Illustrator James Christopher Carroll says he could never envision anything other than pursuing his chosen path. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist; nothing else made sense,” he says. “What a blessing it is to be able to make art every day! Though I’m sure that it may be the most selfish thing that a person can do. Perhaps, after all the words and colors have dried, they can bring some beauty to others.”
Carroll has published a number of books for children including his most recent, The World Below The Brine (Creative Editions, 2021), which sets Walt Whitman’s poem about the mystery and wonder of life underwater against Carrol’s lush illustrations. Imbued with a lyrical, whimsical style, Carroll’s work suggests dreamscapes. At times his flying figures recall the work of Marc Chagal, but Carroll’s palate is brighter, saturated with a magical, glowing luminescence as if powered by fireflies. In contrast, his black-and-white work is starker, with an etched or woodcut quality.
Carroll’s creative method is open-ended. “I have discovered that my best work comes when I allow the process to remain just beyond my control for as long as I can bear it,” he says. “This is a time of discomfort, wrapped in some self-loathing, but setting the ego aside for a spell allows me to drink from a well that my ancestors dug a long time ago.”
Carroll is also receptive to the narratives in available materials, like an antenna for stories floating in the ether. “I see an image, a photo, a sketch, and I imagine the story they want to tell us. They sit there waiting for someone willing to spend time in conversation with them. This is likely why I have spent much of my time illustrating and writing books for children. To enjoy the slow waltz of words and pictures across the page. In truth, I write for myself, to create a world that I want or that I remember. Then comes the added pleasure of sharing this bit of myself with others.”
The written word is an equally powerful medium for Carroll, and he considers himself a poet as much as he is an illustrator. His poem “My Last Lullaby” is a companion piece to the illustration on this month’s cover, which is about the death of Carroll’s mother. “My dear mother passed away last winter, and, of course, took part of me with her when she left,” he says. “In an effort to find some balance, I took a long walkabout in the Catskills this spring. I camped, biked, meditated, prayed, sketched, and wrote ‘My Last Lullaby’ during this time. My mother helped write this poem and inspired the artwork.” (The poem is included in the online version of this piece.)
The Hudson Valley has always been home for Carroll, who lives in Chatham with his wife and children. He has spent his entire life in the area, and continues to find inspiration in the history and the landscape. “The beauty around us is unavoidable. The mountains are haunted with lovely old ghosts. I wonder if there could be a place better charmed than what we have here?” Carroll asks.
Carroll’s illustrations will be exhibited, along with photographs by Matt Drake, at Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham from October 15 through November 13.