Q&A with Natalie Hays Stewart

Q&A with Natalie Hays Stewart

Laurada’s first exposure to your work was a book you created for your grandmother shortly before she died. Could you tell me about it?

NATALIE HAYS STEWART: My grandmother was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she was told that she had very little time to live. I took her to the hospital when she first began experiencing symptoms and ended up becoming one of her primary caregivers. I was there with her when she decided to forgo treatment and make the most of her last weeks. My grandmother had a lot of love for life; she even wanted to plan a goodbye party which she could attend instead of a funeral, but she declined quickly.

Sitting at her bedside, I started thinking about all the wisdom she offered me at critical times in my life. That spurred an art project which involved collecting a few meaningful objects from around her house and pairing each with a memorable piece of her advice. I’d write a phrase, draw the accompanying object and then show it to her to see if she thought they worked together, too. It became a fun game and a way for me to be there by her side without her having to worry or feel guilty about engaging me.

I completed the book shortly before she passed and presented her with a handmade version strung together with pink satin ribbon. There was somewhere between 50 and 100 illustrations. It was all very spontaneous. I had a few copies printed for her closest friends.

What drew you to illustration?

I’m actually very new to illustration. I’ve always done artistic projects, like my grandmother’s book, to acknowledge significant moments and people in my life. They’ve come in a variety of media, but I’ve leaned toward documentary films. It’s something I began exploring after boarding school, while I was travelling the world.

That book was a way to connect with my grandmother and show her my appreciation for all the things I’ve learned from her. I did something similar for another grandmother figure in my life. For a year, I photographed her while she cooked. From those images, I put together a book of her recipes.

Most people never get to see themselves—and their impact—like that. I think that’s why personal stories are my main motivation for creating art and film, much more than trying to put something pretty out into the world or even sending a particular message. I also enjoy commissioned portraits because through drawing or painting someone I get to guess at their character and get to tell part of their story as well.

The concept behind Wild Wisdom wasn’t new to you, then. How’d you go about illustrating it?

I approached it like a documentary film in that there wasn’t a script. I interviewed Laurada and then tried to home in on the threads that tie her story together. There was a moment during the interview when she said she didn’t want Russell’s death to be the defining moment of her life. That’s what the message of the book grew out of: It’s not about what happens to us; it’s about how we react to what happens. From that perspective, we defined five distinct moments in her life when she consciously said, “Yes. I’m getting back up.”

For the last two years, this book has been an ongoing conversation between us. Just last week, Laurada emailed a new quotation she thought we might want to add. As a result, I think Wild Wisdom reads more like a journal than a memoir. Every page is a different reflection that may be useful to someone—even myself.

With every illustration connected to such a personal experience, another woman’s experience, it seems like there were numerous ways this book could have gone awry. How did it not? Or did it?

Laurada and I had an easy working relationship. Our communication was very fluid. It also helped that we could use my grandmother’s book as a skeleton prototype, but Wild Wisdom evolved into its own book with more of a storyline.

I think Laurada appreciated my feedback because I didn’t always interpret her thoughts as she’d intended them: we had a good laugh over our interpretations of “Plan B.”  I especially appreciated her receptivity and the freedom and trust she gave me to be creative and try different directions. Sometimes, it was frustrating to continue to redo drawings, but it challenged me to grow and do better as an artist and images always turned out better after a second, third or fourth try. There were some moments I felt intimidated by her: she’s such an amazing woman and always so busy. But she always seemed to be encouraging me in some subtle way, as though she was saying, “Here’s your opportunity to shine.”

There are over 60 illustrations featured in the book. That’s an incredible accomplishment. Surely there were even more that didn’t make it in. What’s your best guess for how many you created in total?

It’s definitely over 100. In the beginning, we started with the idea that I would draw objects from her home, but most of her house is filled with warthogs, so we opted for a consistent warthog subject in different situations. Then the idea came up to make the warthog more anthropomorphic—some of the drawings towards the end have more of a character than others.

I think one of the hardest parts has been wrapping up a project that has been going on for so long. Especially as an artist, I feel compelled to revisit drawings I did in the early days, but at some point, it’s time to let go, and the evolution can reveal itself in future projects.

Be honest: had you ever drawn a warthog before you started working on this book?

I had zero familiarity with how to draw a warthog. My mind was blown when I first attempted to draw the same warthog from different angles and have it be recognizable. You have no idea how hard that is until you’ve tried it. In the end, it became more of a collection of different warthogs—more variety, I’d like to think.

The absolute most fun part of the project was pairing images with quotations. It reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon caption contest: some tickling satisfaction came from finding a connection between warthogs in their real-life environment, doing what they actually do, and Laurada’s abstract thoughts on life. There’s really not much that a warthog does (eat, sleep, run, run backwards, play in the mud). It was a great challenge for my imagination. Understandably, there may be pairings that are completely lost on some readers, but there’s absolutely an intention behind each one.