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"The Dream Garden": an interview with Maike Neuendorff

Landscape architect Maike Neuendorff is also a gifted illustrator. Her book, “The Dream Garden,” was a finalist for the 2019 Silent Book Contest Gianni De Conno Award and was published in Italy by Carthusia (Milan) in 2020. Told entirely through its illustrations, "The Dream Garden" perfectly marries Maike’s profession with her passion. Today we are going to talk to Maike about her process and inspiration for the making of "The Dream Garden" and see what she’ll be working on next.

Maike Neuendorff, The Dream Garden, Carthusia, 2020

S: Maike, how did you arrive the idea of The Dream Garden and the illustrations for it? Is this a project you’ve had in mind for a while or was it inspired by the Silent Book Contest in Bologna, Italy, where your original - and at that time unpublished - work was shown for the first time?

M: The idea for the book slowly evolved during my time at Camberwell College of Arts in London, where I studied for a Master Degree in Illustration. I have always loved gardens and I enjoy the beauty of plants and nature. The very first inspiration came from a cat flap in a door of a garden in a nearby street – what secret could be behind this door? Also I was intrigued by watching my children interacting with the living world, with plants, insects, water. The way children lose themselves in a moment of observation. Initially the book had a few lines of text on each page, but the pictures were there first. It was the main project I worked on during the MA course. When I heard about the Silent Book Contest I decided it might be worth submitting the book. A few amendments were necessary: I changed the format/dimensions to the requested double square and amended the composition of a few pages, got rid of the text and refined the drawings of the children. I think all the changes made for entering the Silent Book Contest were vital for the final result – so it was a combination of both: A longstanding idea meeting the Silent Book Contest.

S: I think that maybe the first thing that immediately strikes the reader is the explosive energy and “joie de vivre” in the illustrations. But as we look more carefully, we uncover these small details that sometimes pop up again throughout the story. Are there any secrets that might be hiding in this garden?

M: This is an interesting question. When I showed the illustrations to my old neighbour friend in London (before even entering the SBC), she looked at them and said: ‘There’s nothing dark in there…’. I thought about this line for a little while and then totally agreed: ‘No, there’s not!’ I realized at that very moment, that I had created some sort of unspoiled paradise, something to long for and to escape to when your real life isn’t as pleasant for whatever reason. A strong and positive dream filled with the beauty of colours and shapes of plants and animals. The book offers the reader the chance to lose oneself in the richness of this garden, just like the two children and their cat.

Regarding the little details – it was important to me to create pages packed with details to make the book interesting to look at for both children and adults. There are many little things to discover and all these tiny elements can start having a story of their own. That’s the wonderful thing of a Silent Book – you can start inventing your own stories with the visual elements you are given.

S: How did illustration become a creative outlet for you? What led you to this form of art rather than another?

M: That’s a tricky one… I have always had a love for picture books and I have a great admiration for the creators of good books. I think the dream to create illustrations and books has been there for a long time but change in life often isn’t easy to accomplish. And I also had to find my confidence.

Working as a landscape architect means responding to assignments of either visual or technical nature. So I never considered myself an ‘artist’ or someone who is creative for the sake of creativity itself. I always needed a reason, a task or a problem to solve to get my creativity started. As illustration is closer to the ‘applied’ arts and mainly is born from an assignment or project this felt familiar to me. Also I just enjoy drawing and developing images further on the computer. This probably has to do with my many years as a landscape architect as well.

S: Could you tell us about how you first became a landscape architect, and then an illustrator? How did that transition happen?

M: From a very early age I enjoyed drawing and painting. Equally I was interested in anything nature, in plants and animals and ecosystems etc – and I still am today! After finishing school I considered studying graphic design, however, in the end I opted for landscape architecture. Growing up in the 70ies and 80ies in a family with a strong environmental awareness I had the belief that my profession needed to be ‘meaningful’ and ‘green’. I thought landscape architecture was the perfect combination of creativity and ‘saving the world’. The profession has a somewhat romantic reputation (because the built results often are beautiful and romantic), but the process to get there often is not – it is about technical details, costs and legal provisions. So over the years I realized that my creativity came slightly short. I wanted to work more freely. After working as an employed landscape architect in different companies for many years there came this break in my carrier when my sons were born. I started to work freelance and focused mainly on hand drawings and perspectives to illustrate landscape architectural designs for clients and competitions. I enjoyed creating these drawings more than following the whole process of building new outdoor spaces.

