Gazing Through the Glass Bowl: An In-Depth Interview with Author, Painter and Sculptor Rosy Lamb

Image 9Rosy Lamb is living the life of a true artist, in her studio in Paris with its white-washed walls and tall windows that beckon the light to stream through in the most perfect of ways. She spends her days painting with oils and sculpting and has recently added writing and illustrating an extraordinary children’s book to her creative accomplishments. (Read my review of her book,  Paul Meets Bernadette here Candlewick Press).

© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – Self Portrait, oil on plaster, 2014

Rosy grew up in New Hampshire with her siblings and artist parents, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then moved to Paris in 2001 to realize her dream. Today she shares the fascinating journey she took to become an artist, including the fork in the road that led her to getting her first children’s book published.

Perhaps I had an unusual background, but I believe there are many paths that lead people to creative lives. Rebellion is often a powerful starting point for an artist, though it wasn’t mine, and realizing for the first time when you are 60 that you must devote your life to drawing and painting seems to me a good way to start too.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an artist, and did the fact that you were home schooled have anything to do with your interest in art?

From the earliest age I was more interested in drawing and painting than anything else. Sometimes I think I just didn’t realize I had any other options, as I was just doing what my parents were doing. As a homeschooler I did have lots of time to myself, which made it a lot like being in my studio now, even better because I didn’t have to wonder how to pay my own rent. My parents have always lived with artistic work at the center of their lives, and in this way they modeled to their children a precarious and unrealistic approach to life, which may also be a necessary blindness if you want to be a full-time artist.

Perhaps I had an unusual background, but I believe there are many paths that lead people to creative lives. Rebellion is often a powerful starting point for an artist, though it wasn’t mine, and realizing for the first time when you are 60 that you must devote your life to drawing and painting seems to me a good way to start too.

To sculpt something that is alive and true is so difficult, and it’s so exciting when even a little bit of life peeps through a lump of clay . . .

How did you come to choose both sculpting and painting, and do you prefer one over the other?

Image 17The work that I show is mostly painting. I do work on new sculptures, too, which if I do not exhibit, find their way into the backgrounds of my paintings.

© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – Harriet, oil on plaster, 2013

I had never sculpted until I got to art school, but somehow once I started I couldn’t stop for ten years running. To sculpt something that is alive and true is so difficult, and it’s so exciting when even a little bit of life peeps through a lump of clay, and then there is mold making, wax and metal work—the process is endless!

Several years ago I had a dream—an actual nighttime dream—that I could mix painting and sculpture by painting on plaster panels and sculpted plaster supports. This has become a wonderful source of innovation and creativity for me and I feel I still have a lot to explore in the subtle mixing of painting and sculpture.

How soon after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts did you become the assistant for the French sculptor, Jean Cardot, and how did that come about?

I graduated in 1999 and moved to Paris in the fall of 2001. I had seen two of Jean Cardot’s public sculptures on a visit to Paris in the spring of 2001. I liked his monument of Winston Churchill and I noticed that it was from the same year (2001). I met with him and showed him my work. Later that summer he invited me to come to work for him. I was ready for a change and so I packed up my life, crated up my sculpture tools, and moved to Paris to a studio at the Cité des Arts, a big artist residence in the center of Paris.

What was it like working with Cardot, and how did he influence you as an artist?

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© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – Partial Population, a Sculpture Composition, 2014

I ended up not having much time for my own work during the two years I worked for Cardot. I spent most of my time in one of his studios or at his foundry (the famous Fonderie de Coubertin, which still casts Rodin’s work), working on many small and large projects for him. It was really interesting to work at the Coubertin; they are great innovators in bronze casting techniques.

I wouldn’t say that the work I do now is much influenced by Cardot, but through him I got a taste of a certain official old-world French life: opening nights at the opera and fancy dinner parties with patrons of the arts. It was a bit embarrassing to me but also interesting, being a fly on the wall to a Parisian old-guard – who not surprisingly I have since had little to do with. It is thanks to Cardot that I have such a beautiful studio; he found it for me just before the end of my time working for him.

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© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – Rosy in her sun-drenched studio in Paris

The important thing for me is to try not to think about making a living from my work and just think about the work itself! Alas, this is easier said than done.

