In illustrating Silver Threads, Michael Martchenko has come full circle. Like the main characters in the book, his mother was a Ukrainian immigrant to Canada. She brought her family here in 1950. He himself was born in France, and was seven years old when they arrived in Ontario.
Throughout the years in Canada, Martchenko had known little about his mother's Ukrainian culture and background. He was busy integrating into his new culture.
"We came to Beamsville where my aunt had a fruit farm," he says. "It was a delight for a little kid. You just walked around and picked all the fruit you wanted. I also discovered barbecued chicken, milk-shakes, and pancakes covered with syrup. It was amazing, especially for a kid growing up in France after the war."
Martchenko always had his love of art. He doodled and sketched. He was a great fan of comic books and cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Brothers characters. He made little toy boats out of plasticine. He drew as he listened to the radio. "I was one of those lucky kids," he says. "I always knew I wanted to be an artist."
His family moved around a lot in their early years in Canada. "I always felt like the new kid on the block," he recalls. "I hated it."
By high school they finally settled down near Kitchener, where Martchenko made friends, found part-time work, and even went out for football.
The high school guidance counsellor suggested he apply to the Ontario College of Art. "I loved OCA," he says. "I loved the fact that everybody was brand-new. I wasn't the new kid on the block any more. Everyone was starting fresh."
At OCA, Martchenko took advertising and illustration, design, typography, layout, and life drawing. "Now the OCA discourages life drawing," he says. "It's more design and computer work. I'm glad I took life drawing. It teaches you how to think."
Between his third and fourth year, he had an opportunity to work in a professional art studio for part of the summer. "You went in every day," he relates. "You had your own desk. You worked with real illustrators. That was one of the best experiences I've ever had."
At the studio they had a huge reference file. "I did illustrations from pictures," he says, "but then one day an illustrator gave me the best piece of advice I've ever had. I showed him my work and he said, `All you did was copy the references. You're not thinking. You have to think, then create and design. You can use the references after.' "
From the OCA, Martchenko went on to become an advertising agency art director and studio designer. It was in the 1980s, while he was putting together a show for his agency, TDF Artists, that he added a drawing he had done, "just for fun." The owners of Annick Press came to the show, searching for new artists. "They looked around," recounts Martchenko, "and saw nothing that interested them, but just as they were walking out, they saw my drawing. It was of a flock of seagulls in formation landing in a park beside a man nonchalantly reading his paper. They soon called me about illustrating The Paperback Princess by Robert Munsch."
It didn't take Martchenko long to discover that he enjoyed illustrating picture-books. "What I like about kids' books is the freedom. I can take a script and interpret it any way I want. I can add to the story visually, with expressions, gestures, body language, side gags, without interfering with the words."
After finishing The Paperback Princess, Martchenko illustrated many more Munsch books. And then after over twenty successful years in the advertising field, "the glow left it" and he decided to work full-time as an illustrator. It wasn't an easy decision: "Being an immigrant boy who doesn't want to let go of security, it took me a couple of years to decide."
And then amidst his busy new schedule, a call came from Penguin to illustrate Silver Threads. "When Penguin approached me and told me what the book was about," says Martchenko, "I said, `Yes. Great. We never hear about the Ukrainians in World War I. And these are my people.' "
With that statement, he began not only an illustration project but also a journey into his own culture and background. It was deeply satisfying and often moving. It was also a dramatic departure in his style, which until now had been light-hearted and cartoony. In Silver Threads, Martchenko uses his usual medium of watercolours, to create more realistic drawings. The colours, tones, shadows, and light all accent the story's warmth, the characters' struggle for survival, and their joy at finally reuniting.
The book is also rich in historical detail. Capturing those details accurately was a great challenge. Martchenko combed bookstores, libraries, and the memories of his family to get a sense of how things looked in Bukovyna, the province in Ukraine where the book is initially set. He soon discovered that people in Bukovyna had a particular style of clothing and it wasn't going to be simple to find pictures. Luckily he found help and resource books in a Ukrainian bookstore on Queen Street in Toronto. He then had to find pictures of houses, landscapes, food, furniture, and utensils both from Ukraine and from Western Canada, where the second half of the book is set. It was a time-consuming task, but one that Martchenko thoroughly enjoyed. "I learned a lot about my own heritage," he says. And with those words, it's clear he has opened exciting new doors, both personally and professionally. l
Frieda Wishinsky is a freelance writer. Her latest book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).