Interview With Cate Simmons

One of my favourite artistic discoveries of 2015 is the work of Liverpool based artist and illustrator Cate Simmons. From the moment I fell upon her folk and fairy tale inspired works on Etsy I felt creatively invigorated and inspired. I knew I had to get to know the lady behind the art. And so, I am extremely happy to present the following interview with Cate and have to say that it’s one of the most insightful interviews I’ve ever been a part of.

– Katie

il_570xN.429626612_b90hI was so excited when I fell upon your page on Etsy. Your art has provided me with lots of little moments of glorious escapism and joy. Naturally, I quickly became intrigued about the lady behind the silhouettes! Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in art and storytelling?

Thank you very much indeed for your very kind words! I’m really delighted – its very moving to hear you enjoyed them so much.

I’m 37, I’m an artist and illustrator, currently living in Liverpool, in the North West of England. I’ve been drawing since I was tiny, but over the last 10 years or so have focussed particularly on illustrating – and more recently have also branched out into writing accompanying pieces of storytelling. I’m fascinated by folk and fairy tales and world mythology – and most of my work is inspired by these tales.

il_570xN.426429453_lmjz Where did you find the title Steering For North and what does it mean to you?

The phrase came when I wasn’t looking for it, really. I was mentally sketching out a very rough idea for a drawing that wasn’t yet fully planned – I had a vague idea of a girl taking a long adventure on a boat over huge and wild seas, and of spying the warmth of a beam from a lighthouse in the distance – which guided her back to shore. I decided that she was steering her vessel northwards, towards home – and somehow this solidified into that short phrase. It felt simultaneously comforting and exciting to me – the idea of epic quests and long sea journeys, but also retaining a sense of a compass direction, of a real or an internal light that guides you back when you need it. And it kind of stuck.

be5262234b7c7b8eb834299bdd820df0-d5w9ulkFolk and fairytales along with world mythology form the inspiration for your art. Is the work you create today inspired by creative discoveries of your childhood, or was it later on in life that you started to become interested in myth and folklore?

Oh, I’ve been fascinated by mythology and folk tales since I was little – for as long as I can remember! I’d always loved magic and fantasy stories as a child, and in particular, folklore and mythology as I grew older. One of my Uncles is a teacher and writer, and provided me with countless books and stories on the Greek and Egyptian myths when I was younger, as well as patiently answering questions and writing notes for me on the specific characters or images that I found the most intriguing.

I think that before I was even aware of consciously doing it, I was stockpiling a reserve of stories and characters – and letting my imagination fly with them all. I then I drew from them, and solidified them into my drawings later in life.

Another huge and massively important influence then – and now – was Jim Henson’s works. His Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock – and even the Muppets – were a massive source of wonder and fascination – and gave me new and extraordinary worlds to explore. His Storyteller series was the most significant discovery for me though – and is still something I return to again and again. (I actually wrote a blog post recently on the influence The Storyteller had on my creative life: http://steeringfornorthart.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/in-affectionate-memory-of-jim-hensons_6.html )

il_570xN.568924642_22uhWhat would you say is your favourite method for sourcing new ideas for your art? In my head, you spend hours at a time with old books!

That’s a really interesting question! I don’t really have one specific method, as my ideas come from so many places, and I’m pretty much always (even if its way back in the corners of my mind, while I’m mainly thinking of something else), sifting and sorting and examining little snippets of words or images or characters – many of which never solidify into anything specific, but some of which do end up on the page.

I’m a confirmed bibliophile, and so I have piles of books everywhere, which I’m forever dipping into…. I love audiobooks, so I’ve usually got a story playing in my ear, while I’m sweeping up or doing the washing or out walking….. I have an account on Flickr, which allows me to follow hundreds of extraordinary photographers – so I check in there most days, and admire the beautiful stream of images that people are offering up….

I think mostly, though, new ideas come from books and stories – I can return again and again to the likes of Neil Gaiman, Banana Yoshimoto, Ben Okri, Isabelle Allende, Angela Carter, and Jim Dodge (to name but a few of my most treasured storytellers!) – and to the original Grimm folktales or accounts of world mythology – and find that they spark new thoughts and characters and ideas for me.

I have a pretty constant stream of thoughts and characters and little phrases or ideas running through my mind – like a radio station playing quietly in the back of my head. I rarely go to sit down and deliberately look for a new idea for a drawing, as there’s always a flow of half-formed ideas in my mind at any one time.

