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Chronicling the second year in the Illustration Practice Program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the development of the MFA thesis project, A Green Place to Be.

www.ashleyyazdani.com hello@ashleyyazdani.com


“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.� -Janet Kilburn Phillips

4


Seed Index

I.

Prelude to a Thesis

6

II.

The First Attempt

20

III.

The Final Book

37

IV.

Gallery Exhibit

69

V.

The Past

82

VI.

The Future

84

VII.

Gratitude

86

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I. Prelude to a Thesis The summer after my first year of graduate school happily brought many opportunities. Little did I know that the varied experiences of this single season would influence nearly every aspect of my thesis, and serve to solidly re-contextualize my artistic voice.

Architectural plans for the grounds of Fairstead in Brookline, MA.

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summer projects:

100 Days of Critters

At the end of my first year at MICA I was flushed with the rush of goals met and new projects on the horizon. In midApril I began The 100 Days Project, for which I painted a different animal every day. This consistent practice became a thread through my summer, and I diligently made one 5� x 5� piece every day. Each small painting came with the permission to experiment in my drawing style and application of media, and I soon found an approach that felt personal, confident, and marked an cange in my work. This project did not solely alter my visual style; I soon discovered a personal mission evolving.

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summer, 2015 <<


Each dayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s research led to disturbing images: photos of animals who were hurt, suffering, or dead. Most often the pain was caused by humans, either on purpose or accidentally. It became evident that we need to be making a conscious effort to take better care of our wild neighbors.

With this message in mind, I dedicated the final twenty days of my 100 Days Project to twenty of the most critically endangered species on Earth. After studying illustration for a decade I fully knew that this field is all about communication, but somehow I had never before thought of what I most want to communicate. Now an environmental message was found, and for the first time I found a way to speak on this subject through my art.

>> prelude to a thesis

9


summer projects:

What the Crow Stole After flying home to California at the end of the school year, I quickly dove into a new project. In April I had submitted my portfolio to the Minneapolis based gallery Light Grey Art Lab for consideration as a participant in their upcoming show, Patches + Stitches. This unique exhibit asked artists to create works on fabricâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;multiple patches using any media for the Patches portion, or lushly embroidered artworks for Stitches. I had been selected for my first choice, Stitches, and couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t wait to try this new medium.

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summer, 2015 <<


Work on this piece began slowly, and it was an immense learning experience. Although I began this project in a familiar wayâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;with sketchesâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; I quickly found myself in unfamiliar territory. To aid in the construction of the piece, I created a mock-up using cut paper collage, and then digitized it to manipulate the colors and finalize the shapes. For the final piece I painted each piece of fabric by hand, and cut the appliquĂŠ shapes out of the fabric to match my digital sketch. The entire process took two weeks, and each day required that I teach myself a new technique.

In Progress: pencil sketch, collage sketch, and the beginning of the final piece.

>> prelude to a thesis

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Top & Bottom Left: detail images Bottom Right: on the wall at the Light Grey Art Lab Facing Page: the final piece

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summer, 2015 <<


>> prelude to a thesis

13


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summer, 2015 <<


From the very beginning of this piece I strove to create something different from my other painted work, but I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t anticipate that it would so drastically change the way I thought about mark-making. Drawing with thread and needle is understandably different from drawing with a pencil or brush; there are many methods for creating lines and filling in colors, and I experimented with numerous stitches to find the ones that worked best. However, the most striking part of this experience was the way that the shapes I drew changed to reflect the medium I was using. In the process I found myself looking to artists I had never considered before, and embracing a brand new aesthetic. What the Crow Stole looks different from every other artwork I have made not just because it exists in a different medium, but because it required that I adapt my stylistic voice to fit that medium.

>> prelude to a thesis

15


summer projects:

The Trinkett Clark Internship at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art In early June I flew back east to begin the most exciting part of the summer. I had been selected as the 2015 Trinkett Clark Intern at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, and my husband and I made the long drive north to the Pioneer Valley. This special internship lasted for eight weeks, and was a delight right from day one.

