Studio visit: Teresa Sdralevich
“I came to Brussels and found myself. So why would I go back to Italy?” Teresa Sdralevich says with a look that leaves us in no doubt that it was a rhetorical question. A poster-designer and illustrator, she came to our capital about twenty years ago after studying political sciences in Bologna. “And after a six-month internship at L’École des Loisirs in Paris. An amazing time during which I learned a lot about the formal aspects of (children’s) books, such as the font, sufficient blank space, lay-out, etc. These are all elements that can support the story. While at L’École des Loisirs, I also met illustrators who studied in Brussels and spoke very highly of the courses here.” And so Sdralevich regularly took the Eurolines bus – “the train or aeroplane were too expensive!” – and eventually, she registered at the ERG, the École de Recherche Graphique, and took an extra year at La Cambre. “But the ball only really started rolling when I was given the opportunity to do my internship with the graphic designer Jean-Christophe Geluck. I kept working there half-time, and in the meantime, commissions were increasingly coming in from Italy: illustrations for children’s books, but mostly posters, logos, book covers…an enormous number of book covers, including for scientific publications about international politics, economics, ecology, etc. Illustration was my first love, but I gradually also discovered the pleasure of graphic design. I’m still somewhere in between the two, I think.”
In 2004, Sdralevich found a beautiful house in Molenbeek where she lives with her husband and children, and which also has a large outbuilding perfectly suited to being a studio. Sdralevich turned the ground floor into a screen printing workshop, and moved her actual design studio into the second floor. “I only discovered the technique of screen printing later on, in evening classes, and it was a revelation. It allows me to print my own posters, which usually have a limited print run of about 50 copies, 70 by 100 cm. Incidentally, I share the space with other designers and artists. Apart from the fact that it is such a powerful technique, I like the artisanal aspect. You work with your hands, but your mind is free. It gives you the opportunity to think about other projects while printing, to let ideas ripen. And with every new printing process, you learn something new about the technical side of things.” There are two impressive printing tables and screen frames of all sizes in the space, with leftovers from Sdralevich’s numerous posters. “The strange thing is that this type of technique has been completely forgotten in Italy: etching, screen printing, lithography, etc. They teach boring, theoretical classes about them, but the practice has almost completely disappeared, or is exorbitantly expensive. Another reason to stay here.” [Laughs]
The design studio itself, upstairs, exudes rest and clarity: a high ceiling, wooden beams, lots of daylight, a mezzanine. Many books too, but mostly neatly arranged in large bookcases. “No, I am not an untidy person, I can’t work in clutter. Although I did tidy up especially before you came. It was a little bit dusty,” she laughs. Strikingly, there is no computer anywhere. “Oh, there is, on the mezzanine, but I almost never work on the computer. Look, these are the things I need to work.” She gets out a few simple things: a fountain pen (Hi-Techpoint), a black pen that leaves a rough trace like a mini paintbrush, a utility knife, and a large roll of white paper. “To me, the computer mainly saps time and creativity and gives almost nothing in return,” Sdralevich continues. “I make everything manually first, and if something is bad, I cut that piece out and carry on. I like the unexpected, there always has to be enough leeway for the unpredictable to happen, the unfinished. When I give workshops for students or children, there is never a computer. For example, for the poster stamps for the children’s paper Zazie, I went back to working with the Letraset© manual typesetting.” [Laughs]
For Sdralevich, the greatest satisfaction lies in the moment she rips a piece of paper from her roll and sets her ideas going. “Towards the end, when doing the finishing touches, it all becomes much more technical,” she says. “That is also an interesting phase, but of a very different sort. I really prefer that moment when everything is still completely open and you’re left with nothing but your own ideas.” To spark off that process, her own studio is of crucial importance. “Yes, I need to be alone. I still draw anywhere I can, on the train, on the underground, when looking at people etc. But that’s all preparatory work so to speak. The actual creative part happens here, and by now I wouldn’t be able to do it anywhere else. I need to be surrounded by my books, my music etc. There are people who can work on their laptops anywhere they want, but I just can’t. I would like to be able to, but it would require twice the amount of focus. And I think that goes for a lot of people: sometimes I think having your own studio has become sort of an obsession here in Brussels.” [Laughs]