La_Loba____La_Huesera____by_steeringfornorthWhat is a typical working day for Cate Simmons?

Well – I actually spend 5 days of my week at a little independent bookshop, where I work as a bookseller – but when I’m not there, I try and devote as much time as possible to researching or drawing. I occasionally sit and work outside, if its warm and pleasant weather. Or on some days off, I’ll travel over to Manchester, and go and sit in the Royal Exchange Theatre, which is my favourite place on earth. It has a huge grand outer hall, with tables and chairs laid out – where anyone can go and sit and read/draw/have a coffee – and is incredibly quiet and spacious and peaceful. So I can spend a good few hours sitting there sketching or inking, without any distractions.

But for the most part I find it easiest to work at home. I’m very lucky to have a flat with high windows and lots of light – so I’ll sit in my front room, usually at my drawing board – and work there. I tend to gather anything around me that I need (pencils, paper, books, images for reference), so I have everything within reaching distance. I’ll then usually sit for an hour or so at a time before I take a break – either sketching or drawing or inking, depending on what stage I’m at. I can often get so immersed that I forget to stop for meals, so have to consciously make the effort to keep an eye on the time!

Little_Red_Cap_tames_the_Wolf__by_steeringfornorthDo you look to other artists for inspiration? Which artists have influenced your artistic vision over the years?

O yes, very much so! There’s so many artists who I admire and who bring huge inspiration – and who I find surprise me, and encourage me to consider new ways of illustrating. There’s too many to list here, but the artists who immediately leap to mind are: Emily Carroll, Shaun Tan, Alison Bechdel, David Mack, Ellen Forney, Quentin Blake, Frida Kahlo, Alan Lee, Marjane Satrapi, Brian Froud and Michael Zulli. And there’s many, many more.

I must also make special mention of Astrid Castle – also known as Grey Flea – http://greyflea.deviantart.com/gallery/?offset=96 – I adore her silhouette paintings and compositions, and when I first started toying with the idea of trying silhouettes myself, it was her work that gave me the inspiration and confidence to try. I think she’s extraordinary.

elsie_and_the_sea_witch____by_steeringfornorth-d34gkg5I would love to know about your work space. Would you be able to describe what it’s like? What do you have on the walls? What do you have around to inspire you? Do you work to music or do you prefer peace and quiet?

My work space is actually very small, as I’m happiest when I’m in a little spot, with everything to hand. So I either work at my drawing board, perched on a stool, with pencils and pens and paper to hand, or if its cold (my flat is lovely but has very high ceilings and tall drafty windows) I stay curled up next to the fire!

I tend to get immersed quite quickly in the work, so the rest of the world disappears – altho one of my two black cats (Icabod and Gabriel) will inevitably come and curl up either at my feet, or perch on the edge of the drawing board…I can’t work when there’s lots of background noise, but I do love drawing with music or an audiobook on – it helps to blank out any distractions, and allows me to focus on what I’m doing. Nick Cave, Of Monsters and Men, Amanda Palmer and Alexi Murdoch are pretty much always on my drawing playlist. Of Monsters and Men have such glorious narratives to their songs, and intricate, strange stories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghb6eDopW8I – and really get my imagination whirring.

I work with a large bookshelf crammed with books to my left, and to my right, I have a mantelpiece covered with photographs and cards and stones and sea-glass pieces and a couple of tiny god and goddess charms brought back for me from India. There’s photos of my Taid (Grandfather), who I was very close to, and who was a beautifully eccentric and creative man, and a huge inspiration to me. I have a picture of a wonderful friend who I met when he was working as a street performer in London, so he’s covered head-to-foot in silver body paint.

There’s pictures of my Great Grandmother, who I was named after, and who I wish I’d known. They all spark off happy memories and thoughts, and feed into stories in their own right.

persephone_by_steeringfornorth-d5w9vc0It came to my attention that you are greatly inspired by the works of Angela Carter, especially The Company of Wolves, which is actually one of my all-time favourite stories. What is it about this tale that excites you so, and motivates the creator in you?

I’m a huge Angela Carter fan 🙂 I came across her work by accident – I found a copy of the DVD of The Company of Wolves on sale years ago, and picked it up on a whim – simply because of the fairy-tale connection. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy it, as I’m not a great fan of horror films – but very quickly realised that it was something much cleverer and much more intriguing than that. The film led me to go seek out her original story, and I was hooked from there.

There’s so much about her writing that I adore – but I can return again and again to this story. Firstly, as I love how she’s re-invigorated and re-animated a classic tale, and made it completely unique, and completely her own.

