It was an early summer afternoon, and Lucia Scuderi welcomed me in the fragrant shade of a lemon tree overlooking the sea of her Sicily, where the sun was slowly setting. Enveloped in the lemon scent, the slight elation from the gin tonic we were sipping, and her sweet, reassuring smile, I spent long hours listening to Lucia as she told me about her passion, her art, and her job.
Today, I would like to share that lyric atmosphere – or part of it, at least – with you through Lucia Scuderi’s own words from a recent interview of mine with her.
Lucia, what sparked your love for images?
My love for images was born with me. My whole life has been paced by my relationship with images, right from the first books and encyclopedias I would repeatedly leaf through, looking for pictures to copy.
At the beginning, I was probably just trying to mimic my mother, who had always been into painting – oil paintings at first, then acrylic paintings, down to the last years of her life. She was amazing at it, and had an academic background that I lack, unfortunately.
As a matter of fact, I can only see this now, looking backwards. Only now can I comprehend how I have been nurturing this passion since I was a child. When I started out, almost thirty years ago, I had not realized this at all.
As I understand it, you do not have any artistic academic background.
Definitely not. I studied languages in high school, then graduated in humanities and started specializing in art history, but never got to the end of it. As I mentioned, I am a self-taught artist.
When I was about 30, a big, extraordinary event made me reflect upon my life. I was already married, I was teaching Italian and history at a high school, and I was about to become a mother in a beautiful, totally unexpected way.
It was only then that I figured out that I was walking down a path I did not completely belong to, where I had found myself unwillingly. I did not want my child to bear the weight of a mother who was not happy with her career, and most of all, I did not want to blame her for preventing me from fulfilling my professional dreams.
This thought gave me strength to get fully involved and turn my passion for drawing and art into a job.
If I have to identify a moment where I clearly understood what choice I should make, I would say it happened when I was in Bologna at the International Children’s Book Fair, where I first met and fell in love with children’s picture books. Children’s books are a magical place where anything can happen, where the iconic and verbal languages coexist and add to each other.
How are your books born?
A crucial drive is my desire to share. Every book has its story, which is always different and unique, but they all surely share a desire to express a thought, an emotion, something I have figured out which I think it is important to convey to readers, whether they are children or grown-ups.
This is true both of books that I write and books that publishers ask me to illustrate.
In the second case, I try to read between the lines, for a narrative that is not didactic but can give a freer, more personal interpretation of the text.
I like to think that if pictures are a way to read reality, illustrations are a way to perceive reality that makes you see new narratives. So my pictures, illustrations and more are about my way to perceive reality, which I hope will open the readers’ eyes on new narratives, both inside and out.
Of course, books where I took care both of the text and the illustrations are my own creations, and I hold them dear. However, every project I have worked on has deeply enriched me.
How do you work on a book?
I usually work on my own, I prefer not to talk too much with authors because I want to be able to tell what is not evident, too. When we get close to the end of the project, we share ideas and thoughts, of course. At times, I have even created pictures that inspired texts, or the other way around.
I like loneliness in my job, it intrigues me so much, although sometimes it can be a burden, a limit. But when I paint, I enter a state of meditation where I can find my balance. When I work, I am in a universe that I can only feel if all my senses are awake, and there is no space for anything else.
A book is of course the result of many people’s work, but everyone needs to work independently in my opinion.
Why using water colors for your creations?
Technique is so important to me, it is a tool that you have to master in order to use it and not be used by it. I have struggled a lot to learn the technique because, as I said, I never attended an art school, and today this still makes me feel somewhat inferior to those show have studied it. I have tried to make up for this with a lot of practice and work, and when I narrowed everything down to illustrations, with experiences and workshops with great masters that I seriously admired, like Emanuele Luzzati and Kveta Pacovska.
I did not start out with water colors, however. At first, I used oil pastels and wax crayons. I felt really comfortable using them, they enabled me to master the whole process. Great Czech painter and illustrator Stepan Zavrel was the one who introduced me to water colors… although I must say that it was just love at first sight.
Just like for my education in humanities, which I also found again in my texts, working with water colors turned out to be really useful in time. I was working on a book about the sea water, and I realized that I should embrace a completely new technique in order to convey all the lightness, transparency and depth of the sea. So I took another chance on water colors, and bit by bit, I resurfaced from the depths of a familiar technique which I could perfectly master, moving to a new one that required to partly give up on control. In time, I tried to find a way to use water colors that could authentically, genuinely express how I felt. I use water colors in an atypical, experimental way.
