Set to Simmer… by Jacqueline Alcántara
I loved the “Freedom Soup” manuscript as soon as I read it and even though I am not Haitian, I connected with it in many ways; loving family parties, grandmas cooking, and the importance of food and traditions. I could instantly see the movement of the characters dancing, stirring and chopping. But once I sat down and started to really think about my visual narrative for the book, my biggest challenge was how to depict the middle section, where the reader is taken back to Haiti to see images of the revolution. Illustrator Melissa Sweet talked about finding your ‘DNA’ for the book, which refers to what will hold it all together, but I hadn’t yet found my ‘DNA’ for Freedom Soup because I needed to connect the TiGran/Belle story with the revolution story. I didn’t want the parts to be too separated, yet I didn’t want to use conventional methods to show the reader they are going back in time through vignettes, sepia or a black and white color scheme. I wanted to tell it differently, but I didn’t know how.
This was after I had done a lot of research about the Haitian Revolution, had gone to Haitian restaurants, made soup with a Haitian family, visited Flatbush, the Haitian neighborhood in New York, and had drawn hundreds of little things from my photographs and research.
At this point in my process, I like to let all my research and ideas settle in my head and go out into the world and immerse myself with other art, movies, people, music, whatever! As much stimuli as possible! I found myself at a Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, when I had my moment of clarity and was able to articulate to myself what my “visual DNA” for the book would be and how to create the flashback images.
These two paintings in the Gauguin exhibit helped me to articulate a few ideas that became central to my whole concept for the book. First, I realized that I wanted to pull the “flashbacks” into the present so the readers never really feel like they leave the kitchen. Secondly, I asked myself the question, ‘How was Belle visualizing her Grandma’s story?’, which seems like a simple question, but it brought me to the idea of having the whole house – paintings, doodads, sculptures, salt and pepper shakers, etc., to be a part of telling this story.
This idea made sense in my head because I realized that it was how I had visualized Honduras when I had heard my dad’s stories growing up. I used to connect an image of a far away place with all the things that were decorating my home – colors, fabrics, paintings, objects, etc., and those objects were the bridge into my Honduran world. I thought probably Belle would do the same.
I loved these paintings and the relationship between the characters in the foregound and the objects/paintings int he background and the sense of a “painting in a painting.”
So I started playing with this idea in my sketches.
I Started with Belle mimicking a painting that I added to Ti Gran’s house.
At one point, I took the idea a little too far and had all the salt and pepper shakers turning into soldiers and then dancing around the rim of the pot! It got a little too ‘Fantasia’, but I was having fun pushing ideas in my head.
I discovered that the overall idea of using paintings, compositions, and objects to help tell the story really started to work for me.
I loved creating this book because I learned so much about Haiti, the amazing story of the revolution, and the lessons learned about fighting and winning against all odds. But I also learned a lot about myself and how I view the world. I think, when taking on a job, an illustrator has to find the DNA for the story and for oneself. It’s also a personal journey of finding out how to emotionally connect with the character. I think that taking the time to figure out that part of the puzzle creates a stronger bond between the characters in the book, and thus helps to create believable characters in a complete world. Most of these details will probably go unnoticed to readers and that’s fine! It served to help me find my personal connection and my own language for the book, and that is my favorite part of the illustration process, and the one that ends up creating so much more meaning for me.
Hopefully, readers will be affected, whether consciously or subconsciously! It’s important to realize that, just like delicious soup, all the elements need time to simmer; researching, reading, watching, cooking, drawing, as well as putting things on the back burner to let your ideas and emotions and thoughts all cook down to create a much richer and delicious story 🙂
Jacqueline Alcántara, the illustrator of The Field by Baptiste Paul, was selected for the inaugural We Need Diverse Books Mentorship program. She lives in Chicago.