Slovenian Cats, or, Why Blogging is Amazing

Original Cat Print by Alenka Sottler

A few months ago, I put together a feature on the Slovene children’s book illustrator Alenka Sottler as part of my series on the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Awards. Like the other children’s literature posts that I do from time to time, the feature was well-received and a few people shared the link on Facebook. Nothing much happened for the next several months, until, one day, a notification from WordPress appeared on my phone. I glanced at it hurriedly, saw the name “Alenka Sottler,” and dismissed it as a fluke — it was early in the morning, I needed a strong cup of coffee, and I was, of course, already late for work. When I returned to the comment later in the day, I could scarcely believe it: Alenka Sottler herself had found my blog.

Dear Alina!
First and foremost, I would like to thank you for your interesting comment on illustrators and my work. I read your text… a while ago and I wanted to add a note but it wasn’t until now that I found the time to send you a few words regarding the ‘digital illustration’ in my book The Emperor and the Rose…  It is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language… by the way, the cat that you like so much is a magic animal in the book. He helps a prince to win a princess. If you would want to have a print of this illustration I would gladly send you one, just let me know the address.
Kind regards from your almost a namesake,
Alenka Sottler

I promptly sent her an email thanking her for the kind words and extremely generous offer to send me an original print of the cat, whose named, I learned, was Motz. After a quick email exchange with Alenka’s assistant, the address was confirmed, and the cat print shipped off.

In the meantime, I moved to New Zealand. It had been 8 months since the original blog post, 4 months since Alenka left the comment, and 4 weeks since I had heard from her assistant. Sure enough, though, Motz the magical kitty arrived in Ohio, U.S.A. in late November after a long overseas journey. I asked to be emailed a photo of the print, which is what I posted above. Although I’ll be gallivanting across New Zealand for the foreseeable future, and it may be another year before I see the illustration in person, it hardly diminishes the beauty of the exchange.

Sottler print, side-by-side comparison

I went back to my original post to compare the two images side-by-side. Motz, as he appears in Sottler’s book “The Emperor and the Rose,” (left), has deep and thoughtful brown eyes, is stenciled slightly darker, and has more of a cool, blue-gray tone. In contrast, Motz, as he appears in the print, (right), has subtly sharper eyes, lending him an intelligent and mischievous expression, and is set against a yellow background. It’s fascinating to see that the grid-like pattern originally extended across the entire sheet of paper, and was probably digitally removed in post-processing. It’s an archaeological remnant, a rare clue about Sottler’s illustration technique, that demonstrates visually the process as Sottler described it: “I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well.” Traces of the old, blended with modern elements, an artistic fusion that provides classic fairytales with a unique subtext.

So, let’s retrace the steps. A library assistant, enamored with a pile of beautifully illustrated children’s books, decides to write about them on her blog. A Slovene artist, hard at work, reads the post while “perched in a wooden cottage situated on the slope of a mountain range.” Compliments are exchanged, a promise is made, and a magical cat delivered halfway across the world. It doesn’t get much lovelier than that.

I dearly hope that I get to meet Alenka Sottler in person at the 2016 IBBY World Congress in Auckland.

Digital Designs: The Drawings of Alenka Sottler

*click each image to view full size

The winners of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award were announced yesterday, and I must say that I was very pleased with the results. Nahoko Uehashi of Japan won the writing award, while Roger Mello of Brazil took the medal for illustration. Incidentally, Mello was among my top favorites, and I saved his illustrations for last! So, look for those in the next week or so in an especially in-depth post.

But, because I got behind on my (very loose) schedule, I still have one additional illustrator to feature: the amazing Alenka Sottler, whose “drawings” (I have no idea how she makes them) are unlike any I have ever seen.

Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

It’s as though she wanted to transform impressionistic paintbrush dots into a digital format – her drawings are visibly pixelated, but that is precisely what makes them beautiful and unique. Consider the incredible detail and layered colors in the image from “Three Poems,” above. Sottler’s is a precise technique; even her softer drawings look slightly computerized. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Some people are of the opinion that so-called “natural” and “original” artistic techniques are inherently more valuable or truthful, that the apex of artistic production is paint and a paintbrush, or clay and a potter’s wheel. I’m not arguing that any artistic technique has any more inherent value than another, but it’s wonderful to see someone incorporate the pixelated aesthetic of the 21st century into their artwork in such a beautiful and creative way.

