received four awards within the fiction category, with three Honourable Mentions at the 2010 gala and a Silver Award for his piece The Elasticity of Bone in 2008.

Naomi K. Lewis’ essay, The Assault on Science, was published in NMA-winning magazine, Alberta Views. In 2011, she won an Honourable Mention in Health & Medicine for The Urge to Purge (Alberta Views).

Check out the complete list of essays by ordering the 2014 book from Tightrope Books.

Special thanks to Leah Jensen for compiling this post.

Feathertale Review trailer previews two beginnings, no end, to new issue

Video trailers for magazine issues are becoming increasingly popular, and this one from National Magazine Award-winning humour & literary magazine The Feathertale Review caught our eye today.

Check out the new issue. For more about Feathertale, check out our recent interview with founder and editor Brett Popplewell.

The Feathertale Review, issue no. 6, winner of Best Magazine Cover, 2010 National Magazine Awards
The Feathertale Review, issue no. 6, winner of Best Magazine Cover, 2010 National Magazine Awards

The submissions deadline for the National Magazine Awards is January 19. Don’t miss it!

Off the Page, with Jennifer Morse & Legion Magazine

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we chat with Jennifer Morse, general manager of Legion Magazine, winner of the National Magazine Awards for Investigative Reporting and Service: Health & Family at this past year’s gala.

NMAF: Tell us a bit about Legion and its readers.

Jennifer: Legion is an independent magazine and one of Canada’s oldest continuously published magazines, founded in 1926. Our mandate is straightforward: Bring the stories of Canada to as many Canadians as we can, with a focus on Canadian military history and issues facing members of the military, veterans, their families and communities. We blend a mix of stories—often by some of Canada’s top historians—with iconic images, using words and pictures to excite Canadians about their history.

We’re not a magazine that is focused just on profit. We have a small, dedicated staff and a budget—like many magazines—that is limited. But we’re passionate. We have a readership, including print and online audiences, of more than 640,000, which is wonderful. Our readers really trust us to deliver quality journalism.

“One Martyr Down” by Adam Day (Legion); Gold Medal, Investigative Reporting, 2013

NMAF: Earlier this year, Legion Magazine’s commitment to excellent journalism was recognized with two Gold National Magazine Awards: one in Service: Health & Family (“Lest We Forget,” which is about veterans struggling with PTSD) and the other in Investigative Reporting (“One Martyr Down,” the incredible story of the death of a Canadian soldier serving with UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006). How do these stories exemplify Legion’s publishing mandate, and what kinds of responses have you received from readers about these stories and/or the awards?

Jennifer: There has been an overwhelming response. In the last couple of years we’ve made a commitment to publish more longform journalism, which is difficult for publishers; obviously it’s more expensive. But these stories really exemplify our mandate and we want to pursue them no matter how difficult or how limited the resources are.

On those stories in particular we received a great deal of feedback from a cross-section of readers, both military and civilian—lots of letters and comments on Twitter and social media, and it’s great to get that kind of participation. People feel like it’s their story, too. There are a lot of challenges facing Canada’s veterans and a lot of debate about benefits for veterans. Sharon [Adams] really got to the heart of this in the PTSD story and another one [“Collateral Damage: Families in the Wake of War,” which won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards]. These stories have been talked about in Parliament and the Senate; they are stories that may help lead to change. The recent announcement [that the government will commit $200 million to military mental-health care and benefits] I think had a lot to do with Legion’s work.

When we won the National Magazine Awards, lots of people—readers—contacted us to congratulate our writers and the magazine. These were the first two National Magazine Awards we’d ever won, and it was great for morale in the office. We already knew these stories were important to tell, and the awards and response put a stamp on it. I think readers felt like it was partly their award, too. We were very delighted.

"Collateral Damage" by Sharon Adams (Legion); Honourable Mention, Service: Health & Family, 2013
“Collateral Damage” by Sharon Adams (Legion); Honourable Mention, Service: Health & Family, 2013

NMAF: Is there a measurable impact that winning a National Magazine Award has on the business of Legion Magazine, and where do you see this?

Jennifer: I read a statistic recently about how magazine newsstand sales are soft, down 23% combined in 2012 and 2013. We all know there are challenges out there for publishers. We’ve fortunately had the opposite result over the last two years in that we’ve experienced growth in both direct circulation and advertising.

