Off the Page, with Jillian Tamaki

Off the Page is an exclusive new series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear regularly on the NMA blog during the winter and spring of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning illustrator Jillian Tamaki.

NMAF: You won your first National Magazine Award for illustration in The Walrus in 2005, barely two years after graduating from the Alberta College of Art & Design. How did you get started illustrating for magazines, and what was your experience winning a NMA so early in your career?

Jillian: When I graduated from ACAD, I felt quite natural illustrating for newspapers and magazines because that was definitely the focus of my illustration training. When I graduated in 2003, the Visual Communications program was perhaps more rigid and less diversified than it is now.

I think back to Rick Sealock’s class and it was basically one editorial project after another—with perhaps a few book projects thrown in—which was a fantastic way of honing your conceptual skills. It’s incredibly advantageous to be able to do editorial work when you’re starting out, because it’s one facet of the industry that regularly takes chances on new talent.

The National Magazine Award was a vote of confidence that I was in the right line of work. We all need a thumbs-up from the world sometimes, as we toil away in the studio.

NMAF: After that your career blossomed in magazines both in Canada and the US. You won another National Magazine Award in 2007, for a series of evocative illustrations in More magazine accompanying a feature article (“A tale of two sisters“) by renowned memoirists Joyce and Rona Maynard. That piece has the feel of the visual and written elements of a magazine story working in perfect harmony. What was the process of creating those illustrations, and would you say that was typical of your creative practice working with magazines?

“A tale of two sisters” (More magazine, Sept 2007); Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Jillian: I approach all assignments the same way. I try to commune with the source material and let it guide me, whether that be a book, article, piece of music, or whatever. I often count my blessings that my schooling at ACAD was half graphic design, because I actually believe my conceptual process is very design-influenced. I use a lot of words and try to think about metaphors and word associations or even just tune into the atmosphere (physical or emotional) of the content—always keeping in mind the client and their audience, of course.

NMAF: Your 2008 graphic novel SKIM was the first of the genre ever to be nominated for the Governor General’s Award (in the Children’s Literature category). Tell us a bit about that project on which you collaborated with your cousin Mariko Tamaki. And what are you working on these days?

SKIM started off as a very small project instigated by Emily Pohl-Weary’s Kiss Machine zine in Toronto. Mariko and I both wanted to try a small comic project (we had never worked together before) and it was perfectly bite-sized: a 24-page story that was to be bound as a small floppy. It’s since been expanded to a 144-page book (published by Groundwood Books) and translated into six languages, I believe. Mariko and I are working on a new book together, entitled Awago Beach Babies, set in Muskoka; I’d say it’s about summer mythologies. Other than that, I teach at the School of Visual Arts here in NYC and occasionally toss up a comic on my very silly webcomic, SuperMutant Magic Academy.

Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning Canadian illustrator. Her website is jilliantamaki.com, where you can view her portfolio and order prints of her work.

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