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summer, 2015 <<

Top: in the Very Hungry Caterpillar Reading Nook Bottom: my installed Reading Gallery exhibit, Alice Is...


Every Sunday I was in charge of the Reading Library, where I kept the space tidy, re-shelved books, and prepared new books for use in the library. Most importantly I facilitated Story Time each Sunday at 2:00pm. Although I had initial hesitations about being in charge of Story Time, it became one of the most rewarding parts of my time at The Carle. I treated it as a picture book experiment, selecting titles that would broaden my understanding of children’s tastes. Soon I began to recognize patterns and motifs of effective storytelling, and gained an education that could have never been achieved through the classroom. The Trinkett Clark Internship is primarily curatorial, and I was given the opportunity to curate my own exhibit for the Reading Library Gallery. In 2015 we saw the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and so I took my own trip through Wonderland and curated a show on the many interpretations of Alice. In his novel Carroll never gives Alice a physical description, and her form has changed dramatically as she has passed through the hands of many illustrators. Special attention in my exhibit was given to international representations of Alice. My exhibit, Alice Is…, marked my first foray into curatorial practices, and allowed me to explore one facet of illustration history from a scholarly and critical standpoint. The show was warmly received, and has even had tour groups travel from afar specifically to visit it. My internship at The Carle was one of the single most gratifying work experiences I have ever enjoyed, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to contribute to that institution.

>> prelude to a thesis

17


summer projects:

Discoveries

While living in Amherst I stumbled upon a book about the works of Frederick Law Olmsted. That name rang a bell, instantly conjuring up memories of trips to Central Park, travels through Olmsted designed neighborhoods, restorative hikes in Prospect Park, and pleasant strolls through the Emerald Necklace. For the first time I recognized what a subtle, constant presence Olmsted had been in my life, and I became curious about who this man was. Perhaps there was a story thereâ&#x20AC;Ś After devouring Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin, I realized that this man had not one, but many stories. This research had kindled a deep respect and awe for Olmsted, as well as a kinship with his personal philosophies. In July curiosity led me to pay a visit to Fairstead, Olmstedâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s home in Brookline, MA. I was fascinated by his architecture offices, refreshed by his gardens, and inspired by his writings. This was a person I could explore for a year, perhaps more. My thesis was just beginning.

Right: Frederick Law Olmsted. Top & right: first research sources and details from Fairstead. Facing page: visiting Fairstead.

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summer, 2015 <<


>> prelude to a thesis

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II. The First Attempt After a vibrant summer packed with adventure and creativity, I returned to Baltimore to begin my final year at MICA. I had gathered and honed my summer inspirations into a solid thesis idea, and planned to make a fully-illustrated picture book about Olmsted and the creation of Central Park.

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Before any art could be created, I needed to find my words. What resulted was an experience that was all about process.

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The first page of each separate thesis draft.

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the first attempt:

The Writing Process

The first part of Fall term was devoted to writing, and much of September and October was spent ironing out a series of drafts. While working on the text of this book, I was also enrolled in a class on Writing Children’s Picture Books, which gave me new tools with which to approach the writing process. I regularly honed the text for my thesis, carving out draft after draft as I worked to find the right flow and voice. I had chosen to approach the story of Central Park through the eyes of a child character named Joan, who I modeled on Olmsted’s deceased brother John. In telling such a historical story and framing it for children, I felt it was important to include a child character for the youngest readers to relate to. As a curious child and resident of the land next to the new park, Joan could insert herself into the park’s creation, acting as the reader’s eyes and ears and interacting directly with Olmsted. With my characters and setting laid out, I began sketching thumbnails and character designs even as the writing process continued.

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Early storyboard and color key.

