When Leaside resident and children’s illustrator Michael Martchenko is looking for inspiration, all he has to do is look in his own backyard.
“If I need a nice big tree, I just go out back,” quips the award-winning artist, who has collaborated with children’s author Robert Munsch for dozens of books, including classics such as The Paper Bag Princess andThomas’ Snowsuit.
Now the 30-year Leaside resident is lending his talents to offer inspiration and hope to families affected by childhood cancer through a national awareness campaign called Words of Hope.
Martchenko is teaming up with Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue-based charity Childhood Cancer Canada to encourage Canadians to submit words of encouragement for families affected by childhood cancer via the website Wordsofhope.ca.
After April 1, Martchenko will use the submitted words to create a unique piece of art that will be unveiled in May.
Martchenko decided to get involved in the project because it’s a subject close to his heart. He said he’s had family members and friends with cancer, including a few who died from the disease.
“Anytime it’s got something to do with cancer or kids, they’ve got my interest,” Martchenko said. “Cancer is bad enough, but when it happens to a kid, that to me is just unfair.”
The idea behind the project is to inspire families — and especially the children — via a medium that transcends words. Martchenko firmly believes kids often understand art on a level that may surprise people.
“I think kids can often really appreciate art,” he said. “I get a lot of letters from kids saying how great they think my art is, which is kind of neat, that a five or six-year-old kid actually notices artwork.”
In some ways, creating the piece of art will not be a drastic departure from Martchenko’s usual modus operandi. He generally receives a script for a book and converts those words into pictures.
But this time is different. There is no storyline, the words are not necessarily related, and it’s an individual piece of art, not a children’s book.
“These words of hope … how am I going to use them?”
He said he’s not sure if he will use the actual physical typewords in the art piece or if he will merely use them as inspiration.
But he’s looking forward to the change of pace.
“It’s kind of neat, it’s totally different than just sitting here doing 8 by 10 drawings,” he said. “It’s almost scary actually … and it’s a challenge too, because it’s always kind of nice to stretch yourself a little bit and not just stay with the tried and true all the time.”
Martchenko illustrated his first children’s book with Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess, in 1980. Since then, he’s illustrated about 75 books, half with Munsch.
Martchenko was first discovered while working as a creative director at a design company in Toronto. Munsch and an AnnickPress agent spotted a whimsical piece with pigeons decked out in landing gear at a graphic arts exhibition, and asked if he’d be interested in working with Munsch.
It was a match made in Toronto.
“They went ‘Whoa, this is kind of weird, I think this guy might be able to work with Bob, who’s also kind of weird’,” he recalled.
He gradually started receiving more freelance and contractual illustration work, before deciding to commit to children’s books.
“I was doing two jobs for a while, but couldn’t manage both so I went for the fun one,” he said. “Advertising was starting to lose its lustre.”
Martchenko has lived in Leaside nearly as long as he’s been drawing. He said he loves the neighbourhood because everything is close, there’s a strong sense of community, and lots of greenery.
And don’t forget the dogs.
“The dog walking in this neighbourhood is wonderful,” he said. “There are dogs everywhere … I think you have to own a dog now to get into Leaside.”
When he’s not enjoying foliage in his backyard, he has other ways of incorporating Leaside into his work.
For example, when he was illustrating Stephanie’s Ponytail — a story about a girl who shows up to class with outrageous hairdos — he went to Rolph Road Elementary just east of Bayview Avenue to take some pictures.
That wasn’t the only time Leaside appeared in books illustrated by Martchenko.
“Once I did a story with Allen Morgan and it was kind of a time travel thing where a little girl goes back to 1940 Toronto,” he said. “So what I did was use our street, because it was built in 1939.”
But for a children’s illustrator, it’s not hard to tell who may be one of the greatest sources of ideas for Martchenko.
“There are a lot of kids in Leaside, so whenever I’m sitting having a coffee I kind of check out and see what they’re wearing,” he said. “Because some of the combinations they come up with, I can’t do that.”
But he notes one must exercise caution.
“You gotta be careful staring at somebody’s kid, or you’ll look like a weirdo,” he says with a chuckle.
Martchenko said he’s happy to be involved with the project, because in a way, he sees it as a means of giving something back to the children who have provided him and his drawings so much support over the years.
“Bob (Munsch) and I have been successful because kids like our books and buy our books and support us,” Martchenko said. “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t do that much … but the least I can do is support them in any way I can.”