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Meet the Illustrator: Holly McKelvey

We thought we’d give you a glimpse into the people behind Stonecrop Review. Today you’ll meet Holly McKelvey, the Stonecrop Review Illustrator. Holly is behind the lovely images on our website and our shiny new logo! You can see more of Holly’s work on her website.

1. Growing up, were you aware of nature in the city?

I was definitely aware of nature next to the city because I grew up essentially at the edge of the suburbs of Los Angeles, right next to a canyon and the San Gabriel Mountains, where I went hiking constantly. I think it took me a long time to really become aware of nature *within* the city, however. Obviously I saw it – I saw the tree-filled, tree-lined streets in LA, heard the wild parrots by my school, and spent time in parks. But I think it was only when I moved away from home that I started to realise how much of LA’s identity to me was wrapped up inside of that nature. And once I started to make that observation, I started to notice the nature in other cities that I lived in, and see how it helped shape those cities’ identities and how I perceived them.

2. You draw illustrations of urban nature – what inspires you? And what does your creative process look like?

When I started illustrating, I was working as a popular science illustrator and drawing a broad range of science topics; once I started to do more art for myself, I realized a big part of what I wanted to do was revisit places I’ve lived (I’ve moved a lot) by exploring the nature I had experienced there. This turned into a series that I hope to carry on with indefinitely, called “Portraits of Place”. These are essentially graphical portraits of cities and places I’ve visited through the lens of the nature you find there. Travel inspires me a lot as I work on this series – getting to visit places or revisit places that I’ve lived before – and I look at them now very deliberately through this lens. Just going outside and walking through the city where I live now, or whichever city I’m staying in at the moment, and just really choosing to look for nature at all scales, from mosses all the way up to trees and parks and waterways.

My process is to spend time in a place, observing. I take a lot of pictures, and if the weather’s nice I do a bunch of outdoor sketching. Then I come back, sit down at my desk, and essentially make a mind-map of everything that now comes to mind when I think of that city. So when I sat down and did my piece on LA, I asked myself, what’s the main vegetation that, even when I see it in other places, makes me think of home? What are the elements of the city that are integral to what I think of when I think of LA? Then I start to do little sketches of everything, and think about elements that are funny or interesting or historical, so that I can start to turn that into short panels with text that tell a story about the city. I also do research on which species are native to that area, and which species have been introduced – and if so, when. I think that that’s a huge part of how you explain a place. Often its nature is going to be as diverse and varied as the people who inhabit it, and will help to paint a picture of the history of a place. A lot of the vegetation and animals in LA are definitely not from California or even from the Southwest; they’re from all over the globe. Obviously as a conservationist you might look at that and feel a lot of discomfort, but as someone who’s interested in the identity of urban spaces through their nature, I find it beautiful and fascinating and exciting, because I think that that describes place – especially diverse, metropolitan, urban places – very powerfully.

3. Are there any artists that particularly inspire you?

One of the first artists that really encouraged me to start painting my surroundings, drawing them sitting outside doing urban sketching, was Paul Madonna, the artist behind “All Over Coffee”, which is a beautiful series based out of San Francisco. And that’s what first started me doing urban sketches. It was also one of the moments in which I started to become more aware of what plants were part of the image and which nature elements would make it into the scenes I was drawing.

A lot of the artists who inspire me don’t write or draw explicitly about nature; rather, I’m inspired by their styles or by how powerfully they set scenes and visually describe landscapes. I absolutely love Eleanor Davis: she’s written “How to Be Happy” and “You and a Bike and Road”, about a bike trip she took across the US South, I believe from Arizona towards Georgia. I think she does such a good job of capturing place through vegetation and landscape, though she focuses more on rural landscapes than on urban ones. I also recently discovered Isabel Greenberg. Again, she doesn’t write explicitly about urban nature, but does a beautiful job of capturing places through her art, be they fictional or real. I’m currently reading “Thunder and Lightning” by Lauren Redniss, which is an exceptional graphic novel of sorts – almost a graphic textbook – on weather of the past, present, and future, with a focus on how climate change will alter the world that we know. I think that it’s such an excellent model of science communication through graphic storytelling.

Diving into specific urban nature texts, I love the new book on Foraging Inks by the Toronto Ink Company, because I think it’s a beautiful way of creating ink out of the space where you live. Another artist I respect who does this is Stella Maria Baer, in New Mexico. She forages soils to make watercolors, so then the palettes you come out with are true portraits of the city or landscape where you live.

4. Do you have a favourite place? And why?

I love being by the sea, and I love landscapes with an understated beauty. They don’t need to be exuberantly green or verdant to be beautiful to me. I spent some time living in a rainforest and I remember when I first moved there, I was so overwhelmed by how green everything was. I grew up in a desert, so my definition of beauty is very linked to that. I love the muted shades of soils and rocks, sage greens, heather purples, which come alive under different types of light and rainfall. So I guess I love places that at first glance don’t necessarily seem glamorous or conventionally gorgeous, and then at second glance you begin to see how much richness there is to them. I think that’s why urban nature is beautiful to me: often it occurs in the form of weeds growing through cracks, but when you get down close to see what kinds of plants are growing, you’re amazed by the diversity and beauty of them.

As for a favorite urban environment? LA has a huge space in my heart, of course. But I think one of the most beautiful places I’ve been thus far is Stockholm. I love the way the city is built on bedrock; the geology of the place juts out of the ground to support the infrastructure of the city. In this case it’s not just the vegetation or the animals that help shape the city, it’s also very literally the bedrock underneath that helps define it. The metro is carved directly into the rock, for instance, and creates these beautiful underground museums of art and geology underneath the entire city. And there’s a whole archipelago of islands just off the coast that also help to define people’s relationship with the city and surrounding area.

5. Do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?

Practice, build a network, and trust yourself! I essentially got into it by doing art on the side as I was still studying sciences. As I started to fall in love with the idea of doing art as science communication, and started doing it more and more, I built up a network before I even decided to pursue art full-time. This meant that when I did dive in, I had a community of people who were willing to support me and help me work. You hear all the cliches about not letting rejection get you down, and that’s really true. Get used to sending out a lot of emails and messages asking people if they’re interested in your work and you just won’t hear back 9 out of 10 times. So you need a willingness to just keep putting your work out there – trust yourself, and what you’re doing! But at the same time, look for ways in which you can improve your art: take courses, go to workshops, interact with other illustrators, be around people who inspire you and who you can creatively collaborate with, push yourself to try new things, and once you’ve gotten started, believe in it and in yourself!

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