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the first attempt:

Sketching

After completing a polished story draft, character sketches, and a series of thumbnails, it was time to begin developing more finished sketches. I began working chronologically through my draft, creating multiple sketches for each spread in order to work out the best composition. The experience of making these sketches became highly valuable: through each pass I drew closer to the final look of my characters and setting. My approach to drawing the face and figure changed dramatically over this period, and the urgency to complete a full book spurred me on to create quickly, without fussing too much over the details of each image.

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It was exciting to be making so many sketches, so many discoveries. However, something wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t quite right. On the second to last spread in the book, and while drawing Olmsted and Joan together I realized what the problem was: the relationship between my two main characters felt contrived. Why was a victorian child spending time at a construction site, and did she really bring anything to the story? I had been wrestling with these feelings while revising the text, but the sketching process finally made me confront the heart of the issue. On top of that, I was sensing a larger absence within the text

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the first attempt:

The Final Draft

In the process of researching Frederick Law Olmsted, I had learned of his partner in the creation of Central Park: Calvert Vaux. This was a man that had never come up in discussions of the park’s creation prior to my research, and although he was prominent in his time, Vaux’s name has largely faded from public knowledge. Yet the more that I learned about Vaux, the more I felt he should be included in this book. He was a trained architect, passionate about art, and driven to succeed. At 4’11” tall he was a petite man who possessed an energy disproportionate to the size of his body. And what’s more: Vaux initiated the partnership between him and Olmsted, personally inviting Olmsted to join him in the park’s design competition and catalyzing Olmsted’s career as a landscape architect. The American landscape would look very different without Calvert Vaux. I sat down before even completing that final sketch, and wrote out a brand new story focusing on Olmsted, Vaux, and a non-fiction retelling of their first work together. It came out in one evening, and it felt just right.

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III. The Final Book With a new book draft in hand, months of writing and sketching had to be set aside and replaced with new work. While this was initially difficult, the loss was softened by the knowledge that this new text felt like it was exactly where it should be. It was time to plant the written seed and see what illustrations could grow from it.

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the final book:

The First Dummy Only one week after finishing my new written draft, I was scheduled to visit three art directors in New York City during Illustration Week, and work on a new set of sketches had to begin right away. I wanted to have something tactile that my critics could hold and page through, and so I charged right into creating a dummy book. A few of my earlier sketches could be re-used, and so I popped those into the layout wherever they fit. The other 15 spreads needed to be made new, and fast. The extremely tight deadline forced me to adopt a much looser, smaller sketching method. This was going to be a dummy book, and improvements would come later. In the meantime, I just had to communicate roughly what each page would contain.

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This initial dummy book was bound with a soft Canson Mi Tentes paper cover, and was completed just in time: late into the night before I traveled to New York. I packed it away and hoped for the best.

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the final book:

In New York

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On my first full day in New York I had the opportunity to visit three Art Directors: Giuseppe Castellano at Penguin Random House, Joann Hill at Disney Hyperion, and Martha Rago at Random House. They were each remarkably generous with their time, and gave constructive feedback and praise in equal measure. Hearing from them that my idea was both interesting and viable in the world of publishing was extremely validating. I jotted down all of their suggestions for improvement, and left feeling buoyant and ready to take this book forward to the next stage.


When one is creating a book about the creation of Central Park, travel to New York comes with an obvious destination. The last day of my trip was spent walking the park, gathering reference photos and making sketches to draw from later. I found the many different bridges within the park to be particularly attractive. On this beautiful autumn day New York provided a full spectrum: children playing, grown ups exercising, elderly people strolling; in just the southern portion of the park I spotted three weddings and one engagement. It was a festival of every facet of life, and left me inspired by the many uses of this one common space.

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the final book:

On Managing Ambition With less than five months remaining before the Thesis Exhibition, fully painting this book was going to be a challenge. Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s more: each art director had said that it would be acceptable to make this book even longer than the standard 32 page picture book. While this extra room was exciting, the idea of completing revised sketches and crafting a fully illustrated 40 page picture book by March no longer seemed feasible. It was time to sacrifice one piece of the original plan.

