Ewan Bowlby interviewed visual artist and illustrator Karlee Rene Lillywhite, Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts for 2021-22, to find out more about what has shaped her artistic practice, and to ask how becoming part of the ITIA community has influenced her work and how she is using her time as ITIA’s resident artist.
EB: What have been the key influences on your artistic practice?
KL: I would have to say it’s been rediscovering my childhood love of picture books. As a girl, I was an avid reader but when I reached a certain reading level the books stopped including illustrations, so I turned to drawing my own fantastical scenes of fairies, nymphs and mermaids. Then I fell in love with art nouveau as a teenager — especially Alphonse Mucha’s beautiful women with their evocative colour palettes and sense of story. So, in my twenties, when I discovered the work of the artists that were illustrating fairy tales at the turn of the century, it felt like finding my aesthetic home. The work of Golden Age illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Jessie M. King and John Bauer perfectly combine beautiful design and dreamy colour palettes with the deeper world of narrative that I’m so drawn to. I love the ability of these images not only to draw you into a tale as you read it, but also to evoke instantly the experience of having read the tale afterwards. They act like portals to another world: like a well that enables you to draw up water and drink from the network of stories running beneath our everyday experience. That’s what I most want my art to do — to make stories incarnate.
EB: What is the attraction of working as an illustrator for you?
KL: I love the way illustrators get to partner with wordsmiths. An illustrated text is not only born of a collaboration between writer and artist but finds its fulfilment in a collaborative process within the reader who must both see and read, sense and think. I think that this experience offers a more embodied and relational version of reading than non-illustrated texts can, and I also find that the artmaking experience of illustrating feels more embodied and relational for me than other forms of art do. It feels more connected to the world, like I’m tapping into lines of communion that already exist rather than trying to conjure them from scratch. I especially love working with very old or well-beloved classics for this reason. For example, I did a series of illustrations based on Jane Eyre in an attempt to manifest the presence of this widely loved character in the modern world. After finishing the book, I felt a kind of bereavement for the friend I had lost and wanted to use illustration to provide a sensorial link to her for myself and for others I knew had likewise found a kindred spirit in Jane. I’m also really attracted to the illustrator’s ability to speak back to the written word and to challenge or emphasise elements of the narrative by what they choose to represent visually.
EB: What was it that drew you to ITIA?
KL: I filled out a worksheet in 2014 while working as a church admin and child caregiver that was supposed to help me discover my vocation. The results said that my ideal vocational areas were art and theology. So, I Googled ‘art and theology masters’ and was shocked to see that St Andrews — the place where I had studied abroad a few years earlier and had absolutely loved living — was one of the first hits. I tucked away the dream of studying my two favourite things in my favourite place until the time was right to apply. A big reason I was attracted to ITIA was the chance not only to study art theoretically through the coursework but to put into practice what I was learning as an artist through initiatives like Transept and Theoartistry. Another significant reason I wanted to come to ITIA was to meet interesting people who are passionate about faith and the arts, and I’ve certainly not been disappointed on that front. It feels like some kind of beautiful alternate reality to be in a place where you can throw out a crazy idea — like, what if I wrote a paper on the theological relevance of mermaids? Or, what if we had a Midsummer’s Night Dream reading under the trees on Hallow Hill? — and people don’t make fun of you but enthusiastically support and join you. Where else can you babble on about said mermaid paper on a first date with a fellow graduate student and not only get asked on a second date, but end up getting engaged? ITIA has encouraged me to be more unapologetically myself than I ever have been before.
EB: How has becoming part of the ITIA community influenced the ways you think about and practice art making?
KL: The community that I’ve found through ITIA — even while being almost entirely online last year — has had a huge effect on my art practice. The encouragement and inspiration I’ve received from other Transept members and my Theoartistry group have pushed me to try things I never have before. From developing new digital-traditional hybrid illustration techniques, to spending dozens of hours poking hundreds of carefully placed holes into a piece of paper to embroider a line of Hopkins’ poetry, in what ended up almost being a performance piece, I never could have imagined at the beginning of my ITIA journey the things I would be creating along the way. I owe so much of how I’ve grown and developed as an artist over the last year and a half to my ITIA community — especially to my aforementioned mermaid-positive fiancé. And, as I had hoped coming into the program, all the research I did as an ITIA MLitt student has provided a strong foundation of theology and theory that will continue to inform the way I make art for the rest of my life.
EB: What are your plans for the future as an artist and illustrator?
KL: Right now, I’m working on a series of illustration pieces based on local St Andrews folktales. I’m hoping to find interesting digitally-supported ways to link the pieces to the places that they’re about so that my gallery will be the town itself and people will experience the work and its accompanying tales in each story’s setting. I’m really enjoying thinking up creative ways to take the dynamic of re-enchantment and incarnation that I love so much about illustration even further. After I complete my Artist-in-Residence year at St Andrews, I would love to gain more experience in publishing. From design and illustration to editing, binding and promotion, I’m interested in all aspects of how a beautiful book finds its way into the world. One day, I would like to open a little publishing house that prints beautifully illustrated theological texts — like a form of modern illuminated manuscript. I would love to see diverse modern artists speaking back to and visually interpreting well-known works by writers like Aquinas and Augustine, as well as lesser-known works by female mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. Illustrating Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love some day is a dream of mine.
Follow Karlee on Instagram to learn more about her work and process.