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MadonnaTribe has had the pleasure to meet artist and illustrator Rui Paes who contributed his talent to Lotsa De Casha, the fifth children's book by Madonna. We spoke with Mr Paes about the creative process behind the beautiful Losta illustrations, his background and his future projects, for this revealing exclusive interview. Mr Paes also explains for the first time in detail the concept and meaning of his Madonna portrait, named The Madonna Of The Five Senses. And now... MadonnaTribe meets Rui Paes.


MadonnaTribe: Hi Mr. Paes, welcome to Madonna Tribe, it's a pleasure having you here with us. Madonna's fans had the chance to get in touch with your art thanks to her "Lotsa de Casha" children's book. When did you start the drawing process for Lotsa De Casha?

Rui Paes: Immediately after I was contacted by the publishers it was agreed that I would produce a series of sketches to define and assert different aspects of the various characters. This was a very helpful process inasmuch as it allowed me to establish the levels of interaction of those same characters within their significance in the narrative. I saw them as symbols of very specific concepts that I was more than happy to embrace and convey myself.
From then onwards and having, basically, fallen in love with the story the whole process became quite feverish. I knew the story by heart (having read it over a hundred times) and would go through it in my mind, in bed, every night, peeling off layers and discovering hidden meanings and subtexts. These I tried to bring out in terms of imagery.


It became pretty much a full time job, not by choice but out of pure empathy, and one that I cherished greatly.

MT: "Lotsa de Casha" was your first illustrated book for children. How have you been contacted for the job? Did you happen to submit a portfolio to Callaway and Madonna, and if so, which images did you choose?

RP: The telephone call came soon after having answered an e-mail from the publishers as a consequence of an article published in "The New York Times Magazine" regarding a Singerie I had painted for the entrance hall of a castle in Norway.

Having established that I would honour the secrecy of the project I was then sent the full version of the story and went on to organize a small portfolio of images that would substantiate and broaden the scope of possibilities. I chose images of my mural work, etc., and some of my studio work (which is much darker in feel).
Among the selected images, there was a series of photographs of a velvet tablecloth, commissioned by ‘Colefax and Fowler', which I had painted for one of their clients in Chicago. It was based on the anthropomorphic animals that were part of the French 19th Cent. draughtsman Grandville's cartoons on social criticism. The publishers liked these very much and the idea became a possible starting point to pursue. We both agreed, immediately, that this concept would enhance the fable like quality of the story.

MT: Do you remember which was your first reaction at the idea of Madonna as an author of stories for children? This was a move that surprised even some of her die-hard fans...

RP: I was very cool about it, to be honest.
As well as an extremely professional artist, Madonna is, also, a Mother.
Being a parent, myself, I remember spending many hours throughout my son's childhood, telling him stories that I would invent for him or that we would create together, mostly accompanied by drawings made up on the spot. Sometimes the drawings themselves would be the starting point for the story.

Madonna's work has shaped many people's lives, opening up new horizons and bringing hope of dreams fulfilled to many, and I am sure she takes her motherhood very seriously.


Perhaps she had not only her children in mind, when she decided to pursue the idea of writing and publishing children's stories, but also the possibility of bringing some joy and wonderment to every other child worldwide.

: And what do you think of her style and of the message she carries through her books?

RP: I find the quality of her narrative very close to the one in stories that Oscar Wilde wrote for his own children- very direct and, yet, richly filled with poetic and humane elements that greatly touch vital, sensitive points in values of conduct. There is no predictability in her stories.

Situations are clear and to the point and, yet, they linger in one's mind and heart because they engage the reader at its most intimate level - how we relate to each other, to ourselves and to that which we don't understand - which is, basically, what makes us spiritual beings. These are not stories for prejudiced people, even if those would gain, greatly, by reading them.

MT: How long did it take you to work on the book's illustrations?