Sottler has said of her work:
“Essential for my creative process is the ability to use extreme simplification, which opens up surprising worlds and a space for creative play…I produce seemingly extremely complex visual forms in an astoundingly simple manner. In my drawings I behave like someone who partakes in nature’s processes. I find an interesting abstract structure. I grasp its visual essence and its hidden logic. I add to it with its own laws of growth.”

Cesar in roza, image 1
from Cesar in roža (“The Emperor and the Rose”)

Here’s an example of one of those quintessentially digital drawings. Have you ever seen such a striated rose before? Or, for that matter, a rose that blends so well with a cell phone? Sottler’s work vaguely reminds me of Andy Warhol’s; there’s a pop art element to it, a brashness of form and color.

Sottler herself stumbled across this post, and was amused by the attempts Shelley and I made to figure out how, and why, she had composed her illustrations in the way that she did. The comment she left was fascinating:

The Emperor and the Rose…is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language. It tells about the court and love troubles of princesses and kings. The troubles among kings and princesses are quite reminiscent of themes from contemporary medical novels. This is the reason why I set the illustrations into contemporary consumerist society and imitated the digital images from selling catalogues. At the same time, I wanted to express the woman’s inner world and her married life by alluding to the old-fashioned technique of knitting and homemade fabric textiles typical of households of married couples. Consequently, I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well. There is, of course, a certain degree of parody and humour in this…

You can read the rest of the conversation in the comments section below — and perhaps get a little starstruck, like I was! Suffice it to say that Sottler’s technique and nuanced sociohistorical perspective make her unique in the world of children’s literature.

Sottler’s work is all the more intriguing because her illustrations have an undeniably dark undercurrent. Here is Sottler’s take on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella”:

Pepelka, cover

The original “Cinderella” isn’t an entirely happy story, and Sottler’s illustrations are much more genuine than Disney’s watercolor-Barbie version. Here, Cinderella looks wooden, with downcast eyes; her dependence on birds and other animals for companionship, emphasized. This somber tone pervades Sottler’s illustrations in the anthology “Folk Tales from Around the World.”

Svetovne Pravljice ("Folk Tales from Around the World")
Svetovne Pravljice (“Folk Tales from Around the World”)

This book probably weighs 3 pounds – you can see that I had trouble getting it to lay flat so that I could scan it properly. But I was determined to do so, mostly because of the following image…

from "Folk Tales from Around the World"
from “Folk Tales from Around the World”

Presumably this is a particularly horrifying recounting of “The Little Red Riding Hood,” though I don’t remember the girl in that tale ever stumbling upon a seance in the woods. I wish I had specifics, but the text was all in Slovenian, and unfortunately not a single one of Sottler’s books has been translated into English as far as I know! As usual, it’s a shame, but not entirely surprising, given the gloomy undertones of her work. Don’t you know that in the United States, ALL of the children must be happy ALL of the time, and simply can’t bear to read anything bordering on pessimistic?

from Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
from Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

Another thing I love about Sottler’s illustrations is that you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. There’s always another layer to examine, another spiral or lattice to analyze, another element to fit into the story–like the newsprint in the top right corner of this image from “Three Poems,” and the birds that flutter across the shadowy boundary into the white margin. It’s what I imagine the binary code would look like if it were capable of spontaneously transforming itself into images.

I will admit that my infatuation with Sottler’s images started with her first name. “Alenka” is rather similar to “Alina,” isn’t it? And so I was pleased, in a very narcissistic way, that her drawings were outstanding even among the many, many wonderful books that arrived as part of the massive Hans Christian Andersen Award shipment. And so I have saved my favorite illustration for last…

Cesar in roza, image 2
from Cesar in roža

I haven’t provided many biographical details, but Sottler is so well-known in her native Slovenia, and has won so many prizes, that it’s quite easy to simply Google her name and find information about her. But, if you are curious,

  • you can visit her stunning website here,
  • explore a randomized index of her drawings here,
  • read the brief interview with Sottler that I quoted above, and
  • read the biographical sketch of Sottler that was published in the latest issue of Bookbird.

In addition, the Chicago-area independent bookstore Bookends and Beginnings has a small selection of Alenka Sottler’s work available for purchase, including Cesar in roža. More information on their Facebook page.

As I said, I still have one last illustrator to feature: the Hans Christian Andersen Award winner himself, Roger Mello! Check back soon for more astounding illustrations.