By Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Special to the Times Union
Born in Albany and raised in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, painter and collagist Elizabeth Zunon has lived in the Capital Region since she was 12 and brings a multicultural sensibility to her work today as a children’s book illustrator. She’s 27 and just a few years out of design school, but two books that she illustrated have already been published. Another will be out in January, and she is at work on a fourth.
Her first book, “My Hands Sing the Blues,” written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, is a biography focusing on the childhood of twentieth-century African-American artist Romare Bearden. Published just this month, her second is titled “Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby,” written by Patricia MacLachlan, the Newbery Award-winning author of “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” The third will be “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a picture-book version of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller by the same title.
Zunon and MacLachlan will sign copies of their book together on Saturday at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady.
Zunon works mainly in collage involving several different media—usually an oil-painted background with elements of cut paper, fabric, or beadwork. She also makes jewelry and handbags that she sells at craft fairs in the area. On a recent visit to her home studio in Albany she said, “This past summer I also started experimenting with silkscreen.”
Throughout her apartment, paintings in rich corals that looked as if they might be paintings of wind were laid out to dry. When asked if they were for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” she explained that no, they were for “A President from Hawaii,” which she needs to complete by Thanksgiving (“it’s a bit of a rush project”). Photos of tropical leaves and plants were tacked up on bulletin boards as reference. Zunon said that she was inspired, while working on that fourth book, by the plant shapes she used in silkscreening fabrics for her handbags and pouches (“Everything is all connected in my work”).
Her parents met when both were students at the University at Albany. Her mother was born and raised in Albany, and her father was from the Ivory Coast. The family moved to West Africa when Zunon was just two months old, but maintained a deep connection to Albany, spending six weeks or so every year here with Zunon’s maternal grandparents.
As a child she loved stopping with her family at the marketplace every Sunday, where she would admire the patterned fabrics and the traditional crafts of West African artisans (“I always spent my whole allowance on beads”).
The family returned to the Capital Region when Zunon was 12, and she attended Guilderland schools beginning in eighth grade. It was at high school that, she says, “I started being a lot more invested in my art classes and the art teachers were really pushing me to perhaps focus on furthering my education in the arts.” Zunon attended the Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in illustration (“I took a lot of drawing and painting classes”) and graduating in 2006.
She then moved to the New York City area and began looking for jobs at museums and galleries, but “you can’t really get a full-time job anywhere painting portraits and still-lifes.” When she eventually found work, it was at a flower shop, as “the girl who hand-wrote all the notes to people and wrapped up all the flower arrangements.” She worked there for almost a year, till two days before Christmas 2008, when changes in the economy forced the shop to downsize (“I was on the train coming back to Albany and I got a phone call, ‘We won’t be asking you to come back’”).
But since graduating she had also gone to many conferences and portfolio reviews — one-on-one critiques of an artist’s work by art directors, agents, and other professionals in the publishing industry — and at one of these had met Lori Nowicki, who would later become her agent.
It was just two weeks after being laid off from the flower shop that she learned she’d be doing the illustrations for “My Hands Sing the Blues.”
Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer living in Guilderland.
At a glance
What: Illustrator Elizabeth Zunon and author Patricia MacLachlan sign copies of their new book “Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby.”
When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Open Door Bookstore, 128 Jay St., Schenectady
Info: 346-2719; http://www.opendoor-bookstore.com/
About the books
“My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey”
Author: Jeanne Walker Harvey
Illustrator: Elizabeth Zunon
Info: Marshall Cavendish; September 2011; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4 and up
“Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby”
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Info: Candlewick Press; November 2011; 32 pages; $16.99; ages 4 and up
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition”
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Info: Dial Books for Young Readers; January 2012; 32 pages; $16.99; age 6 and up