What would you say are the main factors that determine whether or not an artist can make a living from his or her craft?

I don’t know a good answer to that question, so I will just tell you about my experience. . .

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In the early years the only way to sustain and feed my interest in art was by working at hourly jobs, which I did right through my teens and twenties. It was important for me then to feel myself a student and not to have to show my work to anyone or to try to find any sort of market for my experiments.

© Copyright by Rosy Lamb –Jasmine in the Braemare House, oil on plaster, 79 × 63 cm, 2008

When I arrived in France, I could no longer work as a waitress. My Visa is as an “independent worker,” which allows me to sell my work and give classes in my studio, but nothing else. For three or four years I did give classes in my studio.  Little by little I began to get some portrait commissions and to show and sell my paintings. It has never been easy but I am stubborn, selfish and single-minded, and in the past when people saw that in me they sometimes gently tried to lend a hand, helping me to live my great adventure by buying a small piece or commissioning a painting. That was how it was in the beginning.

Now I feel like I hardly know or see anybody in my studio (apart from models), so finally, my work, when it is worthwhile, finds buyers and its own place in the wider world of strangers. The important thing for me is to try not to think about making a living from my work and just think about the work itself! Alas, this is easier said than done.

pmeetsb-jkt What inspired you to write a children’s book, and what was the process like finding a publisher?

I love picture books very much. William Steig (my all-time favorite), Virginia Lee Burton, Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak,Wanda Gag and Margaret Wise Brown are right up there in my personal pantheon of the very greatest artists and writers. Children’s books also play a central role in the artistic culture of the family I grew up in.

I wrote Paul Meets Bernadette almost ten years ago. I knew making a proper dummy to show to publishers would take some time and somehow I never felt I could take several months off to devote to the project. But then two things happened. My husband, who loved the little story, encouraged me to take the summer of 2010 to make a dummy. Meanwhile my father, Albert Lamb*, who in recent years had begun to write and publish picture books with the illustrator, David McPhail, made an appointment for me in September with his favorite editor and publisher at Candlewick, Sarah Ketchersid.

Long story short, I worked hard all that summer on the dummy only to miss the meeting that I had been so looking forward to. I realized on the day of the appointment that my plane back to Paris from Philly was scheduled for a day earlier than I had thought! What a disaster! My father met me just as I was hopping on the bus to Philly (I was in NY for the appointment) and I gave him the dummy to bring to Sarah that afternoon. Many, many months went by and I heard nothing. I thought Sarah must have lost the dummy. It was my only copy, so I finally emailed her to ask if she could find it and return it to me. A few weeks after that she told me that in fact they wanted to publish it! It was the most wonderful and unexpected surprise.

9327107*My father’s and David McPhail’s book with Candlewick is called Tell me the Day Backwards; it’s a beautiful bedtime story about a bear cub reciting his day backwards to his mother.

 

What a terrific story about getting your book published! How did you come up with the story for Paul Meets Bernadette? Do you have goldfish of your own?

It occurred to me all at once one morning and I instantly made a simple first draft dummy that is very similar to the finished story. The day I thought of the story I decided I needed some fish to be models for Paul and Bernadette. I went and bought myself a round bowl and two goldfish and then for years and years, while the tiny dummy sat on the shelf gathering dust, a bowl of goldfish appeared in the background of my other paintings. I realized as I painted the fishbowl that a glass bowl full of water and fish reflects every color and mood in a room, which inspired me to make the finished illustrations for this book like color studies with the bowl changing color on every page. I still do have two goldfish and now my two-year-old daughter takes charge of feeding them.

I went and bought myself a round bowl and two goldfish and then for years and years, while the tiny dummy sat on the shelf gathering dust, a bowl of goldfish appeared in the background of my other paintings.

Is there any meaning behind the names you chose for the fish?

Paul is a name that sounds nice and sensitive to me and Bernadette sounds like the name of a fish who knows what’s what—but there is no special meaning.

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© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – The real Paul and Bernadette in the studio, 2014

I was inspired by the message in your story. Did you set out to write a picture book with a strong message or did it just evolve that way?