Teresa Sdralevich does not consider herself an artist, but rather an interpreter. “I do have my own ideas I would like to give shape, but usually I wait for a client to commission something and then I try to express an idea or theme visually.” Her list of clients includes organisations like the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, Rood!, the Queen Fabiola Hospital, and the Anima Festival. It strikes us that her work often has an explicitly social character. “The posters I make are my way of reacting to certain social issues. And I hope they point situations out to people, give people insight, or raise awareness. Right now, I would like to do more work for organisations that work on behalf of children or women. I consider ‘women’s rights’ to be a crucial, on-going battle in our society, especially when you look at how much sexism there is everywhere. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Next to that social character, it is also the refined style present in her work, the stylised form almost reduced to just a few lines, that makes Sdralevich’s designs striking. “Less is more,” is the creed that fits her work like a glove. “I don’t really think I have a very distinct or recognisable style, but maybe it has got something like a recurring ‘spirit’. It is precisely that diversity that I find pleasing, because in general, every design requires a different approach. But you’re right in saying I tend to keep my designs simple. I have noticed that other designers tend to display increasingly more elements. I have nothing against that, of course, but it’s not what I stand for, or where my strengths lie. Not to say that working with less elements and reducing designs to a few lines is an easier job. The public, the reader of the image still has to be able to grasp what you are saying, in one way or another. Preferably not at first sight, though, because that would mean that the image is too self-evident and therefore dull. [Laughs] On the other hand, I wouldn’t characterise my designs as being ‘minimal’; the form needs to be rich, layered, and surprising. All the work aimed at refining a design, making it more abstract, shouldn’t result in something cold or austere. You can never lose sight of the human ‘touch’, the heart. At least, that’s what I strive for.” And looking at the many books surrounding Sdralevich in her studio, you understand perfectly what she is aiming at: Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson and so on, they are no small references, and yet, they all understood the art of moving people profoundly without all sorts of tricks.
Which brings us back to her first passion: illustrating books for children and youngsters. Speaking of which: Sdralevich is currently finishing her own highly amusing and slightly surreal children’s book, The Perfect Host’s Handbook, for which she has found a publisher in Italy. “It is supposed to be published in June, but I just can’t decide on the cover,” she laughs. And she adds that she would very much like to develop this work further in the future, including in Belgium. “My crazy, funny side comes out more when I make children’s illustrations. There is a whole set of other things that comes into play, compared to when I’m working on my poster designs: the emotional aspect plays a much bigger role, your own past, not to forget your imagination. My ideal is when I can integrate something of the ungraspable, the surreal, or the absurd in my poster work.” Does she feel that creating work for children is any different than drawing for an adult public? “Well, I think it’s harder, because I tend to become much more demanding when working for kids. These days, I see so many things being published that aren’t good. When you’re creating something for a young audience, it has to stick with them, enrich their world. Through books, children experience things that might help them out in real life. By sympathising with a character they learn to deal with fears, doubts, desires etc. So being an illustrator or a writer gives you great responsibility, a lot more than when you’re working for adults. Which doesn’t mean it always needs to be serious. I do have a great love for nonsense, for playing with language. But you should be allowed to expect more than mere entertainment. Your work should always manifest a certain artistic honesty. Oh well, I’m probably just being my complicated self again, spending too much time thinking about it. [Laughs] That’s why I would love to work with a Belgian editor. To have a sounding board, to be able to work with someone who guides you and helps you through those questions in order to finalize all of those projects on paper.” Let’s hope she may find that person soon.
PUBLICATION: Nononsense. Front Line Drawings (foreword by James Victore), Boldbooks & Ediciones De Ruina, 2012
BOOK PRESENTATION: 20/6, 18.00, Librairie Joli Mai, avenue Paul Dejaerlaan 29, Sint-Gillis/Saint-Gilles
ZAZIE POSTER STAMPS: www.brusselnieuws.be/posterzegel
Photos © Saskia Vanderstichele