Handing in my application at Camberwell College of Arts and getting accepted to the MA Illustration Course may seem a very natural step. But to me it felt like a very big one and a huge challenge. Luckily it turned out incredibly fulfilling and rewarding and started the process of finding my new self as an illustrator.

S: Do you think that planning landscape design and planning out ideas and images for an illustrated book come from the same source in your creative mind? I’m thinking specifically about the freedom you have to visualize something that isn’t fully formed at its inception - the way you watch and wait for things to grow and develop and complete the process, whether that be a garden or a book project.

M: Yes, I think that all the ideas come from the same source in my mind. The many things we see and learn and do over the years all feed into our creative memory and wait to be released when the right moment is there. The Dream Garden looks the way it does because of my background as a landscape architect. As a landscape architect I have developed a good sense for spaces which is reflected in the book: there are a variety of different places and I like playing around with the size and the perspective – something you can also do in a garden. Also it was important to me to pay attention to particular plant and animal species. That’s down to my scientific background in botany and zoology etc. Also working as a landscape architect has taught me a structured approach to a project – this definitely helps when it comes to creating a book.

Maike Neuendorff, The Dream Garden, Carthusia, 2020

S: Technically speaking, how do you plan out your illustrations? Do you have any specific techniques or processes that you follow, either in the planning phase or in the creation of your work?

M: It starts with an initial idea, a picture in my head and with a small sketch. The book started with some sort of storyboard, showing each page in miniature. In the next step the drawings grow bigger up to A3 size. I do not use the computer for drawing, everything I create is done on paper. However, at a later point I enjoy assembling and moving around the elements on the screen. It’s some sort of digital collage. Funny enough during the whole process the illustrations start to have a life of there own and the result usually looks much different to what I had in mind initially.

Maike Neuendorff

S: I understand you have a garden in Germany, where you are currently living. What’s your ideal garden? Are there any plants that you absolutely must have? If you could have anything you wanted in your garden, what would it be?

M: The ideal garden in my mind has definitely been shaped during my time in England. The gardens there are utterly beautiful, my favorite one is probably ‘Great Dixter’. I love the combination of architectural and natural elements, clipped hedges and formal shapes contrasting with the abundance and natural richness of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. The garden has different themed ‘rooms’ and you can slowly move around between them. It’s heaven. My real garden here in Germany is far from this ideal garden in my mind but it’s such a pleasure to have. We live in a terraced house built in 1970 and I quite like the style of it. It reminds me of my childhood. The garden is work in progress. Luckily the garden already had some nice elements to it so there is something to start from. But it will be a long way to go – gardens need time to grow and the gardener needs patience. There is a huge Clematis montana climbing up to the balcony and a massive Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ with beautiful flowers. This spring I have planted many new perennials and grasses and bulbs and now I am excited to see everything grow. Also I am obsessed with pot plants. In one corner I have created a vegetable patch, mainly for fun and for the children – we are waiting to harvest strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, onions etc. There is also a corner with herbs. The must haves in my flower beds are grasses and thistles for their unique shape, also I love Verbena bonariensis. I would love to have a fig tree in a pot. My biggest dream would be a big greenhouse with many exotic plants in it (which will never happen because of lack of space and budget). The Palm House at Kew Gardens in London is one of my favorite places in the world.

S: Do you think you’ll continue to create more Dream Gardens, in your illustrations and books and in real life?

M: That would be absolutely wonderful. The subject definitely will appeal to me for the rest of my life. If possible I would like to focus more on illustrations and books than on real gardens (apart from my own). I hope that the Dream Garden will be the spark for more book projects. Also I really enjoy creating botanical patterns and other nature themed illustrations, so we will see…

S: Do you have any new ideas for your next illustration projects that you might want to share with us?

M: My husband is a newspaper journalist, so he is good at writing. We keep talking about creating a book together. We are playing around with ideas. We would love the book to be fictional but also educational. I think this could become a really exciting collaboration – it would be amazing to find a publisher for it.

Testo di Silvia Paccassoni, traduzione in inglese di Christine Di Staola per Dorature. Storie di illustrazione - 2021


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