It’s not always easy for a special-interest magazine such as Legion to succeed on the newsstand. Our special “Normandy” issue was on newsstands when the National Magazine Awards were announced, when we received a lot of news and feedback. And that issue has become one of our best sellers, the top one or two issues of all time. We are also seeing a pick-up in subscriptions via newsstand copies, and we’re forecasting a 14% increase in the second half of this year. Is it related to the awards we won—let’s hope so, but I think absolutely there has been a great impact, and we are thrilled.

NMAF: This time of year is especially significant to Canadian veterans, with Remembrance Day and the WWI anniversary, not to mention the recent attacks on members of the armed services in Ottawa and Quebec. What is Legion presenting to its readers right now?

Legion Magazine, Nov-Dec 2014

Jennifer: In our November-December issue on newsstands now, we have a profile on Julian Fantino, and about the growing frustration of veterans about government neglect. I think the level of frustration being felt is unprecedented and we wanted to address that in the story. Our editorial addresses the Veterans’ Affairs

We want to put these stories in context, to present the facts for our readers, because they are important stories to Canadians. And in a future issue we’ll be covering more of the story about the attack on Parliament Hill.

NMAF: Who should be reading Legion magazine that isn’t right now?

Jennifer: Every single Canadian! A reader recently told me he bought the special Normandy issue for his 90-year-old father, a veteran of the Second World War, who said he found it so satisfying to read something truly about Canada. We’re a country with our own story. I think Legion should be read in classrooms, in senior centres, and anywhere people want to discuss what we’re doing as a country, whether we’re doing it wrong or right. We know there is an appetite for stories like Legion presents, and our readers love the discoveries they make.

Legion Magazine is published six times per year in English with a French insert. In addition to its two National Magazine Awards, Legion also won a Silver Award in Audience Development in 2014 from the Circulation Management Association of Canada for its “Victoria Cross” special issue. Find out more at legionmagazine.com and on Twitter @Legion_Magazine. Check out Legion’s holiday subscription offer for a chance to win a free Apple iPad Air.

The January/February 2015 cover of Legion.
The January/February 2015 cover of Legion.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Read more Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award winners.

The 2014 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions. Early-bird deadline: January 11.

An Interview with National Magazine Award-winning Fiction writer Jess Taylor

Jess Taylor on stage at the 37th annual National Magazine Awards, June 6, 2014.
Jess Taylor on stage at the 37th annual National Magazine Awards, June 6, 2014.

Recently the literary journal Echolocation published a great interview with Jess Taylor about her National Magazine Award-winning short story, “Paul,” the challenges of writing and her pursuit of a book project: the story collection Pauls will be published in 2015 by BookThug.

The interview was conducted by Liz Windhorst Harmer, herself a National Magazine Award winner earlier this year for Personal Journalism (“Blip,” published in The Malahat Review).

In this excerpt from the interview, Liz and Jess discuss the “hard place,” the core of the writerly being from which the literary art emerges.

Liz: What is exciting to watch as far as your “emerging” (a word with multiple meanings, it seems to me!) career, is just how many things you manage to balance and balance well. You recently wrote about ways of building community. You of course are the founder of Toronto’s Emerging Writers series. Your Puritan article discusses the joys and pitfalls of building community, and in it you use the phrase “the hard place”: you hoped “you’d meet people who’d understand you and what you describe as a hard place in yourself”. I love this essay. As we close out this interview, I hoped you could talk a little about the hard place.

I think I know what you mean by the phrase, and you don’t need to elaborate, but I wondered if your relationship to it has changed as your life as a writer has become more public. The transition from aspiring to published and awarded comes with its own costs. Have you found this?

Jess: Thanks, Liz! I’m glad you liked the essay.

The hard place for me is this little place inside of me that tells me I will always write, that I’m a writer. It’s the one aspect of my identity that is always consistent. It’s what spurs me on and gives me my sense of self. I know I’m a hard worker, I take pride in being a hard worker, and writing is my work. I hope this means that I will be able to build a life either from writing or around writing, but I know that even if no one publishes me, it will always be something I do and something that contributes to my sense of self. Some people may describe this as confidence. I think it’s different than confidence. It’s a baseline. More than knowing my name is “Jess,” that the word “Jess” refers to me, I know that this place exists in me.

