An interview with Adam Oehlers

The homepage artwork for Paraxis is by Adam Oehlers, an illustrator and artist whose vivid, inventive and inspiring work is earning him a growing and enthusiastic audience. Adam’s illustrative work includes a new visualisation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 'Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner' and A Babble of Words, an illustrated adventure story embedded in an A-Z of collective nouns. He has two publications forthcoming in 2011, a children's book called Celeste, Nick and the Magical Tea Party and his own story, the unsettling and enchanting Dear Little Emmie, which will be released very soon by the French publishing house Au Fond Du Grenier.  

As aficionados of Oehlers’ visual storytelling, we were delighted to have the chance to talk to the artist about his work. We began by asking what drew him to the playful, fantastic and exotic. 

“I've always been drawn to fantastic tales. As a kid I lived a lot in my imagination and I began to draw to re-create the world in my head. I was intrigued by fantasy worlds and strange creatures in the stories I read. As my work matured this fantasy element became less of the focus and more of a subtext. These days my work is set in a world that is not so different from ours. It’s a grim, cobbled world that is trapped in its own time – with little elements of odd magic creeping in at the edges.”

Adam Oehlers was born in Coventry, grew up and studied in Adelaide, and has now returned to live and work in the UK. We wonder if he feels the moves he has made have given him an additional perspective on the places he has lived and, if so, has this influenced his way of seeing and his way of creating art?

“I've have lived in two different countries, five different cities and countless houses. My moves have been between Australia and England. Each time I went back to Australia I would see it in a slightly different way and, on my return to England, I would notice how things had changed here. Originally I thought things were just moving on in my absence, but on reflection it was me that was different. I guess that's why they say 'you can never go home again'.

“When I was living in Brighton I was mainly working in Black and White. My work was very character-based, I think, due to the abundance of characters that populate Brighton, It was playful and more surreal. In Melbourne I found an incredible artistic community. There were always exhibition openings, fantastic stuff to see and  loads of inspiration. I really put my focus on building up a surrounding world for my characters to fill. It was here I signed my first book deal. This had a dramatic effect on my work and I found myself, for the first time in a long time, working with colour. I continued this after moving to London and, unsurprisingly, found my work becoming increasingly dark and claustrophobic. These different places rubbed off on my work but it’s mainly the state of mind I'm in whilst living there that really affects it.”

Oehlers’ work defies categorisation, but the way in which his dreamlike images are grounded in reality is reminiscent of Rene Magritte and his idiosyncratic and subtle used of colour has echoes of Arthur Rackham.  So have particular artists influenced his approach, or provided inspiration?

“I am drawn to classic illustration, Arthur Rackham being a good example of that. I strive to get that kind of feel in my work, to build up a sense of nostalgia and hope to remind people of picking up books when they were young and getting lost in the artwork. When I think of this I'm always reminded of a collection of books called The Woodland Folk by Tony Wolf. They are filled with the most beautiful images: when I was a kid I would spend hours lost in these illustrations. I would love to be able to re-create this experience for someone.

“I draw inspiration from many artists but the strongest influence is the work of Edward Gorey. When I first saw his beautifully twisted alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies I was hooked.  I hunted down his other publications and, before I knew what was happening, my entire approach to drawing and illustration changed. Whenever I planned a new image in my head, I would picture every form covered in that lovely gritty texture that's created by cross hatching. There was no going back. In my early days of playing around with cross hatching I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of 50 years of Illustration by John Vernon Lord – like Gorey, he blew me away with the most intricate pen work and this show alone was the source of a lot of inspiration.

“Another Artist I have a huge admiration for is Shaun Tan. He creates such a lovely world with his work. His style and technique are amazing, but it has more to do with the way he tells a story, the moments he captures.  That’s what has affected my work so much.”

Oehlers’ illustrations for The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (which you can see on his website) are a fascinating departure from the visions Coleridge inspired for Dore and Peake, and provoke a different set of emotional responses.  So what, we wonder, was the starting point for his new interpretation of Coleridge’s verse?  How did Oehlers find a new approach to a poem with such an impressive history as an illustrated work?

