life of Gavin | Writing
New Zealand’s greatest illustrator, Gavin Bishop
I met Gavin Bishop (Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui) just before last week’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, where his beautiful large-format picture book Atua: Maori gods and heroes won it all – the Margaret Mahy Award for Book of the Year, as well as the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction and the Russell Clark Award for Illustration. It’s a record fifth times the Ōtautahi-based genius has won the award, more than any other children’s author or illustrator in New Zealand, even Mahy herself, who has twice won the top prize.
Bishop is one of the great names in Aotearoa’s children’s literature. In a career spanning over 40 years, he has published over 70 books, such as Mrs. McGinty and the weird factory, Bidibidi, the house that Jack builtand Taming the Sun: Four Maori Mythsand more recently, the 2018 Margaret Mahy Prize Aotearoa: The Story of New Zealand, the first in his current series of “big books” with Penguin Random House NZ.
Atua is epic in size, scale and ambition. It deals with the concepts of tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori, while exploring the worlds of our Maori gods and goddesses. Bishop has published in this space for decades, but there’s no denying he’s now in his element, as the New Zealand publishing industry fully embraces book publishing with a Maori perspective.
He says, “This current interest in Aotearoa, our country, our people, our stories and the new history curriculum that is being introduced in the school is really really great. I’m really excited for this to happen and for it to be reflected in published books for young children. I think it’s really extraordinary, and exciting.
“There are haters. But I think these people are going to die. And they will be replaced by these young people who are getting to know each other. I think great things are happening. »
Atua is one of those great things. This required intensive research, he says.
“With Atua, I have read many tribal versions of these stories, and each tribal version, for example that of Teona Taare Tikao from the Banks Peninsula – these stories about Māui were totally different from the stories in the collections of Antony Alpers, or the Reed collection, or the Governor Gray collection. I took a line in the middle and picked things that seemed to be generally understood or believed by the majority of people.”
Bishop studied at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury and later earned a teaching degree, which led to the start of his career as an art teacher. When he started writing and publishing children’s books, he was working at Linwood High School. “I had to teach many different ways to create art. I go back and look at things that I taught kids to do, things that I learned from Russell Clark and Bill Sutton, who were old-school artists who made their art with their hands and brushes on Web.
“I tend to think about what style of drawing will suit a specific story or theme. For my little books for Gecko Press—Mihi, Koro, E Hoa, for example, I used collage because it was a way to keep the image simple. You can cut out a shape and stick it on a painted background and you immediately get an image. With Atuait made sense to draw these things because I wanted to do smaller details.
It took him 20 years of regular publishing to be able to take the leap and stop teaching, even with some of his books selling well overseas.
“I was teaching full time and I applied for an Arts Council scholarship and got a scholarship to allow me to take a large part of the year. I took most of 1998, and I worked on The house that Jack built. Then it was released in 1999.
“By the time I was going back to school I thought I was taking a big risk and sending in my resignation and seeing if I could survive on my own. I also withdrew my superannuation which I had been contributing to since the I was 18. I took it out early, and it gave the family some money to live on, so I was only 52, it was scary.
Unlike many Aotearoa illustrators, Bishop still draws his books by hand. That’s not to say he isn’t jealous of those who are comfortable with digital technology. “It must be amazing to add a background color and then just be able to get rid of it. I can’t do that without really starting over.
Fortunately, there have been advancements in ink technology. “In the past, I used drawing pens that I filled with ink myself. Now I’ve discovered this huge range of fineliners you buy at an art store – lightfast, waterproof, ready to use as soon as you take the lid off.”
If you look at his books over the years, you can see him falling in love with different styles of illustration. I vividly remember him showing children during a visit to the school how to create scratch and ink board illustrations, as he used in piano rockk, as well as some hardback books for Gecko. He is currently using scrap paper to create illustrations for his upcoming book. The New Zealand Warswhich will be his next large format book for Penguin Random House.
He says of his first experience of children’s publishing in Aotearoa: “It was run by intellectuals, people with a university education, who knew a lot about literature and language. But not about design… so you would get some pretty clunky books.
“Now things have changed a lot. We now have publishers who are extremely professional with a very good eye for the appearance of a book, and they also have an eye for the international market.
Bishop’s first publisher was Oxford University Press, and he says that because they needed an international publishing partner to pay for the printing, his determination to write New Zealand children’s books nearly got him there. defeated at the start. “They struggled to find a publishing partner for Bidibidis because ‘the sheep were boring’. The story of the sheep that followed the rainbow was made into a television series and has never been out of print.
He had international success – and two international agents for his work in the United States on several occasions – but he found that they did not allow him the freedom to create his own ideas. “I’ve always liked having an idea of my own and working on it, putting my ideas into it. And I’ve always been committed to showing New Zealand children things about their own country and their own stories.
One of the stories Bishop wrote for Wendy Pye Publishing led to a major lawsuit: The Secret Life of Mr and Mrs Smith.
“It was the story of this couple who left every morning, he pretended to go to the tax office, she pretended to stay home and do household things around the house, a little gardening. But they were both spies, and as soon as he left the house, they would do their spy work.
“Every lunchtime, wherever they were, they phoned each other to find out what they were doing. And she’d pretend to be out watering their roses, he’d say he was busy with taxes. Then they would continue to pretend to be an ordinary married couple.”
The book was published and three years later he was on a layover in Los Angeles when his wife Vivien spotted a billboard for Mr and Mrs Smith, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Six months later the film was released in Christchurch and his wife was adamant it was a film from his book – and despite Bishop’s doubts he could see the similarities. About a month later, an American college professor emailed him and said, “I hope you got a good deal from 20th Century Fox on your book.”
Bishop was surprised, mentioned it to a journalist friend of his, and the next minute he was all over the papers and on TV – it was world news because of ‘Brangelina’. A lawyer from Auckland offered to help him prosecute them. Ultimately, however, he says, “there was something I didn’t like. That’s when I got emails from people saying, “Yeah, take them to the cleaners.” Then I started getting hate mail, people saying, “Who do you think you are.” It was horrible, I thought I wanted nothing to do with it. So I asked the lawyer to let it go.
Supporting others in the industry has always been more important to him than making a fuss. In 2009, he founded the Storylines Gavin Bishop Prize, a biannual prize awarded to unpublished artists who wish to pursue a career in illustration. It has been given five times so far.
He says: “Illustrating a children’s book – not everyone can do it. It takes a certain way of thinking. And we must anticipate, when choosing the winners, the probability that he wants to pursue a career in children’s illustration. You can’t be condescending to your audience, you have to think in a particular way to work well.
Bishop’s career is a shining example of a particular way of thinking that works very, very well.
Atua: Maori gods and heroes by Gavin Bishop (Penguin, $40) is available at bookstores nationwide, alongside many of his other great books.