To me, this is separate from any sort of public writing life or awards or publications. It’s a deeply personal and special thing. Of course, with public recognition comes a little validation that you’re doing the right thing, that other people can see it and know that you’re doing good work. But that’s almost an extra. Having the hard place in me has allowed me to not worry too much about whether or not my work fits into the current trends of writing. Having studied literature, it’s obvious that what’s popular changes and what’s lasting remains to be seen. So I’m just going to do what I like, write the type of work I like to write and read, and hope that the enjoyment comes across to other people. After winning an award or signing a contract, I guess all that changes for me is that I start to think, “Oh, ok, people are starting to see this my way. They like this too. Interesting.” But that could all change again in a moment.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have moments of doubt. We all do. Right after I was nominated for the National Magazine Award, I had a huge crisis. It was one of the first times I really doubted the hard place existed. I was happy about the nomination and starting to think about focusing on Pauls instead of the novel I was currently working on. A couple of my male colleagues who I really respected told me I should wait until I was older to publish. One was barely older than I was! It made me desolate. Normally someone else’s opinion about that sort of thing wouldn’t faze me; it might make me a little annoyed, but it wouldn’t put that doubt in me. It made me feel that awards were pointless because it wouldn’t change the fact that I was young and a female writer. There would still not be the same level of respect, even if I was doing good work and working hard. And having the award nomination just meant that people would gossip about me and form these opinions about me, about whether I deserved it, and I had no interest in being the subject of this sort of gossip or these dismissive attitudes.

But then everyone was surprised because I did win. The hard place was restored, as it was the one time I think I needed some external validation for that hard place. I’d been sending work out and getting rejected (as we all do), had never had a paid publication in my life, and all of a sudden I had won an NMA. It changed a lot in my life. I finally qualified for TAC grant, which only requires one paid publication, people were actually reading my work and coming to my readings, people were respecting me for my work instead of just as a promoter, it helped me with my job, and I signed a contract for Pauls. The hard place whispered, “I told you so, Jess, you big idiot.”

People are always going to talk, they are always going to be critical, haters gonna hate. But I know I can’t let it interfere with me and my work. Nothing can interfere with that. And that’s what great about having a hard place … everything else could be gone, they could take away the NMA, the book deal, my job, everything, but I’d still be me. The hard place would still be there. I’d keep trying to communicate and write in anyway I could. I always will. At this point, I’m still emerging, I would hesitate to say I have any real public writing life or that I’m the center of anyone’s focus, but if things were to go that way, the experiences I had over the summer really helped prepare me and reaffirmed why I write and why it’s a necessity.

Read the complete interview here.

Echolocation Magazine (www.echolocationmag.com) publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, reviews and interviews. Their joint poetry/fiction contest with Qwerty Magazine on the theme of Doubles closes on December 31.

Check out our Off the Page department for more interviews with NMA winners, including our recent chat with Little Brother magazine publisher and art director Charles Yao.

See also:
Writer’s Guide to Canadian Literary Magazines & Journals
Guide to Fall 2014 Magazine Writing Contests

Off the Page, with Byron Eggenschwiler

Byron Eggenschwiler (Photo by Kelly Johnson)
Byron Eggenschwiler (Photo by Kelly Johnson)

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we catch up with Byron Eggenschwiler, five-time National Magazine Award-winning illustrator whose work has been published in Swerve, Maisonneuve, Cottage Life, Canadian Business, Up Here and other Canadian magazines.

NMAF: You call Alberta home and graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design. Like so many other graduates of programs at ACAD and the Ontario College of Art and Design, you’ve found great success in the Canadian magazine industry. How has your education helped shape your art and your future as a magazine illustrator?

Byron: My education was pretty invaluable, it gave me an environment that encouraged exploration of media and ideas and forced me to sit down and start thinking about the kind of work I wanted to make. The program at ACAD was really great for teaching us about both design and illustration and how the two intersect. Having both those backgrounds has been helpful in my illustration work.

I actually didn’t even know illustration was a career or what it really meant until going through the program. I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me and steered me in the right direction and some really talented friends in my classes that challenged me to push myself out of my comfort zone to make better work.

