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Local author and artist explores nature in latest book

BY JENNIFER DOWNING | OCTOBER 07, 2010 7:20 AM

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All her life, Claudia McGehee has been digging.

She dug in search of history during her career as an archeologist and anthropologist; she digs into the paper when she meticulously etches in her artwork, and — when she has the time and the weather is perfect — she digs into the soil as she tends to the assortment of flowers and plants in the yard of her Iowa City home.

“I did archaeology when I was younger, and that’s kind of digging through the layers,” McGehee said. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s digging to find something. It’s weird that two professions I explore are the same way of finding things. And then I love gardening; it goes hand in hand with the art and archaeology.”

The author and illustrator published her most recent picture book, Where Do Birds Live?, in September, using the natural world as a medium for her artwork.

Nature has always been a great love for McGehee — instilled in her in childhood in Portland, Ore., her passion continues to this day. Her studio, bright from the sun pouring in through the windows, overlooks her backyard with a view of tall trees, leaves just beginning to turn orange and yellow, short bushes, and colorful flowers not yet affected by the cooling temperatures. When she works, she leaves the door leading to the outside open, merging the inside and the outside.

“I love just being outside and observing,” she said. “I feel closer to animals than I do people sometimes.”

Almost on cue, her orange tabby saunters into the room and looks up at her expectantly. McGehee doesn’t miss a beat as she begins talking about her background in art while scratching Bee’s — short for Beatrice — back in just the right spot. The cat stretches and raises her rump in delight, encouraging the author to continue.

A few yards, away another feline — Fauve — is lazily curled up on the artist’s chair after a long night spent outdoors. She’s recouping from her adventure. These are McGehee’s “studio mates,” the ones who are with her as she labors over each illustration.

Where Do Birds Live? is her third picture book, and all three have dealt with nature. Her first, A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, used images of the Midwest to teach children both the letters of the alphabet and about the natural world that surrounds them. Published by the University of Iowa Press, hers was the first children’s book the organization put out.

“She has just a wonderful affinity for nature,” Iowa Press Director Holly Carver said. “She connects you with what’s left of [nature] in Iowa.”

For her illustrations, McGehee uses a type of drawing called scratch-boarding, which uses a thin cardboard-like surface with a layer of white chalk on top of it. The paper is then covered with black ink, which she scratches into to create her drawings. After making the initial forms, she paints in the resulting white space with watercolors. The outcome is a vivid and striking image — almost like a woodcarving — filled with vibrant colors that contrast with the leftover black ink.

“Scratch-board is more like subtractive drawing,” she said. “I’m more like a sculptor than a drawer almost.”

All of her books have been nonfiction works, and though her art is colorful and imaginative, she makes sure that she also stays true to the colors and forms found in real life.

“I want [kids] to recognize a bur oak tree or a goldfinch. So my mind switches back between really creative, because who doesn’t want a purple bird? But goldfinches are gold,” McGehee said. “And that’s part of who I am. I like real things. I wish I could do stuff that’s a little more out there and edgy, but there are enough people who do that.”

She came to Iowa City from Oregon after her husband accepted a job with the UI. Initially, she only expected to stay in the area for a few years, but the city found a way to make the artist put down her roots in the area.

“We’re a City of Literature, so that’s perfect for me,” she said. “It has great nature, and it’s just a city that loves books and supports the environment.”

Though most are familiar with her as an artist, McGehee has had a long history of writing as well. She’s kept a journal since she was in the sixth grade, and though she calls writing “her second language,” she finds it to be easier in a physical sense than creating an illustration, which requires an eye trained to concentrate on the tiniest of details. Often her work keeps her up long into the night, perfecting the images that appear in her books.

“There are different demands for sure,” she said. “You feel like you’ve run a good five-mile run after a big illustration.”


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