I wasn’t trying to write a book with a message—the story just seemed so funny to me. I wrote it at a time when I was realizing that the way my parents depicted the world to me as a child was just their perspective and perhaps not always true in the same way for me (I was merely 30 when this shock came). I do like the idea that after protesting that Bernadette is crazy, children might come around to seeing that from the limited perspective of the fishbowl Bernadette is neither wrong nor right, that everything we believe is true is often only so in relation to our own circumstances, our perception and our desire to know things. Also, and more importantly, it’s quite alright not to know things for certain, as it is so wonderful just to be alive and to be with one another in the beautiful colorful world. So maybe it is a book with a message—yes, I see it now! But even to me it seems like a different message on different days. And other people have found other ways of relating to the story, and I am thankful for that.

That’s the best kind of story – one that can be interpreted many ways. Can you share with us the process about Image 18how you made the illustrations for the book? (Do you start with sketches? What medium did you use and are the illustrations painted on paper or canvas?) 

The paintings for the book are done on a variety of gessoed papers. I realized midway through the book that I should have been working on the same paper from the start, but with typical messy zeal I had just been grabbing any old piece of paper from under my shoe and starting to paint. Thankfully the authorities at Candlewick determined that the texture of the paintings were so varied that textural variety would be the look and feel of the book.

I developed the ideas for each page in the dummy stage and then I did make a faint underdrawing to guide me with the more complex images as I started the finished paintings. I then painted the illustrations with oil paint, which is the most natural and comfortable medium for me.

© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – Hanna (Huckleberry Finn), oil on plaster, 100×100 cm, 2009

Is there any difference in your creative process between painting a single painting as compared to an illustration for a children’s book? 

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© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – The Long Winter with Hanna and Lilly, oil on canvas, 2010

For the first time, I looked inward to find the images, rather than out into the world around me. I consulted my memories of colors and things and tried to see what was there, what I could come up with from that image bank inside myself.

Making the paintings for Paul Meets Bernadette was new and different from the way I normally approach painting. When I paint from life, I tend to have almost no idea what will appear in the painting. I don’t make studies or even careful under-paintings. Instead I tend to paint and repaint my subject working directly from life until something feels right and alive enough to be worth leaving as is. With this method of working, no preexisting image, no photo, clip art or computer data gives me any idea of what I am aiming for.  It is a process of discovery.

Creating the paintings for Paul Meets Bernadette was also a process of discovery, but of a different sort. For the first time, I looked inward to find the images, rather than out into the world around me. I consulted my memories of colors and things and tried to see what was there, what I could come up with from that image bank inside myself. I thought of it almost as if I were making idyllic versions of things, my perfect teapot, my perfect jar of juice. And then I just let myself play with color harmonies, especially in regard to the fishbowls at the beginning of the book which are, for me, like abstract color studies.

This was also entirely new for me because I was working in collaboration with the art director, Maryellen Hanley. Each time she asked me to redo a spread I would curse her and then say to myself, “I will redo this once again just to prove her wrong,” and each time my efforts would only prove her right—the image would be so much better. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience for me, working with Maryellen.

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© Copyright by Rosy Lamb – The artist at work in her studio

Not many people realize there is often a challenging “editing” process to illustrating as well as writing a book. Can we expect to see more picture books from you? 

I have a story now that I hope will be my next picture book. I need to finish a dummy and then I will send it to Candlewick and we shall see. I don’t expect to be prolific, but I do want to write and illustrate a few more picture books. Yes, most certainly! And I have lots of very silly ideas!

That is the answer I was hoping to hear! Rosy, your work is phenomenal and your talent awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for taking the time to give us such an insightful, honest interview and for sharing your passion with our readers. It is fascinating to learn about all the unique personal events, challenges and experiences that took place in your life and led you to write and illustrate Paul Meets Bernadette. How wonderful it must be for the REAL Paul and Bernadette to live in your studio and gaze at your glorious work, through the glass bowl.

Image 4Readers, please take the time to visit Rosy’s website and scroll through the images of her spectacular paintings and sculptures. You’ll find her contact information on the site.

Visit the Paul Meets Bernadette website here.

© Copyright – Image of Rosy Lamb Courtesy of Candlewick Press

Note: No part of the text or the images in this post may be used without permission.

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