Catholic Creative: An Illustrator
An Interview with children’s book illustrator Meg Whalen
“Our faith is such a visual one, because God made himself visible in the Incarnation, and He has wired us to respond to and learn from the things we see. Throughout all of salvation history man has used images to help us remember our story and keep it in the forefront of our mind.”
Katie Warner interviews Catholic artists and artisans about their crafts, asking how their art impacts the Church and their faith impacts their work.
Tell me a little about who you are and about your craft.
I am a wife, stay-at-home mom, convert to Catholicism, and children’s book illustrator. When I became Catholic, the catechesis I received in my RCIA program left me wanting more, so I decided to study theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver to learn more about the beauty and truths of our faith. While I was there, I felt a strong conviction to make good, beautiful children’s books for the New Evangelization. I am very grateful to be able to live out that dream as the illustrator for the First Faith Treasury published by TAN Books.
When did you start illustrating? What inspired you to do this as a career, part-time work, ministry, or hobby?
I didn’t begin seriously pursuing a possible career in illustration until I was in my twenties, although I have always loved drawing. While I was in Denver working on my master’s in theology, I also audited my way through the illustration program at Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. I learned an incredible amount from that program. The professors taught us to draw well and to communicate a message through an image clearly by using more traditional principles of composition, proportions, perspective, and anatomy. Since I was at the Augustine Institute at the same time, putting the two disciplines together seemed a natural fit, so for my master’s thesis I chose the topic of children’s books as tools for the New Evangelization. I saw both the opportunity and the great need to capture the hearts of our youngest Catholics (and hopefully also their parents’) with the beauty of our faith in children’s book form.
How does your faith influence your art?
My faith is definitely the driving force and motivator behind my work, not simply because most of what I’ve been drawing recently has been Catholic in content, but because I feel strongly that this is what God is calling me to do. I always try to tune in closely to the Holy Spirit, especially during the early planning stages of a book, to make sure each page is going to help lead the viewer toward beauty and truth. Also, my children are young (one is three and the other three months), and the majority of my time is spent caring for them, but I know that there is a reason that God has presented me with this opportunity to make Catholic children’s books at this moment in my life. Since I spend my days around my own little book-loving 3-year-old, I pay attention to what she likes best about her favorite books to see how I can improve each page of our books.
How does your art impact your faith?
I definitely do not take lightly the fact that the images I draw are influencing little Catholics and how they see and learn about the faith. The Catholic faith is full of beauty and richness, and it is such a joy to be able to show this to little ones in a book so that they can recognize it in the liturgy, in the lives of the saints, and so on. There is great responsibility in this task, and because of this, I turn to prayer and the Holy Spirit as much as possible when working on these books. I have tried to learn as much as I can from the history of Christian art, and why the artists who came before me depicted certain scenes in certain ways. I try to incorporate those truths into my drawings as well. Our Church has an immensely rich history of using art for catechesis, and it is humbling to be able be linked to that (granted, in a very small way!).
Can you pick a favorite work you’ve done recently? Tell me a little about it.
I’m very excited to see our most recent children’s book Father Ben Gets Ready for Mass (published by TAN Books and set for release March 15, 2019) in print. This book is a fun and playful journey following the young priest, Father Ben, as he prepares for and celebrates the Mass. The children can make the sound of church bells, tap their finger into the holy water font and make the sign of the cross with Father Ben, choose the proper color vestments for him, sing “Alleluia” with the deacon before he reads the Gospel, and blow out the candles at the end of Mass — all of this just on regular paper and with the help of the child’s imagination. I don’t know of any other Catholic children’s book like this, and I’m excited for kids to be able to have this interactive experience when learning about the Mass.
Why do you think Catholic art has such an important role to play in the Church?
Our faith is such a visual one, because God made himself visible in the Incarnation, and He has wired us to respond to and learn from the things we see. Throughout all of salvation history man has used images to help us remember our story and keep it in the forefront of our mind. And as St. John Paul II famously wrote in his Letter to Artists, “in order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.”
To whom do you turn for inspiration?
For inspiration for my work I will often turn to the rich tradition of Christian art. Just as a good theologian doesn’t start from scratch but learns from those who came before him, so artists, too, learn from the treasures that the masters of Christian art have given us. There is such rich theology built in to so many of these works and evidence of great reflection and prayer in the compositions, in the posture and expressions of the subjects, and in the attributes given to particular saints and heroes. I would love to help renew the teaching power of art for catechesis, so to do this I believe it is important to look to the golden age of when visual art was a primary mode of teaching the faith.
On the earthly side of things, we are in the middle of a bit of a Renaissance in children’s books right now. So many talented illustrators are producing beautiful and playful books for kids that inspire and challenge me to produce the best work that I can. My goal is to have our books stand up visually next to the most popular secular options, so I love pouring over other books to see what I might be able to learn from their illustrators. The highlight of my daughter’s week is the story time at our local bookstore, and even after story time is over we both plop down on the floor of the bookstore and look through book after book.
Name one piece of advice/wisdom that has had a great influence on your work.
I’ve received so many nuggets of wisdom from the wonderful people in my life over the years that it’s hard to narrow it down to one! My husband, though, consistently encourages me to have confidence in my style and not to settle for anything less than my best. As an artist it’s so easy to second guess yourself and start believing that you can’t draw or that another artist could do a better job on a particular project than you can. It’s also easy to be tempted to do the “quick version” of an illustration for the sake of time (my favorite medium to work in is very time consuming, and time does not grow on trees when there are little people to care for!). But my husband always gives me the confidence and motivation to embrace my style and put in the hours to really get it right. I’m very grateful for that.
If people want to explore your work in more detail, where can they look?
Examples of my work and links to my books can be found at illustrationsbymeg.com, and I can also now be found on Instagram @illustrations.by.meg