I have known Margo for many years as an author and illustrator of children’s books and an important presence at all Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators conferences in New England. In the last few years I’ve become acquainted with a number of her other talents including teaching, printmaking and creating artist’s books. The biography below is taken from her page at Full Tilt Studio.
Margo Lemieux has been an artist since the first grade when she got into trouble with her teacher for “decorating” her workbook. After earning a degree in fine arts in painting from Boston University, an MFA from UMass Dartmouth in printmaking, and an M. Ed. in integrated arts curriculum, she worked as a graphic designer, tee-shirt artist, newspaper correspondent, children’s book author and illustrator, and other interesting things. She is a professor in the art & graphic design department at Lasell College.
Pat: As a woman of so many talents, do you find that you still have the time and energy to pursue them all?
Margo: Talent is a misleading word. It implies some sort of natural super ability. In my case, I still haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up. Trying different approaches, such as writing and painting, is more a burning curiosity as to how to frame my questions and observations. Each new project is a new beginning, even with etching and drawing. I have no idea if it will be successful or not. And, yes, I often wish I could focus on one discipline
Pat: From reading some of your biographies it appears that visual art was your first means of expression. When did you begin combining it with the written word?
Margo: I combined visual and written from the time I could hold a pencil. After my mother died, I found some “books” I had written and illustrated, probably in the second or third grade, including one pop-up book. My degrees are all in visual art, but I have always taken writing and lit courses as well.
Pat: I myself find that some of my ideas and stories are best expressed in a visual way and some through text. Does this somewhat describe your approach as well and can you better define you decision making when met with inspiration?
Margo: My projects tell me what to do. I believe artists (and this includes writers, poets, composers, painters, illustrators, etc.) have to step back and let the art tell them what it wants. My decision-making is more of a diving rod process. The real challenge is to combine higher level creative thinking with the rules and expectations of the discipline. A beautiful story with grammar or spelling errors loses its impact.
Pat: Expressive line is very important to you as demonstrated by your use of it in printmaking and illustration. Does it lead you into your spacial compositions or is there another stimulus?
Margo: I love line. I love the possibilities of line. I also love the illusion of space and form. I do find I have best results when I have some attachment to the subject. For instance, I have an unpublished middle grade novel in which a snow leopard plays a major role. But snow leopards are visually intriguing so I have also been working on lithographs with snow leopards as the subject. I’d say subject comes first.
Pat: Do some of your concepts overlap? For example, might the subject of a poem for adults appear again in a children’s book?
Margo: Yes, see the previous question. But not always. My mind is a very strange mix of compartmentalized ideas. Sometimes they migrate around. Sometimes not. Again, I let them tell me what they want.
Pat: You recently had work exhibited at The Hanoi Contemporary Arts Center as part of an international cooperation. You spoke then about how the lack of free speech in Viet Nam forces the artists to hide meanings and messages in their art. Does your art, particularly your artist books, ever have a conscious message?
Margo: My work was on exhibit through the Indochina Arts Partnership, an organization that has created an exchange program between Vietnamese and American artists. You can read about them here. http://indochinaartspartnership.org
Any exhibit in Vietnam has to be approved by the ministry of culture. We are fortunate to be in a country with free speech. Even so, I rarely do political art. My focus is on what is good in the world – beauty, truth, joy. The snow leopard art showcases their beauty, but it also references their status as endangered. My one obviously political piece, a painting called “22 July 2007,” a protest of the murder of mountain gorillas, has disturbing imagery. This has gotten into a couple of exhibits including “Endangered,” at Art Basel Miami, where it won third prize in the gallery where it was on exhibit.
My artist books are more personal, often about family. One of my favorites, shaped like the Great Pyramid at Giza, contains copies of my father’s journal when he visited Egypt in 1931.
Pat: I was particularly interested in the “Shoulder to Shoulder” initiative that you instituted between Vietnamese artists and students from Lasell College, and how it offers students an opportunity to learn about social justice. Can you speak a little to this, and has social justice been a part of your own artistic message?
Margo: I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to go with students to Vietnam through the college’s cultural education Shoulder-to-Shoulder program. In 2015, we worked at a drop-in center for street kids. Of course, you don’t have to go to Vietnam to see homelessness, but we had a very intimate experience to take home as well as an insider view of Vietnamese culture. This has certainly colored my creative output. Vietnam is a beautiful country with a rich tradition of art and folktales. I am currently working on a picture book of ca dao poetry, translated by my colleague Professor Anh Tran. The roots of the poetry go back nearly 3000 years.
Pat: Teaching has been an important part of your life. From personal experience I know that though it can consume much of one’s own creative time, it also feeds it. How do you deal with this balancing act?
Margo: I am really fortunate to have a professorship at a college that values academic freedom. Yes, it does take time away from my own creative work, but the creative freedom has allowed me to grow and experiment in such a way that the learning/teaching has become a circular process. Plus my colleagues include some really fabulous and accomplished artists, humanitarians, writers, and activists and I have learned so much from them.
Pat: You have been a stalwart organizer of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in New England for many years. Does this kind of outreach continue to energize you?
Margo: Oh, I have been a member of NESCBWI since before 1985. I have grown up with them. It is one of the most generous, welcoming, and professional organizations I have ever belonged to (and I have belonged to a number of them). I have made lifelong friends through it and all of my publishing credits have been though networking and information from SCBWI. I have nothing but gratitude for the opportunities they have provided me.
Pat: Do you ever think in terms of cutting down on any of your endeavors or of concentrating all of your time on one or two areas of expression? Is it too soon to make such an assessment and decision?
Margo: Yes, I think of it all the time. Maybe I will. Soon. Maybe. Frank Lloyd Wright’s most productive decade was between ages 80 and 90, so I apparently have awhile before I hit my stride.