The two central images – of the red-clad girl and the wolf – are wonderful, simple, yet-immediately-recognisable images – and she gives them a new, refreshing, surprising spin. I adore how cleverly she gives the tale a playful, mischievous, feminist twist, turning around the classic damsel-in-distress narrative. And how her version of the tale then harks back to the very original telling of the story, (where it’s the girl who out-smarts the wolf, with the help of a group of washer-women.)

She uses language so simply and elegantly and eloquently, and brings such depth and wonder. She stays loyal to the original story, but makes it completely her own.

travelling_by_steeringfornorth-d5whgqnOne thing that I really admire about your work is the attention to the back-story. Your writing is always so enjoyable and insightful. Has providing a background to your pieces always been of importance to you?

Thank you! To be honest, the back-story is only something I’ve started working on with real dedication over the past few years. I’ve always felt more at ease with visuals than with words, and haven’t previously felt confident in writing pieces to go with my images. I built it up slowly, though – and although I don’t think I have a huge gift with words (I still find them very elusive and slippery, and find it takes a long time to pin down exactly what I want to express and write), I do find that I really enjoy writing little snippets of stories to accompany my drawings. I love silhouettes as they leave a certain amount to the imagination – they don’t present you with the specifics of facial expressions, for example. But in writing little accompanying pieces, I can then point out some of the details that feel important – and could otherwise be lost.

Rapunzel____by_steeringfornorthWould you be able to name three of your favourite folkloric characters, and explain why you favour them?

That’s a really tough one – as there’s so many! But if I had to narrow it down to three, I’d say…….
Red Riding Hood. I say this partly with a visual eye, as the simplicity of the images in her story are so visually pleasing – (girl, forest, red cape, wolf, grandmother) – and so instantly iconic and recognisable – yet have so much scope for re-invention. And because there’s something eternally fascinating about the way in which her story juxtaposes human and nature, and explores the contrasts between the domestic and the wild world, of girl versus wolf.

Because its (when you trace it back to it’s origins), a fantastic story about a girl’s coming of age, of her intelligence and resourcefulness when placed in a situation of genuine peril. And because it gives me an excuse to research and draw wolves – they’re such intelligent, beautiful, intriguing animals, and are a real pleasure to draw. And because they’re also enjoyable to re-examine – villains in stories are always more fun when you realise they don’t have to be quite as they seem. Thank you, again, Angela Carter 🙂

The Sister / Princess in the Three Ravens / Seven Swans stories. This tale has numerous variations, and although the details alter slightly, the basic story remains the same. A group of brothers (three, seven, or nine, most commonly) – are transformed into birds (wild geese, swans, or ravens) by a malicious spell, and are banished to a distant land. They remain that way until their resourceful sister either completes a seemingly impossible task (staying silent for three years, months, weeks and days), or completes an epic task (she travels to see the sun, moon and stars to request help, before scaling a glass mountain, coaxing information from a dwarf, and cutting off her finger to act as a makeshift key for a stubborn lock) and releases them from their spell.In every variation of the tale, she’s brave, bold, resourceful and determined. And it’s refreshing to read of a princess who gets to rescue someone else for a change.

Anansi / Hermes / Loki / The Trickster. Again, there’s some version of this character in pretty much every world mythology you find – and he’s always double-edged, charismatic-yet-dangerous, challenging, chaotic, joyful, unpredictable. I love him for his eternal fluidity, for that beautiful quicksilver mercurial thinking and his anarchic thumbing-of-his-nose at the system – and smashing it all down. And for being so irrepressible – no matter how many times this character is knocked down, revealed, or destroyed, he always, always comes back.

ms_devereux_and_eduard____by_steeringfornorth-d34gkyfWhat are the future plans for Steering For North, and what are you working on today?

Earlier this year I started working on a book – a collection of world folk and fairy tales – that I’m going to write and illustrate, so I’m slowly working on that, and gradually building up a collection for it. I’ve just finished a Red Riding Hood piece that I may include – although it also ended up being a sort of memorial piece for a very dear friend who died suddenly earlier this year, so it may stay just that: https://www.flickr.com/photos/steeringfornorth/16883465117/

And I’m now on the rough draft stage for a new folk tale illustration that I want to do. This one’s from Zimbabwe – and as I’ve only ever explored European folktales in the past, moving my focus to Africa a lovely challenge.

You can find Cate on Etsy and Flickr.

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