: The whole process took the best part of two years with the majority of the final work, the last leg, being concentrated in the final twelve months. I can't recall exactly. I know, however, that I had a daily schedule of 12 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week, uninterruptedly, in those last twelve months. The intensity of the work was such that, for a while, I developed serious back problems. To see to that the publishers, very kindly, offered me an Aeron chair - a life saver - and Madonna, very sweetly, sent me her private masseuse for a shiatsu session that improved things a great deal and restored my well-being enormously.


MT: How is your typical process like? And was working on "Lotsa" somehow different?

RP: When I paint, for the open market or for an exhibition, I like to work from memory which, I find, serves my idiosyncrasies better and allows me greater freedom. Especially when I am working with the human figure. That is not to say that I don't research continuously both before and after I have established the main points of the composition. Because of the set of concerns that occupy my thoughts when I am at my easel, this work turns out to be, as I said before, substantially ‘darker' in feel.
I like symbols, things that, one way or another, operate at a subliminal level - small notes on the notion that we are all part of the same large collective.
The murals I paint try to respect the original trace of the building and add to it by making that space feel more important in terms of architecture. Again, here, research is of the essence. And the ‘animated' elements introduced in the mural scenes have a subtle, understated presence and humour that should not disrupt the whole.
With "Lotsa" the major difference was that, somehow, I had a script. The narrative worked as a guideline for the various compositions but was also very open. This allowed me to introduce a whole series of ‘extras' as small incidental characters that populate the book throughout. These sustain the actions of the main characters, visually, and give a more palpable substance to the different atmospheres.
One of the main elements in most narratives is time. And in this particular story the passage of time, the sense of a journey taking place, is most important. Hence the presence of the Sun and the phases of the Moon in the front and back cover of the book, and in the title page, which reflect not only the succession of days but, also, the changes occurring with "Lotsa" as a human being. I had great fun.


MT: Which kind of feedback and interaction you had with Madonna and the book's publishers during the process?

Madonna is possessed of tremendous visual awareness and I was very lucky that she liked what I proposed. She could see, immediately, the potential of the various sketches I presented and was a constant support with her positive reaction. Her sense of humour and openness were also very important.
When I was designing the interior of the Wise Old Man's house (the Owl), I thought that if he had a wife he should also have a family.
As a child, I remember spending many hours on my own, drawing and painting sprawled on the floor at my parents' house in Africa. So I called Madonna and asked her if she could send me some drawings of her children. I got those and used them in that same scene, in the kitchen of the Wise Old Man, copying them carefully onto those tiny sheets of paper that are spread on the floor of the kitchen, as if they had been made by the Owl's children.
In that same scene, in the kitchen, I introduced a small family of hedgehogs, happily eating bits of bread on the floor. Having spent some time in Italy I was able to learn Italian and the word for ‘hedgehog' is riccio with the plural standing as ricci which sounds like ‘Ritchie' - a little clue to relate to Madonna who was also the inspiration for the image of Mrs. Owl with the bowl of spaghetti.
Until Madonna decided to give me a ring, all contacts were made via the publishers and they were very good in reporting back to me her reactions to my work, which kept me going. They were also quite good in accommodating the breaks in the text that I suggested in order to pace the narrative with the illustrations, what I call the hot points in the story, and in mediating the early contacts with Madonna when we were establishing all the main visual elements and aspects of the story.

MT: Was it harder to paint a main character that is not human?

RP: Not at all. I did try to imbue the different animals' faces with human qualities and emotions. And the fact that those same faces sit on human bodies allowed me to add to their "inner world" a whole set of expressions that hands and body posture also convey. Animals have always been part of my reality both as a child and, now, as an adult. They also take a very important role in my work as a muralist or at my easel, in my studio.


MT: Are some of the animals you used in the book a sort of memory of your childhood days in Mozambique?

RP: Having been born in Africa, the contact with all sorts of different animals was much easier and immediate. Animals have always puzzled me. They seem to have a very firm notion of their reason as living beings. As a child I had quite a few that lived close to me and I remember a sweet little squirrel that I use to carry inside my shirt almost everywhere. But, of all, monkeys were the most intriguing - their hands were so animated and expressive - and when you catch their eye you really expect to hear a little voice telling you something funny or, sometimes, quite profound. I was very lucky to have been able to bring all of this into the book.