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Fortunately creating a dummy book instead of a fully finished picture book would prove to be a practical choice on many levels. It would allow for each page and spread to be thoughtfully planned out, instead of rushing into the final artwork. The change would also give my book a more promising outlook after grad school: publishers will likely be more receptive when presented with a dummy book rather than a fully finished product.

Buoyed by this realization, I charged forward and drafted a new storyboard.

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the final book:

Picking Up the Brush As I approached the creation of final artwork I first considered which spreads should appear as paintings in the dummy book. The final choices were based on which pieces I felt would best represent the overall painting style that would be used, and which would be most visually interesting. My 100 Days Project had taught me that I enjoy utilizing white space in my work, and that my watercolors work best when a shape is defined using a base color, with minimal details laid on top. I wanted to showcase both of these qualities, and chose to paint several portraits of the main characters, one collection of objects on a white ground, and one complicated forest scene. All paintings were created using a combination of watercolor and colored pencil on Canson Editions watercolor paper.

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the final book:

Final Sketches

When the last of the paintings was wrapped up in late January, there was only a little over one month left to complete the rest of the book. All pages that were not showcased as paintings now needed to be fully sketched, and I wanted them to be completely clear, leaving nothing of the final piece to the imagination. I tackled these drawings with a fervor that intensified as the deadline drew nearer, consciously striving to achieve a simultaneous looseness and control within the drawing. And always I wanted to maintain a sense of play. Two thirds of a drawing pencil later, I had a dummy book.

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The final task was the cover: a simple watercolor pattern of pre-park mud, and portraits of the two creators. Someday this cover will be concealed like a secret beneath a dust jacket showing the park today.

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When the hard bound book arrived, I unwrapped it and felt a tremendous sense of pride. I had researched deeply, worked late, thrown out many good ideas in order to find better ones, and meticulously crafted every facet of this book. There would always be the possibility of future edits, but for now my book felt whole, and I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t have been happier.

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IV. Gallery Exhibit With most of the work of the dummy book concealed within the book itself, I knew that the gallery exhibitâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s design would need to invite visitors to my space, and engage them to pick up the book and read. My book was relatively small in the gallery, and so I needed to make art that was bigâ&#x20AC;Ś very big

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gallery exhibit:

Installation

Over the four days we were given to install our show, my classmates and I worked at all hours. I spent many of those hours confronting my fear of heights atop a ladder. I had never painted a mural before, and loved the physicality of it. The scale of it was utterly different than my usual work, and once again I was challenged to create artwork very quicklyâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;this time with a big brush and a big space to fill.

Above: Before installation Right & Facing page: process photographs

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gallery exhibit:

The Final Exhibit On March 25th our thesis exhibition opened to the public. I cannot even begin to describe how proud I felt of the work on view from my classmates and my self. Each studentâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s exhibit was unique, and sang with a voice that was true to the artwork.

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My own exhibit felt different on the wall than it had in my schematic drawing, but I was elated with the result, especially my tree and squirrel mural. I came back to the show regularly and felt a little thrill of joy every time I saw a visitor perusing my picture book.

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gallery exhibit:

Map Making Workshop

During the two weeks of the exhibit, I had the pleasure of leading a few story time sessions with visiting children. My classmate Jia Liu had arranged a special story area in the middle of the gallery, and each of the students who had made a picture book was invited to create an activity related to their project.

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Because Central Park began as a large drawing of a map, I invented a map-making game to share with the kids. Using markers and a large sheet of paper, we worked as a group to create a park. Each person would draw something for our park, and then we would “get on the carousel”, running around the table until we were in a new spot. Once seated we drew something new, connecting it to the previous person’s drawing with a path. At the end of the activity we had one large map that was a mix of everyone’s imagination.

