I am absolutely honoured to host Aino Anto on the blog today. I know Aino from our TorKidLit writers’ and illustrators’ group and every interaction I’ve had with her reveals a little more of her deeply creative and introspective soul. This interview is no exception. And I know you will experience the same as you read her words.
What’s your favourite creative medium? What draws you to expressing yourself this way?
Favourite medium? How to choose!!? This is like being asked my favourite colour when I was in grade school. I could not understand the question.
But mediums? When I was eight, I relished the feel of a ball-point pen sinking in to a whack of newsprint beneath my hand as I doodled.
In high school, I was introduced to refillable technical pens and I learned to revel in the slow sweep of line that drew uninterrupted ink from a pen held nearly vertical to the paper.
In art school, it was gouache – mixed to the perfect consistency. It felt like painting with soft butter, rich and flowing, as if my mind could taste the work as it was produced.
Egg tempera – there is nothing so rich in feel as the drag of this medium across a prepared surface.
Currently I work with 20 – 30 layers of ink washes overlaid with watercolour. Because I am a control freak, and when you start with a 5% gray ink wash, you can correct any mistakes with a 7% wash, and a 10% wash and… you get the picture.
Sometimes drawing on the counter, my finger making designs with spilt beer or coffee is the perfect medium.
Fabric and thread, pencil dragging across a raggedy surface, snow, ink washes, acrylic on vellum…
There is a mood and a moment for each of these and I will likely discover new media for the rest of my life.
All I can definitely say is that the squeak and crumble of charcoal on paper makes my teeth hurt, so that is my LEAST favourite medium.
What inspires you to create?
The easiest answer to what inspires me to create is – compulsion.
My sketchbook, open to an incomplete drawing on the dining-room table sometimes won’t let me sleep. I feel it calling and put more lines down, develop the idea further, sometimes in unexpected directions.
Early morning, before it is light I sometimes feel a story unfurling and hurry to my desk to write it down by the light of the streetlamps outside.
Stories are like eggs, if you think about it.
Sometimes they are cracked open, cooked just by themselves, or at times added to other ingredients and baked into a story cake. And yet other times, carefully turned, warmed and nurtured they hatch into something wholly self-directed.
This past two years the compulsion to create was absent. When I tried to work regardless, the words felt dry, the lines carried no energy; results were lifeless and the process without joy. I filled work time with endless reading until slowly the joy returned and words flowed again. I am grateful beyond words for those writers whose words primed the pump and brought my own creative force back from that dry spell.
What, or who, is your greatest creative influence?
Oooh, great question.
First, my mother – who died recently – always had paper at the ready. And pencils. Charcoal, oil pastel (NEVER crayons, since as far as she was concerned, they delivered almost NO colour for the effort expended). Growing up, every art material you can think of was available to me and my siblings, instructional books, visits with practicing artists, this was the beginning. One created because one COULD create. I was expected to create, and so I learned how to express myself.
And second, though no less important was a place we called Näki. Imagine 500 acres of fallow farmland, stream and pond, fish, frog, turtle and eel… sun and rain, forest and stony ground to run across barefoot. I spent most of my childhood summers in this environment, the most basic rules being only to return home unscathed for supper and to cause no harm myself to others. What freedom this was!
It is hard to spend day after day active WITHOUT creating something. And it was a succession of weirs in the stream, stacks of empty freshwater clamshells (all devoid of pearls, sadly) wet mud dribbled in intriguing patterns… no audience save my own taste. And now I find the colours that arise in my imagination are those of summer days with few limits – either good or bad. My delight in creating comes from months on end of being able to see things from a perspective without limits, with no-one else to please.
What is your favourite time of day to create?
Early morning, hands down. I wake, or half-wake, and it feels as though I were spooling my mind back from where it has wandered, like a skein of wool scattered among stars while sleeping. If I can write before I get tangled up in the mundane again, thoughts are looser, closer to the truths I feel most deeply.
Which of your creations is your personal favourite, and why?
One spread from The Moon Watched it All by Shelley A. Leedahl which I illustrated (Red Deer, 2019) comes to mind. I saw this as the turning point of the story, from a point of view inside a warm room looking out at a shivering boy in the night. Working on that image, I was the boy, could feel the cold as the dew settled on my bare shoulders, cold pebbles beneath my feet, night breezes around me.
I love the duality of being both warm, opening the door and shivering outside, waiting to be invited in.