: The story of "Lotsa" has a very specific time setting and there's a strong presence of architectural elements from the late Renaissance and early Baroque era. Where did you get your inspiration from? I understand Madonna herself suggested a visit to the beautiful Italian city of Siena, and that you also stayed for a while in Genoa...

RP: The first line in the story is "Long, long ago…" so I had to decide how far back that notion would allow me to go, in order that everything would make sense. Especially when you know that, within the narrative, you will have to travel further back in time, so to speak, when "Lotsa" visits the ancient city.

The choices were between Rome and Siena. In the end, we both agreed, Siena should become that ancient city - Madonna loves it and, I admit, I do, too. It has a very human scale and its sobriety is, nonetheless, laden with great pulsating energy. And the striped buildings, a device reserved for the nobility and the church, are extremely beautiful.

Once the various aspects of the time/space relationship were established I went on into a very fastidious research process. It was vital that a sense of reality should be brought into the construction of the images both for the reader's sake and mine. "Lotsa" had to be so present and well rooted in its surrounds as to have existed in fact.
During the early stages of the book I was living in Genoa in a magnificent palazzo belonging to some friends from where I took greatly as a source of inspiration. It dates back to the 17th Century and it aroused Rubens interest when he first arrived in Italy and drew a whole set of facades of Genoese palaces.
In fact, the painting that "Lotsa" carries in one of the images of the book is actually a Van Dyck that belongs to the collection of the house and that I copied quietly - "La Dama d'Oro" or "The Golden Lady". I was told, then, that the gold used in the exquisite embroidery of her dress would be enough to buy a ship. I still believe it.
And I looked extensively at paintings and drawings of the period.

In the long hours spent at my drawing table I listened to Baroque music, constantly, to insulate myself from the outside (when I was tired I would put some Madonna on, to give me a boost). Also, the work of the Dutch painters who travelled through Italy at the time, making wonderful notes of the landscape and the moods in its light, and the clear prints of Dutch interiors by Rembrandt, were terribly important. The original of the chair that "Lotsa" admires so intently is part of the collection of English furniture at the ‘Victoria and Albert Museum', in London, except that I changed its colour from purple to sunny yellow. I got hold of everything I could, from old auction house catalogues to old prints and pieces of fabric.
The two red hazelnuts tied with a yellow ribbon I picked from my garden, in the country.


MT: Do you have an illustration from "Lotsa" you cherish the most?

In time, the one that has grown on me the most is "Lotsa forlorn".
"Lotsa" stands totally defenceless in his sadness, soon after he was attacked and robbed by the false-beggar monkeys. In the middle of two towers in the distance he is completely taken up with pain and very much alone, apart from the two snails (a symbol of change and renewal) that follow him throughout the narrative and which he never notices. The clouds and the stones cry with him but he doesn't notice that either.
I have sold quite a few of the original watercolours from the book but this one I am keeping for myself.


MT: And is there any that did not end up being used in the book?

: Yes, basically, a couple of them which I chose to replace.
The first title page, which I changed since I found it a bit hard and too decorative.
Also an initial image of "Mr. Forfilla" holding the lantern when he meets "Lotsa" after the mugging. It had his back to the viewer and his profile was in silhouette against the light of the lantern.

It was quite mysterious and "Mr. Forfilla" resembled very much the Minotaur of the ancient Greek myths which was fine but I decided to show him frontally, with a more frank and clear face. That decision also helped the balance of the two pages since opposite him, also facing the viewer, "Lotsa", still crying, gesticulates his determination to ‘work for nobody'.

MT: Mr. Paes, would you say this experience working with Madonna and Callaway has changed something in your career? Which kind of feedback did you get, from a professional point of view?

RP: It did bring my work to the attention of a much broader audience.
The book was published in around 110 countries and, all going well, it will be cherished by the children who own it and the future generations after them.
I went from being an artist known by a select group of collectors to become a much more reachable one.
And that circumstance did, also, renew the interest in my work in general.