“I have always loved the poem and I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. I studied the classic illustrations of Peake and Dore and hunted down as many illustrator interpretations as I good find. This was a terrible idea. Spending so long looking at other people’s interpretations utterly confused me. I lost sight of the things that made my artwork 'mine'. In the end I had to restart the work three times over. My publisher, Jerome from Au Fond Du Grenier, was extremely patient and helpful during this time. His feedback was very insightful and honest and he directed me right back on track. He pointed out that the original work I had sent him (which is not shown in the final collection) seemed to belong to a different world to my usual work. This really hit home hard so I took a break from it and did some drawings for myself, beginning work on my own story 'Dear Little Emmie'. When I returned to working on the Ancient Mariner all of that confusion was gone, from there on the images just seemed to flow out and I've ended up with a collection and book that I am really proud of.

When writers and illustrators collide, words and images play upon each other. Think of the way Sidney Paget's work influenced readers’ perceptions of the character of Sherlock Holmes; consider the extent to which Tenniel's take on Alice in Wonderland conditioned the way we think about that story. Does Adam Oehlers feel illustrations 'push' readers’ responses, maybe sometimes in a way the author of the text hadn't anticipated?

“It’s quite hard working with another writer’s story. Sometimes the way a writer views the world they've created is very different to the world the illustrator has built up. I try to choose stories I feel will complement my work, and that my work will complement in turn. If the two worlds mesh you can come across some happy little accidents: the writer may see something in the illustrations they have not thought about before and, hopefully, the illustrations can add to their world.

Oehlers' Dr Jekyll

“Every illustrator has their own approach when they receive a manuscript and the way in which the illustrations affect the reader can vary. When I work on a children's book I'll try and use the illustrations to tell more of the story, picturing the characters and events. If it’s a more adult piece, my preferred audience, then my approach is very different. You can afford to be more subtle when dealing with a mature audience. Rather than telling the story with the illustrations I pick up on a moment before an event or a realisation the character experiences. This captures the atmosphere of what they are experiencing. 'The Library', the illustration I've done for Paraxis, is a good example of this. The character is gazing out of the image: either something has caught his eye or he is remembering something. Whatever it may be, it is a mystery to the viewer. This, I hope, creates a sense of suspense and intrigue. I think this approach lends itself well, when accompanied with text, to showing a moment and letting the text describe the event.”

Oehlers’ new book Dear Little Emmie began as a one-off painting inspired by a visit to a graveyard in Lewes in 2002:  “It was a beautiful place with some really elaborate tombstones. At the back, against the far wall, I saw a tiny cross with 'My Dear Little Emmie' written across it. I couldn't get it out of my mind and, on the trip home, I started to build the character and story. Because of its origins it was always going to be a ghost story. Originally the main focus was on Little Emmie as the ghost rather than the girl. My original painting pictured Emmie surrounded by the long grass of the swamp. From there I couldn't let the idea go and, by 2007, Little Emmie was a painting, a sculpture and piece of music (written by a friend of mine Lee Westwood, it appears on his album To Sleep). The idea had been floating around for so long I thought it was time to put it on paper. I felt from the early stages it would be well suited to a story told only though pictures.

Dear Little Emmie is a tour de force of image-based narrative, emotional resonance and sheer inventive power. His use of colour is beautiful and the way the images ‘leak’ out of their frames adds an additional layer of symbolism. It’s one of the forthcoming publications – in any form, in any genre – we’re most excited about.

Follow Paraxis on Facebook or Twitter for updates on the publication of Dear Little Emmie. You can catch Adam Oehlers’ work at Literal Eyes, a group exhibition at the London Miles Gallery in Shoreditch, running from May 13th - May 16th 2011. And you can see more of his art and illustration at:

The illustrations on this page are taken from (in order) Dear Little Emmie, 'The Plate Breaker', Dear Little Emmie, Dear Little Emmie, 'Jekyll' for Literal Eyes and Dear Little Emmie.

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