A brush with fame: Gennady Spirin is Madonna’s latest collaborator
Tick. Thud. Goaaaaaaaaaal.
Russian-born Gennady Spirin, children’s book illustrator, sits at his desk in his home studio in Princeton, oblivious to distractions.
Ignore the clock in the corner. Don’t worry about Andrei, his 11-year-old son, playing soccer in the hallway. Forget the Euro 2004 game on TV. With the sun in his face and the canvas in his lap, he paints. And paints. And paints.
“I don’t ever stop working,” he said in stilted English.
Hard work pays off, especially when it attracts the attention of pop icon Madonna.
Spirin, chosen to illustrate her newest children’s book “Yakov and the Seven Thieves“, published by Callaway Arts & Entertainment, has received more praise than the story itself since the book’s June 21 release. USA Today called his illustrations “visually magnificent” and “wonderfully ornate.”
With careful attention to detail, Spirin brings characters like Boris the Barefoot Midget and Stinky Pasha to life in a watercolor depiction of an 18th century European village.
Gennady Spirin, photographed by Nicholas Callaway
Madonna calls “Yakov” “a story about how we all have the ability to unlock the gates of heaven – no matter how unworthy we think we are. For when we go against our selfish natures, we make miracles happen, in our lives and in the lives of others.”
Madonna’s first two books, “The English Roses” and “Mr. Peabody’s Apples,” both debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times children’s picture book best-seller list. According to the publisher, “Yakov” will make its debut on the list Sunday at No. 7.
Its release comes in the middle of a Madonna frenzy. With her “Re-invention” tour under way, she announced she has adopted the Hebrew name Esther.
Even with all the attention Madonna, or the artist formerly known as Madonna, gets, Spirin admits he knew only her name before collaborating on the book.
“Of course, I knew who she was, but I’m not so heavy into pop culture,” Spirin said, speaking through a Russian translator. “I’m older than her core audience, so I never heard her music. Really, my children told me about her, educated me to her styles and tastes. We never even met face-to-face. We’d talk through publisher Nick Callaway, and she’d ask me to make certain changes – although not many changes.”
To go on reading the interview by Laura Dannen, please click on the Full Article link below.
A celebrity in his own right, Spirin has illustrated 34 children’s books and received four gold medals from the Society of Illustrators in New York for his work from 1992-1996. The New York Times has named four of his books -“The Fool and the Fish” (1990), “Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput” (1993), “Kashtanka” (1995) and “The Sea King’s Daughter” (1997) – the best illustrated book of the year.
With no hint of exaggeration, Spirin said, “Since I can remember, I was an artist.”
Born in 1948 in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, a small city outside Moscow, he attended an art primary school until age 10. He continued his education at the Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow, and finished at the Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art. He came to the United States in 1994.
He draws from his classical Russian training, Renaissance artists (“not just the Italian ones”), extensive research and personal experience to illustrate a story.
“I like to travel and have been to most places in Europe,” said Spirin. “For ‘Yakov,’ we decided that it was going to take place in an 18th century European city — nothing specific. The costume, dress, architecture, all the details are characteristic of a European city.”
It’s “all the details”– from the individually painted dogwood blossoms to the tools on Yakov’s work table — that catch a reader’s eye. They stand out amid a palette of rich reds, gold and greens, all in the Baroque style.
“I was able to complete the illustrations unusually quickly,” Spirin said. “There’s a great deal of detail, but it was clear in the very beginning what I was to accomplish. Otherwise, I never know how long it will take. It’s all up to Him.” He pauses to glance skyward.
Crucifixes, illustrations from past stories, and sketches of his family hang on the walls in Spirin’s house. When asked to pick a favorite illustration, Spirin balked.
“It’s really difficult for me to point to one illustration,” he said. “By the time I complete a particular work, after putting so much of myself into it, it’s analogous to a child you bring into the world. Just as I couldn’t say that one of my sons is more important than the other, that’s how I feel about my work.”
Spirin works from home, where his family — wife Raisa and sons Ilya, 27; Gennady, 19, and Andrei — serves as a daily inspiration. In “Philipok,” a Leo Tolstoy story Spirin illustrated in 2000, he used Andrei as the model for the main character.
“I am indeed influenced by my family and my home,” he said. “I love to hear life around me.”
He looks up from his newest project — illustrations for Kate Greenaway’s alphabet book “Apple Pie”– and a smile crosses his face.
“Now, soccer! Soccer is a great influence in my life and work. I’ve played since I was a child, and now I’m involved in Andrei’s soccer league. It helps me relax and sometimes introduces me towards thoughts I might use in illustrations.”
Andrei wanders into the studio. Father and son start soccer-speak in mixed Russian and English — analyzing the results of Andrei’s latest soccer tournament, the match-ups for Euro 2004, how the Madrid squad is “all stars, no team.”
Perhaps Spirin takes breaks from his work after all. With the Croatia-England game about to start, he gently puts the canvas down and scratches his snow-white beard.
“Maybe it’s time for some tea.”
Article by Laura Gadden, The Star-Ledger
Special thanks to Callaway Editions.