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gallery exhibit:

Gallery Talks

Before taking down our show we each gave a gallery talk about our work. My critics were Shadra Strickland and Sarah McNeil, and I presented them with my entire book-making process, from research to the final dummy book. Shadra and Sarah both gave such thoughtful feedback, and encouraged me to pursue both representation and publication. Many of the yearâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s other critics had given the same support, and hearing it echoed once again in the gallery talk gave me hope for the future prospects of my project.

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V. The Past One year ago I knew I wanted to make a picture book for my MFA thesis, but I had no idea what it would be about. Now that this portion of the process is in the past, I can look back at the creation of A Green Place to Be and see it as a synthesis of my entire time at MICA.

Individual projects from the past two years can be seen reflected within this book: book binding, hand-lettering, and character design were all heavily featured, and skills that have not yet been used will find their place in the next iteration of this book. Selfimposed projects heavily influenced the style of my illustrations for this book, and helped my work to change dramatically. Assignments from Lifestyle Illustration informed how I compose backgrounds, and the color choices have been influenced by what I learned through my teaching internship in Narrative Color. Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s more, the work of my professors and peers helped me to hold my own work to ever more rigorous standards. With this thesis I glimpsed the true scope of what goes in to creating a picture book. One must start early, and finalize the text and page dimensions before even beginning the artwork. When beginning to illustrate, you must sketch a lot, though only a fraction of what is made will be used. The sketching and writing processes both demand a certain fearlessness, and occasionally you will have to kill your darlings. And yet even the numerous discarded drafts and sketches were all instrumental in shaping the final book.

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VI. The Future I still feel tremendously proud of the work put into this thesis, and I know that my path forward will be heavily informed by the experience of this one dummy book. Pursuit of publication is first on my list. I do believe that this is a viable book in the market, and with the right editing and revisions it can be made ready for publication. Research into publishers is just beginning, but I am most attracted to smaller publishing houses and imprints. Candlewick Books, Chronicle Books, and Neal Porter Books are all high on my list. I am also seeking representation to help with the publication process. College level teaching is on the immediate horizon for me. This summer I will be teaching two classes in MICAâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Pre-College Program, and I am applying for additional teaching positions for the next school year. This has long been a goal of mine, and my time at MICA has helped to bring that goal into reach. In my own work I plan to keep challenging myself to explore new materials and techniques. This semester I took a class in screen printing, and lately Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve been dreaming up more ideas for printing projects. I plan to approach retailers to help me sell prints, and have established my own small web shop.

Lastly, I know that this will not be my only picture book. With A Green Place to Be I discovered a niche that fits like a glove: historical non-fiction. The story of Olmsted and Vaux did not end with Central Park, and any of their other creations would be worth exploring in this form again. But they are not the only ones I plan to illustrate; already I am developing two other stories for future projects. In the months following graduation, I will plant these seeds in my garden and see what grows.

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VII. Gratitude This book marks the end of my time as a student at MICA, a profoundly transformative educational experience. I am so grateful to the many people who helped me to grow while here in Baltimore. Thank you to all of the teachers who have nurtured me here at MICA. To Joyce for pushing me to reach beyond the familiar in my first year. To Sam, Daniel, and Rebecca, for being shining examples of educators, and for providing pedagogical guidance. A tremendous thank you to Whitney for simultaneously encouraging and pushing me forward, and for crafting such a rigorous program that provides both a breadth and depth of knowledge. Thank you to Kim for joining us this year, and for always providing such excellent critiques and advice about living as a creator. And a warm fuzzy thank you to all of my MICA ILP classmates; you have all been a two year long inspiration to me! None of this work would have been possible without the livelong loving support and encouragement of my family. Thank you, Allana, for paving the way and being such an inspiring big sister. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for the deep well of love that you provide, for so generously helping me to gain an education, and for always whole-heartedly cheering on your artist daughters. And thank you to Dara, for your genuinely boundless love. You are the oak to my ash, and the red to my olive.

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Into the Garden