It is worth noting that the door, the ancient door-bolt and the shifting dark trees on the horizon in that spread all came from Näki and the image captured in that spread of a book extends to the horizon behind me and beyond, through time and space.
How do you deal with creative slumps?
Usually I have so many projects on the go that if one is stuck, working on another for a while loosens things up, invites a new way to explore something that is not moving at the moment.
If it isn’t a drawing, I pull out quilting – which is a form of mathematical problem, in my mind – finding a solution with scraps of colour that create a visual rhythm and harmony.
Or I pull weeds, shovel the driveway, clean the fridge…
…except during Covid.
Nothing fixed that slump except time. I read like a chainsmoker, which pulled me through long, long days. Eventually I resumed meetings with fellow creatives (hurrah weekly kidlit write-in meetups!) and now I am back with new ideas, tweaking old ideas in to shape where they can be shared, and drawing. But most importantly, taking joy in doing so.
Who are you beyond your art? Give us three insider facts about you.
1.I was born here in Toronto (these days I am among the minority in this category) to immigrant parents. No English was allowed in our house. Because I had not learned more than 10 words in English, once I went to school I was treated as though I were stupid – by teachers and students alike. I learned fast. And more than English, I learned that beneath the surface, beneath what we see, there is always a story, more than we can possibly imagine. And these stories intrigue me.
2. I’ve driven a car since I was sixteen, but a dozen years ago I learned to ride a motorcycle. There is something about the lean, the curve of the road, the smells you encounter on the road that is immensely satisfying. Who knows what new thing I will learn in the next decade or two?
3. When I first started school and was given math sheets to do at home, they distressed me – or, rather, I was distressed for the poor numbers on the sheet; regimented into rows and grids, forced to be gray rather than rollicking about being their usual colourful selves – not to mention having to hang out with numbers they did not get along with.
When my father asked why I did not answer the simple math questions and put the sheet away I explained. He said: “Don’t be silly. Numbers don’t have feelings. A three is just a three.” I didn’t feel silly. I wondered how a great big man could miss something so obvious. And felt sad for the numbers, though I learned not to talk about it.
I came across the word for this way of experiencing the world only a few years ago: synesthesia.
And I still feel sorry for my father, who never knew that numbers could dance.
What’s one of the best – or most memorable – questions you’ve ever been asked, and how did you answer it?
“what did you dream?”
My mom asked this each morning of me and my siblings as we wandered downstairs for breakfast, our hair in various stages between tidy and birds’ nest, our eyes not quite open, our limbs clumsy with sleep. When I was small, one of four, being loud was the only way to be heard – except when answering this question at the breakfast table. My mom insisted a dream be heard. So while hunting for that elusive second sock, a clean shirt, unwrinkled pants, while brushing teeth or finding shoes, my mind was always busy with something that could be shared at the breakfast table. Luckily I did dream, and usually the dream was enough of a hook that could be elaborated upon so others would fall silent and patiently or not, they listened (or at least were quietly polishing up their own ‘dreams’) while awaiting their turn to speak.
What’s something you’re excited about right now?
Two things are very exciting at this time. First, I am seeing writer and illustrator friends again in person after a long time apart and there is some wonderful chemistry that happens when someone is right there with you. Friendship is such a generous thing, and I feel taller, bigger inside when I have spoken to and lent and ear to my friends.
Second, a picture book text that crept into my mind in 2020 caught my imagination again early this year and I feel very happy with how it has developed. It makes me smile – and it echoes with memories of childhood summers at Näki. I sent it off to my agent as summer began and have spent the last few months solving all the questions that arise when sorting a story into pages, so lots of sketches and re-sketches. I nearly have the dummy ready to send off. When a writer or illustrator friend turns the pages and then looks up with a smile, I know I am getting where I want to go with this. Which is a wonderful feeling.
Aino! Goodness, this interview has felt like getting lost in the most wonderful storybook. You are truly an inspired storyteller with the most evocatively poetic voice. Thank you for taking the time to contribute to this series.
Will you share some links where people can find you?
Facebook – me myself, some kidsbook community
Facebook – my work
Instagram – my work and inspiration
Blogspot – nothing new for a while, but creative thoughts, kidsbook ideas and illustration ideas beyond kidsbooks.
Twitter – I don’t feel clever enough to say much, but I follow people who have in-depth knowledge of things which interest me. Occasionally I re-tweet.