But working with Madonna can also be a double edged sword - there are people who still don't understand her dimension as an artist - and I felt, at times, that I was being looked at with suspicion, especially by the contemporary art world clique, or it could be just plain jealousy.

: We have heard that you completed a portrait of Madonna in the style of the book's illustrations that wasn't used in the end. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes, "The Madonna of the Five Senses", an oil on canvas which is now part of Madonna' art collection.
It portrays Madonna wearing a 17th Century shepherdess straw hat, lined in purple silk and ornate with poppies (a symbol of love), wheat husks (for bread) and a pheasant tail feather (for openness). This same hat was sported by "Lotsa" in one of the images in the book.
She holds a partly peeled pomegranate in one hand (for Fertility) signifying the sense of Taste.
Her other hand holds one of the vervet monkeys from the "Facts", in the story, signifying the sense of Touch.
Grappling on Madonna's back, the second monkey from the "Facts" holds a pink English rose in one hand and a small round mirror in the other hand. Trough its wrist a small golden bell hanging from a blue ribbon, signifying the sense of Hearing.
The first monkey's face (the one held by Madonna) looks through the mirror, straight into the viewers eyes, signifying the sense of Sight.
Coming from the lower left side corner, a "blue" greyhound's head ("Lotsa") sniffs the rose on Madonna's shoulder, signifying the sense of Smell.
She also wears a red ribbon on her left wrist (for the Kabbalah) from which hangs a small golden disc with the Latin inscription "Musica docet Amore" which translates roughly as "Music teaches Love".
In order to do the portrait I was sent around over 60 or 80 photographs of Madonna. From those I selected a dozen that I used as a base to building her portrait. I decided not to do a straight copy of one of the photographs as I find that rather dull.
And I chose to paint her in natural colours, without any make-up as such, to try and bring out her inner beauty.


MT: Lotsa de Casha's name was adapted in each country the book was released.
It became for example, Pier de' Soldi in Italy, Pipas de Massa in Portugal and Enrico de Prata in Brazil.
What do you think about this interesting marketing move?

It made absolute sense. It was very important to get an immediate connection between the character's name and the basic personality trait it conveys. A small thing partially lost in most adaptations was the Italianate resonance that the name has in English.
I chose the version of the name that was used for the Portuguese translation. It means, basically, "Barrels of Dough" and is a not an uncommon expression applied when referring to something very expensive - ‘it costs a barrel of dough', or for somebody who has made a lot of money -‘he has made a barrel of dough'.
So far, I have managed to collect 10 different translations of "Lotsa" and it is great fun to say the names aloud in the various languages.

MT: Which are your latest projects, and what is coming next?

RP: At the moment I am illustrating a book for the Portuguese Opera, the "Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos", in Lisbon, also for children and have two other books in the pipeline.
There is also a show of the remaining "Lotsa" originals lined up for the Chipping Norton Theatre, near Oxford, in early May, this year, and another show for 2009, for which I am producing new work.
And I am still wading through the burocracy of implementing the creation of a library in my home town, in Mozambique, where my parents left an important legacy.

MT: Thanks so much Rui, it was very nice to meet you. All the best for everything that's coming next.

The Madonna Tribe team would like to thank Mr. Rui Paes for the chance to share some quality time with our readers.
Special thanks to our friend Axel Potoms for his help and assistance. Illustrations by Rui Paes. Copyright © 2005 by Madonna. All rights reserved. From Lotsa de Casha, published by Callaway Arts & Entertainment.
"The Madonna of the Five Senses" by Rui Paes, courtesy of the author. Photograph of Rui Paes by Rodrigo Cabrita. This interview © 2007 MadonnaTribe.

For more about "Lotsa de Casha" also check our interview with Valeria Raimondi, Editor of Feltrinelli's children's book collection "Kids", about the unique experience of translating these stories by Madonna into the language of her Ciccone ancestors.


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