One of my most enduring creative relationships was as in-house illustrator & creative consultant for music education publishers Bushfire Press. Bushfire Press are a passionate team of ex-music teachers / musicians, who began writing & publishing Performing Arts resources for primary & secondary schools in the late 80s. My work for them has included a wide range of music teaching resources, most notably the award-winning series Music Room – initially published as 7 books and accompanying CD-ROMs, and later adapted to interactive digital whiteboard format.
One of the team, Rob Fairbairn, had helped promote my cartoon workshops into Melbourne schools during the 90s through his Complete Arts Company, and we’d established a creative friendship over the years. In 2000 Rob introduced me to the rest of the Bushfire team to see if I’d like to illustrate a new music book project they were hatching for schools, called the Great Southern Songbook. It was an exciting project, containing original songs from the Asia-Pacific region accompanied by cross-arts extension activities, and supporting CDs recorded by the Bushfire team.
The Great Southern Songbook (2001 / 2002)
The Southern Songbook songs covered a range of themes, from Book Week to cultural diversity & reconciliation, Australia’s federation and International Year of the Volunteer. Activities ranged from visual arts & crafts, creative writing, dance & more. Rob Fairbairn composed many of the songs in the books as well as sourcing material from other songwriters & cultures. A great collaborator, Rob also workshopped a couple of pieces with schoolkids & co-wrote a piece with indigenous performer Wayne Thorpe.
Illustrating these books was a fantastic process that included designing icons and diagrams as well as cartoon art. I had to work closely with the Bushfire team at every stage, to ensure that my drawings were clear in their communication, particularly where they needed to teach something very specific, eg a bushdance pattern.
I’ve illustrated for Bushfire Press for over a decade now, and have created thousands of cartoons, icons, diagrams & charts for their educational material. As a teacher myself, and a communicator who likes things to be precise, I’ve tried to refine my art to make the information as clear as possible for the teachers at the other end.
Start Singing Action Songs / Start Singing and Dancing (2004)
After the Great Southern Songbooks (and my move from Melbourne to Tasmania), the Bushfire team needed a less intensive project, which emerged in the form of a couple of fun resources for lower primary teachers, Start Singing Action Songs and Start Singing and Dancing. The songs & dances were mostly familiar childhood standards like Comin’ Round The Mountain and Farmer In The Dell, and the cartoon illustrations were both diagramatical and entertaining, expressive enough to breathe fresh life into the standards while keeping the information clear. The books were accompanied by CDs with lively renditions of the songs by the Paradiddle Band aka the Bushfire Press boys, who you will see pictured at the end of this slide show (from the books’ back cover).
Music Room series (2005 – 2011)
The MUSIC ROOM series was the biggest illustration project I’ve been involved in yet. A total of seven books, each containing a full school year’s worth of lesson plans for each primary grade level. Bushfire’s aim was to create a resource that any classroom teacher, musical or not, can easily implement. Book 7 in the series won Best Primary Teaching Resource
at the Australian Educational Publishing Awards in 2012, and rightly so, as the amount of research, consultation, planning, structuring, creating, editing, cross-referencing, triple-checking and plate-spinning invested by the Bushfire team is phenomenal.
The deliberately “commercial” style of the cartoons – simple bold lines, cute characters, bright colours – belies a lot of deeper thinking and problem-solving around how to clearly communicate very specific information in concise but expressive symbols, while remaining engaging and fun. The multitude of icons, charts & diagrams in the books required design solutions that constantly had teachers in mind.
Any work I do is inseparable from my own life processes, and I really value work that involves collaboration and building relationships. This project deepened my personal friendships with the Bushfire team, and was an anchoring element in my own shaky life trajectory for over a decade – my move to Tasmania in 2001 with no money or sense of identity, my subsequent reinventing of myself on Bruny Island, the birth of two babies & renovating a house, a difficult family breakdown, deep clinical depression while recovering from a nervous breakdown / and the usual ongoing struggles to create a basic income as a self-employed artist. There were times when drawing happy sunny children was utterly at odds with what I was feeling in myself, but the consistency of the characters, the working formulas, provided some degree of stability amidst chaos.
Often working on the illustrations provided a focus where I had none, or acted as a meditative tonic. The Bushfire team allowed me plenty of creative freedom, and encouraged a touch of friendly irreverence, in developing the illustrations. They trusted my skills and my process completely, knowing full well that in doing so they would get the best from me. Throughout the drawings are private references to friends and family, various in-jokes and a shared passion for encouraging creative thinking in children.
Dance Room (2008 – 2009)
While the MUSIC ROOM books were finding success in schools, Bushfire collaborated with Dance teacher Barbara Snook to create a similar style of teacher resource called DANCE ROOM. As with MUSIC ROOM, the DANCE ROOM books were a developmental program of sequential lesson plans that Lower Primary teachers could use to teach the elements of dance.
Building on illustrative cues I’d developed throughout the MUSIC ROOM and DANCE ROOM series, this book of traditional folk dances from around the world uses diagrammatical cartoons to clearly communicate dance steps. The group illustrations, showing the children demonstrating the steps in a circle, were particularly challenging because of the character style (big head / little body / short limbs / sausage fingers) eg heads obscuring other kids in the circle etc.
We’re Orff! series
In recent years, Bushfire Press have been collaborating with music educators Tamara O’Brien and Mark Carthew to produce a fantastic series of resources that ‘demystify’ the Orff approach to music education for the classroom. I mainly provided the cover illustrations and a handful of illustrations inside. I particularly like that the Orff approach deconstructs music learning into its most core elements, in much the same way I do with my thINK approach to teaching drawing.