[This conversation between Gautam Bhatia, co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons, and Dante Luiz and Heather McDougal, art editors, was conducted via collaborative Google Doc in July 2021.]
Gautam Bhatia: We thought it would be a good idea to continue the conversation between you two from last year, and segue into the work of Strange Horizons’ Art Department. So, can you talk us through the process through which you select art for a Strange Horizons issue?
Dante Luiz: Each month, we choose one of our weekly stories to be illustrated. The choices are very subjective, and they feel a little bit like matchmaking—if, say, we choose a darker story, we commission an artist with a grittier style, so we try to focus on something different in the following month.
Our submission call for artists is always open, but we also have a list of artists we find online who have an interesting portfolio. I like checking Twitter tags like #drawingwhileblack, #portfolioday, #artmubarak and similar events to find new artists, as we receive little submissions that have the right tone for the magazine or for the stories we have in hand at the moment. I dare to say that the overwhelming majority of artists I commission come from hashtag art events, so I highly recommend artists to participate in those—we and other art directors are certainly looking!
Heather McDougal: Some of our artists are well-known artists with very busy schedules, so for those artists I do plan ahead with them and then try to find a story that will work for them that month. Sometimes it’s just not possible, and I ask if they can switch ahead a bit. But usually, at least one of the stories will stand out as being very visual, and most of the time it works out well.
I agree with Dante about participating in hashtag events! They are such a great way for us to find people. Also, I do want to recommend that you make yourself reachable, especially if you are participating. So many artists I would die to commission something from, but they simply don’t answer my query, so I move on.
Gautam Bhatia: If you had to pick a couple of personal favourite pieces of art that you’ve commissioned since you’ve joined SH - which would they be, and why?
HM: Haha, that’s very hard to answer! I will say, one of the hardest things for me in this job is not re-using artists too much. I certainly have some favorite artists that have repeatedly given me amazing results, and there have been some years where I have relied on them, like for example the year before Dante came, when I was doing all twelve months myself. But I think it’s so important not to fall into the trap of going with what you know! As a writer and an artist, I know how hard it is to get work when you’re less known, so that’s important.
One of my perennial favorites has always been Galen Dara, especially June 2019 and August 2017, because I love her mix of layered textures, sharp edges, and colors, and she consistently manages to capture something intense about the story. More recently, I love the giantess image that Elaine Ho created for our April 2021 issue: so atmospheric, and painful like the story. But of all the images I’ve managed to marry to stories, I think Jabari Weathers’ Sassabonsam has stuck with me all this time––such a perfect depiction of the disjointedness of terror!
DL: Ohhh, that's an unfair question! I genuinely love every artist and art I've commissioned so far for Strange Horizons. I started my tenure as art director with Em Allen in the August 2019 issue of the magazine—an artist I found on Twitter, like I mentioned before, and who did such a beautiful piece for SH that we still use it on social media banners. Ever since then, I think I made some pretty good matchmaking between art and stories, artists and illustrators. You can see them all in our art tag, since I run interviews with most of them.
I'll highlight then the artists I used for the special issues we had so far: Juliana Pinho, for the Brazil Special; Victor Bizar Gómez, for the Mexico Special; Aya Ghanameh, for the Palestine Special; and Sunmi, for the Trans Special. Sunmi is one of the artists I grabbed from our submission pile—they sent their portfolio with their eyes set on the Trans special, but I had another artist lined up for that issue, so I scheduled them for two months ahead. The other artist had some problems so we rescheduled him for later this year, and brought Sunmi in for the issue instead—it felt like it was destiny!
Gautam Bhatia: In the previous conversation, you talked about your SFF influences. I was wondering if there were any SFF books where you found the artwork particularly striking? Heather, you mentioned The Hobbit. I remember the very vivid colour illustrations in the copy that I was given as a child. Were there similar such influences for you?
HM: I think more than anything I’ve been influenced by fairy tales. I am a huge fan of Ivan Bilibin’s work with Russian fairytales! Particularly when I saw his images of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa. I love that kind of graphic style, especially with the thematic borders! Similarly, when my kids were young they had a book called Bony Legs, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer, that had the most amazing scene backdrops, tiles and curtains and rugs. I love that kind of detail, the inclusion of the environment that a character inhabits. And pen and ink has always been a love of mine––as a teenager someone gave me an Aubrey Beardsley book, minus some of his more outrageously sexual drawings, and it had a huge influence on me.
Some other examples of wonderful atmospheric art I’ve loved are John Bauer’s illustrations of trolls (and especially the forests they live in, so different from my dry California ones!) for Swedish folk tales. Also, I’m a huge comic fan, and I love Windsor McCay, Mobius, and French Bande Designées artists such as Jacques Tardis and Louis Trondheim––as well as too many webcomics to mention, although I really love the stylistic elements in Stand Still, Stay Silent.
DL: Not speculative because most of speculative books published in Brazil when I was a child didn't have any art on it, but I had this ancient three-tomes edition of Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo", that had a series of extremely intrincate woodcut illustrations.Those definitely made me obsessed with lineart, as you can see in my own portfolio. I have no idea who was the illustrator, but it influenced my own goals as an artist who loves mimicking that woodcut feel.
More recently, Editora Wish published a deluxe translation of Juliet Mariller's "Wildwood Dancing", fully illustrated by Janaína Medeiros. Not only the (two!) covers are gorgeous, but the book itself is full of incredible art with a beautiful graphic project—I mean, look at this. I still didn't read the book, but I bought as fast as I could because it's so pretty. I hope I can bring Janaína for Strange Horizons, one day!
Gautam Bhatia: How do you see the relationship between mapmaking/cartography and art, in the context of SFF? In a sense, it seems to me, they both help to complete what is a very visual genre, especially when we’re thinking of fantasy.
HM: Oh, wow, maps are soooo important to fantasy, especially. There’s something about being able to turn to a map and follow the journey. I remember being quite small and my dad reading the Hobbit to me, and how great it was to be able to turn to the map and trace where we were, and where we were going. When I published my book Songs for a Machine Age, I got a beautiful map! I was super chuffed, because for me, all fiction is intensely locational; I have a hard time reading books that don’t either have a map or describe location clearly. My whole memory is connected to location: I remember conversations and actions based on where I was standing, what the light looked like, and so on. So maps, and floor plans, and landscape illustrations, and even (as I said above) the way an illustration has stray details in the background, are super exciting to me.
It’s all part of the props we offer to help people create an atmosphere in their heads: maps, illustrations, even the little pictures at the tops of chapters can help immerse the reader. Plus, they make a book or magazine (or website) just feel more thoughtful. I’m all for the embellishments.
DL: I'm horrible with mapmaking, specially with cartography made for SFF—I tried making one of those last year, and my mind couldn't make sense of where to place rivers and mountains. I will, whoever, link to Bruno Müller, a Bauru-based artist who's specialized in fantasy mapmaking.
Gautam Bhatia: If there was one piece of SFF that was your dream commission to do art for - which would it be, and why? And what would you do?
HM: I’ve always wished someone could make a graphic novel of Little, Big by John Crowley. It’s such a wonderful book, so full of incredible visuals and dreamy sequences. In my opinion there is no book that captures the impossibility of magic for humans as well as this book does. If I illustrated it, I’d do it in a delicate pen-and-ink style, something between Mobius and Arthur Rackham, I think.
DL: Aaaaaanything set in P. Djèlí Clark's Dead Djinn Universe, specially the two protagonists of "The Haunting of Tram Car 015", or anything involving Agent Fatma. Hell, I might make fanart of it, one of these days.