I just love experimenting. The way I see it, when there is no will to experiment, everything becomes mannerism, a mere repetition unable to communicate anything. In my atelier, a writing on the wall reads “You have to lose your balance if you want to take steps further”. I do not know who said this first or where I read it, but I totally agree. There is a tension in research, an energy that miraculously gets to viewers, too! This is another reason why I like to show what is behind art – signs, brushes, even mistakes…A water colorist, a painter, an illustrator, a graphic designer: what would you call yourself?
You know, this is a difficult question. In my mind, all these categories are like sisters, like the fingers of one hand. What makes them different from each other is their purpose, their use; the place and way in which they can be used is what guides my work and research.
If I were to pick just one definition, however, I would call myself an illustrator, because illustration is communication, whereas painting is pure self-expression. The communication part of illustration, the relationship you can establish with the viewers’ eyes, the effort you make to get through to them – this is what I always pursue in my work.
What do you love the most about your job?
The fact that it is something physical! What I mean is that painting and drawing are physical actions, and looking at something is also physical and subjective, since everyone perceives different things. The story to be told lies in choosing how to act and look at things. This physical aspect is what I want my paintings to convey.
In this regard, I do not fear uncertainty. I like mistakes – or dirt, as I call it. It makes actions more human, and reveals the emotions of those who take them.
I also love colors. Even the simple packs, tubes and tins of color make me feel at ease, cheerful and light. Thinking, laughing, dreaming – this is how I would recap the purpose of my job. I want to dig deep, but in a light way!
You have recently left the world of paper behind to move on to different supports. Could you tell us about this new adventure of yours?
As I said, for over 20 years I mainly worked in publishing as an illustrator, and at times as an author.
At some point, though, I felt the need to leave books to discover other perspectives. Last year, the lockdown prevented me from holding the exhibition I had in mind. Everything was set, even the title “Un giardino può nascere ovunque” (“a garden can grow anywhere”), but I had to call it off. So I took shelter in nature, which I often do. I made a small series of four prints called “Rifugi” (“havens”).
That was my first time with prints! I wanted to support others through art in that difficult time, encouraging everyone to make room for nature and plants in their lives, because nature gives shelter, is the beginning of everything, and is proof that everything can start again; it is a seed, and if treasured, it will grow and surprise in time. After seeing my water color prints, a friend of mine with a background in fashion suggested I should try and print them on silk, so that my narratives could move from books and paper to colorful, wearable accessories that tell something about yourself… even during videocalls, as it unfortunately happens more and more often now.
This is how my scarf collection was born, and I am so thrilled about this project! I am collaborating with an artisan from Como who makes silk at all stages with the same care I give to my job. As I have found out, silk works perfectly as a support for my pictures. It makes my works brighter than I could never have imagined! My works are mainly decorations, yet decorations are not an end to themselves – they talk and tell stories, so mine is a narrated botany. The project is catching on, my scarves have been really appreciated and they have been travelling around a lot.
As it is often the case in my world, opportunities rise unexpectedly. Next July will bring news for my scarves… but I will not reveal anything now, I will be waiting for you in July to tell you everything about it!
Nature is a returning theme in your work…
My family grew and thrived out of the orange and lemon grooves that my father used to grow, in perfect Sicilian tradition and style. Plants were like members of the family to my mother, she would even talk to them! Through this imprinting from my family, nature has become key to my job and life.
Studying theories by Stefano Mancuso, one of the world’s leading plant neurobiologist, and by philosopher Emanuele Coccia has strengthened and grounded my natural inclinations.
As it has now been established, plants do no simply eat and grow, but they also breathe, communicate with each other, respond to changes in their habitat, move and even have emotions. Most of all, their peculiar complexities offer innovative patterns to follow in our social relationships and organization models.
Only when it is acknowledged that the life inside us is the same that lives in a blade of grass, a hoopoe, a seahorse or a jellyfish, will there be hope for eco-friendly morals beyond any mere rhetoric… I strongly believe that nature is the one that owns this planet, not just humans. We need plants and nature, not the other way around! We have a lot to learn from the life of plants, and this is why I have been introducing many botanical metaphors in my work to represent the world of humans.
What does your future hold, Lucia?
My future will still be in publishing, I just love books! Children’s books are a world of their own, a strong, poetic world that I do not want to leave. Something typical to me is that I go in and out of experiences but never abandon them, I let them soak in and find new stimuli.
Today, however, I feel deeply involved in my new scarf project. Since I found out that Accornero – who designed Gucci’s famous scarf for legendary Grace Kelly in 1966 – also started out as a book illustrator, I have felt even more motivated to go on. I love experimenting with functional objects, like books, like scarves! I apply art to everyday objects – this is the ultimate purpose of my work.