"Be Worried. Don't Be Happy" by Byron Eggenscwhiler (Swerve). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008.
“Be Worried–Don’t Be Happy” by Byron Eggenscwhiler (Swerve). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008.

NMAF: A year after winning your first NMA for Spot Illustration in Swerve for “Be Worried–Don’t be Happy” in 2008, you were the first-ever winner of the award for Best New Visual Creator [now known as Best New Illustrator or Photographer] for “Tales from Riverheights Terrace” (also in Swerve). How did this recognition help propel your career?

Byron: I am unsure how these things directly affect future work but it helps to get your name out into the world a bit more, which can’t hurt. It is a great event celebrating the Canadian magazine industry and an honour for me to be acknowledged for the work I am doing within that [industry]. It gives a guy a confidence boost to keep moving forward in an otherwise fairly solitary profession.

NMAF: You have a distinct and recognizable style. How much direction do you take from your clients in the magazine industry and how much of your own creative voice goes into designing your illustrations for each piece?

Byron: It can be a balance and depends on the magazine itself, but sometimes an art director has something specific in mind for an idea and I work with that. Sometimes that can be a jumping off point for an even better idea. There are times where there is a bit of back and forth along the way but most of the time it is left in my hands to see where I can take a piece and how I want to finish it. Compromising is part of the job and hopefully no matter what it still carries a bit of me with it at the end.

"Death of a Salesman" by Byron Eggenschwiler (Canadian Business). Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011.
“Death of the Salesman” by Byron Eggenschwiler (Canadian Business). Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011.

NMAF: Many of your pieces seem to be more of an article within an illustration as opposed to an illustration meant to accompany an article. How does conceptualization for some of these, more image-heavy, pieces work?

Byron: I start by distilling an article down to a core point or phrase and then start sketching whatever ideas come to mind with that theme in the back of my mind. I don’t tend to have too many thoughts until I can see the forms taking shape on the page and it is somewhere in that mental wandering and playing around that ideas will emerge for me. Depending on the feel of the story itself this can lead off in different directions, and as long as that initial idea is still there I am pretty open to anything.

I like the idea of creating a new story with my illustrations to tell the author’s story. I think it can add another layer to the article and enrich it.

NMAF: When drawing, do you aim to create an image that contextually matches the text of the article, or does the tone or theme of the piece dictate what imagery will accompany it?

Byron: I like to read an article a few times to get an overall feel for the content and then decide how I want to approach it. If the tone is more serious or if it is humorous it will have a big influence on my thinking of how to approach the piece. I find the end result is much better if I can keep myself open to surprises through the sketching phase and let thoughts show up no matter how out-there they are. I try to make work that captures the feeling you get when you read the story and will speak to you with or without the text.

"Post-Secondary Distress" by Byron Eggenscwhiler (More). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011
“Post-Secondary Distress” by Byron Eggenscwhiler (More). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011

Byron Eggenscwhiler is an award-winning illustrator based in Calgary. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Discover, More Magazine, BusinessWeek, National Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, LA Weekly, Canadian Business, Swerve, Runner’s World, Wired, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Quill & Quire, Uppercase Gallery, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers & more. See more of his work at byronegg.com.

Special thanks to Melissa Myers for conducting this interview with Byron for the NMAF.

Read more about the National Magazine Award for Best New Illustrator or Photographer.

Byron Eggenschwiler created the image for the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards gala in 2010.
Byron Eggenschwiler created the image for the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards gala in 2010.

Byron Eggenschwiler in the National Magazine Awards archive:

How the Nest was Done” (Cottage Life); Honourable Mention, Illustration 2013
Post-Secondary Distress” (More); Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011
Towns on the Brink” (Up Here); Honourable Mention, Illustration, 2011
A Family Falling Out” (More); Honourable Mention, Spot Illustration, 2011
Death of the Salesman” (Canadian Business); Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011
Can You Have a Midlife Crisis on a Bicycle?” (Swerve); Silver Medal, Spot Illustration, 2010
Outlaw Country” (Maisonneuve); Honourable Mention, Spot Illustration, 2009
Be Worried–Don’t Be Happy” (Swerve); Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008