Friday, March 28, 2014

Kate Sessions, The Tree Lady - an artist's perspective

March 28 - Today's post provided by Jill McElmurry

When I first received the manuscript for The Tree Lady written by Joseph H.  Hopkins, three things grabbed my attention: the rhythm of the language, the way the author used variations of the phrase "But Kate did." to punctuate each page, and the trees. Besides illustrating books, I paint plants, landscapes, and trees. I was eager to illustrate this well written manuscript about an independent woman and her love of trees.  (

Kate Sessions loved science as a girl and was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science.  To start, I  put a rough sketch of Kate in among this group of boys. I use Photoshop  for all phases of illustration except for the finished art which I paint using gouache on watercolor paper. A dominant theme of the book is that Kate didn't let accepted norms keep her from pursuing her interests.

The online photo archive of the San Diego History Center was a valuable resource. It made researching Kate Sessions and Balboa Park fun and interesting. The early photos of San Diego were surprising: it was a desert when Kate first arrived from the North. (

The cover: The art that became the cover was done for the third spread in the book. The cover image was originally going to be the portrait of Kate as a girl that is now hiding under the paper cover. Andrea (Welch) and Allyn (Johnston) of Beach Lane Books loved the third spread and thought it would make a good cover. It worked out well. Kate grew up in Northern California with redwoods, sequoias, and all those wonderful Northern California coastal trees. I tried to figure out a way to capture the majesty of the trees and her relationship to them. "Trees seemed to Kate like giant umbrellas that sheltered her and the animals, birds, and plants that lived in the forest."

Editors' Note:
In addition to providing us with the above piece, Jill was kind enough to answer a few questions from Lisa, of Shelf-employed.

Lisa:  Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is your first nonfiction picture book. 

Jill:  I illustrated Who Stole Mona Lisa? (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2010) written by Ruthie Knapp. That was my first. I loved working on that book and it gave me a taste for nonfiction. Now, after The Tree Lady, I'm in love with the process. 

Lisa:  Did you approach this book differently than previous ones? 

Jill:  My main objective was to capture the feel and spirit of the time, place, and person; not to be literal about absolutely everything. I referred to photos from the San Diego History Center for settings in San Diego and the buildings of Balboa Park. The paintings of early San Diego aren't exact, except for the Russ School, where Kate taught when she first arrived. I researched the trees she found, which was great fun - all those crazy plant forms! I was also delighted to hear from author Joseph Hopkins that San Diego historian, Nancy Carol Carter, picked out John Charles Olmsted from the illustration of the city fathers as they designed the Panama California Exposition. So, there are exact people, places, and things sprinkled throughout the illustrations. Although, Kate herself isn't an exact likeness. 

Lisa:  Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility or constraint because the book is true?

Jill:  Somewhat. I worry sometimes that I'll leave something out or get something wrong. I saw Brian Floca speak about the research he did for Locomotive. Wow. He was inspiring. Someday I'd like to give that amount of time and energy to researching my subject. 

Lisa:  Did you think of yourself as an important part in the preservation and dissemination of "women's history?"

Jill:  No, I don't think of myself that way, but I do think of The Tree Lady that way. I also hope it inspires some girls (and boys!) to think independently and be brave in their pursuits. 

Lisa:  In my way of thinking, you were lucky that there were photographs of your subject.  

Jill:  Yes, I was! Thank you, San Diego History Center. I need to send them a letter and an autographed copy of the book.  (NOTE: I subsequently sent them a letter and autographed copy of the book.)

Lisa:  What do you feel was the role of painters, sculptors and other artists in the pre-photography era? 

Jill:  I'm sure they were critical, but as a non-historian I'd have to do some research before I could give a useful answer. :)

Lisa:  Which do you believe is more important - to portray a subject as she actually looks, or to convey more of a sense of who she is?

Jill:  In this case, the latter. There are times when it would matter more to me that the person looks right. I wouldn't want to give Abraham Lincoln red hair and freckles. When I illustrated the Mona Lisa book I was concerned about having to paint the iconic painting over and over again. Intimidating...but I got over it. It shows up about 50 times in the book.  

Lisa:  Thank you so much for joining us at KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month! It's been a pleasure.  My review of The Tree Lady is linked here at Jill's request.  I'm glad she liked the review.  I loved the book!

Jill McElmurry was born in Los Angeles, CA into a family of artists and musicians and grew up in LA, Santa Barbara, and Taos, NM.  She studied art for a couple of years at SUNY Purchase and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Before fulfilling her lifelong dream of creating picture books, Jill illustrated magazines, book covers, and posters in the United States and Germany. She's had several pieces shown at the NY Society of Illustrators. She, her partner, and their dog, Harry, divide their time between a small island in northern Minnesota and New Mexico. When she's not working on books, she paints pictures, mostly landscapes. 


  1. I shared this book and the short video with a group of adults from Easter Seals today. They really enoyed it! How I miss San Diego!

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