Some artists include their effort in their finished work, and we value it, in part, because it was hard to do. Some artists ask a lot of their audience, and we value their work because it’s hard to understand. Some – especially in forms, like books for children, that many people dismiss – signal their worth with a gloomy look and a serious manner, like the wan titles that dominate each year’s CBCA shortlist. Other artists bury the effort, and make their work seem easy. They don’t ask to be taken seriously, but rather seek to give pleasure. Ben Wood is one of those.
Ben makes it look so easy that people assume it is, that his work is a kind of play. It is play, but the play of an athlete or dancer, play that only seems to be effortless. As his husband, I have a unique vantage on his process, and I can attest to the months of work that each book costs him, the rounds of rough sketches and finished drawings, the scanning and the finicky watercolours, the hundreds of decisions about how to tell a story in pictures – how to vary the compositions so that the story feels dynamic from page to page, how to distil a complex situation into a single image. It’s especially difficult for an artist with Ben’s restless temperament, who so rarely repeats himself from book to book: he reinvents his style each time out, finds a new way to marry his sensibility to that of the story and its author.
Ben is ten years into his career, and already he has twenty books under his belt. 2018 is an exciting year for him: his picture book Blast Off was released in May, and Real Pigeons Fight Crime, the first title in a new middle grade series, appeared on shelves at the start of July. Real Pigeons especially represents a new level of success for Ben, and we’ve been visiting Kmart and Target and Big W, snapping photos of his new book alongside big sellers like Terry Denton and Aaron Blabey. Just as exciting for Ben is the opportunity both projects offer to access what makes him tick as an artist: his silly, mischievous sense of humour.
Ben has spent the last few years exploring new methods and demonstrating his range. His early titles, like Big Bad Bushranger and Louie the Pirate Chef were done in watercolours and a loose ink line that expressed the wild energy of the bands of Australian animals (the bushranger is a wombat) and pirates in those stories. Ben understands the chaos of play: the escape it provides from children’s structured lives, and their joy in reversals (the boy hero of Louie is the responsible adult; the rest of the pirate crew are whiskery children), in mess and collapsed boundaries. More recently, he’s concentrated on digital illustration, its possibilities for collage especially, so he can combine elements from many different sources. Ben combs old books for paper with interesting marks and textures; he combines painstaking digital linework with quick drawings dashed off in pencil. Much of this work’s energy comes from its assembly, from the interaction between the different elements. It’s a highlight of Blast Off and my favourite of his books, Small and Big. His use of materials is always intelligent. Witness the presence and density of the rough surface of Mars, or the city buildings in Small and Big. Mars is a surface you can walk on, unlike the other, gassier planets; you feel in a visceral way, how the crowded urban environment excites and then overwhelms the visiting Big and Small.
Ben’s often associated with Australian landscapes and animals – from his first book, Give Me A Home Among the Gumtrees, to more recent titles like our collaboration The Wattle Tree, and The Bush Book Club. You can sense his country upbringing in his feeling for browns and greens, and for the quality of light. But recently he’s tackled a range of subjects in very different styles. There’s the urban naturalism of books like Larrikin Lane and the Squishy Taylor series – his Melbourne books – where the children live in recognisable contemporary homes with bunk beds and their artwork on the fridge. The characters are drawn into adventures that are a slightly heightened version of the trouble kids run into. It’s easy to miss the understated skill with which Ben nails the details, like the complicated dynamics of Squishy’s mixed family, with stepsisters who sometimes feel like family and other times like strangers. He’s illustrated a Christmas story (Redcap’s Christmas) in a classic fairy tale format like his beloved The Wizard of Oz, with elves and ice monsters and a beautifully imagined toy workshop. He’s done a non-fiction title about The Flying Doctors, where much of his work was in faithfully representing historical figures like John Flynn and particular models of plane. And now, with Real Pigeons, he’s depicting a team of bird detectives.
When Ben first read Andrew McDonald’s story, he said, “It’s like he saw inside my brain,” and the fusion of their sensibilities is a joy to read. It’s the longest book Ben’s ever worked on – two hundred pages, with illustrations on every page – and every page is packed with puns, non sequiturs, and funny captions. City pigeons are the definitive dirty bird, and the story takes full advantage of their potential for gross-out humour. The detectives hold meetings in garbage bins, and the hero, Rock, a master of disguise, uses all manner of filthy scraps – Band Aids, old socks – to complete his outfits. Like Ben, the pigeons are passionate about food: at the prospect of crumbs, their faces are surrounded by little love hearts, and in my favourite gross-out moment, Frillback (special power: super strength, but only when she’s eaten) wolfs down a sausage in a single gulp. The book is the purest expression yet of Ben’s generous, happy spirit and his love of nonsense, an up from start to finish.