Starkie Mak’s beautifully illustrated new book Coming to Canada (At Bay Press) paints a picture of the immigrant experience—of being uprooted and leaving everything behind for a new way of life. In this edition of Beautiful Books, Starkie shares more about the artistic choices that went into creating this book and her hope that even those who do not directly relate to the immigrant experience can find something of their own meaning within its brushstrokes.
I have always loved drawing and writing since I was very young. I see drawing as a way to show my mental images, let people visualize what I imagine and more importantly, it conveys how I feel with the help of colours and lines. This is essential to me, as pictures speak for me and they make me happy. I tend to use various colours in my drawings and they are mostly used to portray a sense of happiness through pastel tones. However, when it comes to a serious topic, like stress about examinations or farewell to friends, black and white do a better job. I study different art styles as well. I mentioned I like writing: I like the line movements of Chinese, Japanese, and English letters. I see them not just as letter but a little piece of art, like a mini picture. I use words to decorate my drawings, they are part of the whole thing. I see them as a decorative elements in a painting. The letters themselves can stand alone to be a unique artwork not unlike calligraphy. Calligraphy can reveal the writer’s style and to a certain extent, show their own character and personality as well. I believe I have achieved something similar to a calligrapher’s form and style in my black-and-white drawings. I experiment on brush strokes and the gesture of lines to see how they can be bold yet tender and soft at the same time. Japanese brush and Chinese brush work very well this way.
On the other hand, I find that sometimes black and white can be too restrictive and lack a certain tenderness, the addition of halftones adds a depth of balance. The lines of drawing must be simple and organic, once I press the brush down on the paper, I try not to lift it up until I am done with the drawing. It’s like my brush is dancing on the paper—jump up, kneel down, and slide. The lines are natural, they can’t be undone. Every piece of drawing is unique and record my moment of feeling and emotion at the time. This kind of drawing is meaningful to me and I can sense what I was feeling whenever I look back at my drawings. What’s more is the lines and strokes are beautiful too. They are more than shapes —they can speak for me, describe and convey my emotion and focus on “feeling right” instead of precise drawing.
In the book Coming to Canada, I focused on the inner feeling of one who has to leave their hometown, leaving behind everything they know, uprooted from the place which nourishes sweet memories and parting with families and friends. This is quite sad because it is so difficult to leave your hometown, unwillingly. In the book, the girl loses love, trust, and courage in her hometown. She feels desperate, worried, and sad. This is why I chose to use the black, white, and halftones for the book. What I wrote is a heartfelt conversation between the girl and her friends. Sometimes, one or two lines can be more powerful than a whole page of words when it’s accompanied with an illustration. I hope readers can sense the emotion and understand the story behind these unique drawings. I hope they can sense the pain and loneliness, even though they might not have an immigration experience. Sadness is universal; as human beings we all have to say goodbye to something we love and treasure and learn how to move on without losing ourselves and falling apart.
I illustrated these drawings last year during the pandemic and lockdowns. Everyone’s a bit sad and we have to adapt to a new life, new rules, and learn how to move on in this hardship we face. Everyone has their own hardship. I hope readers can relate their own experience to my book. That’s how art works, to share and to communicate with your readers.
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Starkie Mak is an artist and writer deeply in love with expressive drawing and painting. Her paintings have been exhibited across Europe and Asia. She illustrated for children’s magazine Cotton Tree and is an art teacher educating children. She studied creative writing at the University of Oxford. She moved to Toronto from Hong Kong in 2018.