Meet Eleni Debo
There’s something in the illustrations of Eleni Debo that’s spritely and full of energy. The Belgian illustrator, who put pen to paper for pages of our recent release Shoplifter!, spoke to us ahead of the book’s release about her roots, her humor, and her peaceful life in the mountains of Italy. Read on below, or check out Shoplifter! for an overview of contemporary retail architecture and a a dose of Debo’s wistful drawings.
How did you start your career as an illustrator? Was it something that you’ve always known you wanted to do, or something you found as you moved through life?
I guess I always knew I wanted to tell stories. The first thing I did when I was six and had just learned how to write, was to write a book and illustrate it. Of course, the book itself was very basic and terribly written. And the illustrations—well, to call them scribbles would be a compliment. But still, as a child I had somehow already realized how special it was to have the ability to not only imagine a story, but to be able to memorialize it in a way so that other people could enjoy it too. Writing and drawing remained a hobby, and when I finished secondary education, I decided to enroll in the LUCA School of Arts in Ghent, where I eventually got my Master’s degree in Art and Illustration. When I was finally confident my portfolio was good enough, I started sending them to publishers, institutes and editors, but the end only one person replied to my portfolio: the art director of Belgian newspaper De Morgen, and it was probably the best thing that could happen to me. Even though it was stressful work, I enjoyed working in that rush of creativity. Everything sort of took off from there. One year later I was working as a full time illustrator with international clients—something I could have never imagined happening so quickly.
What is life in the Italian mountains like?
So far, it’s great. Previously I had lived in the city, and I had come to miss experiencing nature and the seasons. Don’t get me wrong, I love the liveliness of the city, going to the market, getting a coffee in our favorite café before starting work, and being surrounded by creative people, but I started feeling somewhat claustrophobic: working long hours in my studio, looking outside the window into narrow streets that didn’t invite any sunlight in. As both my boyfriend and I work from home, we realized that as long as there was internet, we could live wherever we want. Now I live in a small mountain village near Trento. The smell of fresh air and the view of the mountain peaks and the valley below are mindbogglingly wholesome, and there’s also the amazing mix between the Italian and Austrian cuisine. The wine is produced in the vineyards around us, and each valley has its own range of local delicacies, like cheeses, liquors and dried meat. Whenever I get stuck on a project, I take a walk in the forest behind our village, or have a small aperitivo on my balcony overlooking the valley to clear my head. It’s the perfect environment to cope with the stress of deadlines and the insecurities that come along with creative practice.
Where do you find inspiration for your projects?
I don’t often look for inspiration for projects specifically. But I tend to be a sponge when it comes to inspiration in general: I’m fascinated by things like pottery, woodworking, and textiles. Architecture is another one of my inspirations, and I am very interested in the way space relates to our feeling of intimacy—my ongoing project the art of hiding originated from this fascination specifically. Ofcourse there is also the work of other illustrators, painters and artists that inspire me. I love the illustrations of Olle Eksel, Tove Jansson or Lorenzo Mattotti. I admire the incredibly atmospheric drawings of Marc Nagtzaam or the playful sculptures of Alexander Calder. And, finally, there are also contemporary artists and illustrators like Leonie Bos, Zebu or Icinori whose works are pushing the boundaries of my apprehension of what illustration can be.
There’s something quite funny in many of your pieces—what is the role of humor in your illustrations?
Actually, it never really occurred to me that my illustrations are funny. I suppose putting funny or quirky elements into my illustrations is something I do to avoid the image to be too heavy or too serious. Not that I don’t think it’s important to be serious, but sometimes adding humor will make your image more inviting to look at, which in turn helps to deliver the message of whatever it is you wanted to express. Humor and lightheartedness have alway been a vehicle to deliver hard to swallow messages. I suppose that’s why courts used to have jesters, and why comedians are often the ones discussing the taboo topics. For my editorial work, I’m often confronted with topics that are dry, or frustrating, or downright sad, and sometimes a lighthearted detail can make the difference in getting the message across. In my other work, I guess I also just enjoy adding the occasional quirky element in there for myself. It keeps me invested in the piece, adding a funny detail and wondering if people will notice.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world on a project, who would you chose?
That’s a difficult one. There’s a lot of people I look up to, but I wouldn’t know how a collaboration with me could possibly take form. Of course, it would be a dream come true if I could one day work for the New York Times, which illustrator wouldn’t like that? Getting to work more on animation seems pretty neat to me as well. And I’d be absolutely thrilled to one day get the chance to do a large mural or design a rug. So I guess if anyone reading this either works with the NYT, or has an animation studio, a big wall, or a rug-making company, hit me up!
If you weren’t an illustrator, what would your dream job be?
I’ve always been interested in a great many things. Writer would be an obvious choice, but I’m not confident that I would be any good at it. I also love all things textile, and during my studies I worked for 5 years teaching wool felting techniques at the museum for industrial archeology and textiles in Ghent. I certainly wouldn’t mind setting up a textile atelier here in the Alps and creating beautiful fabrics with locally-sourced wool. I also fancy myself to be a good cook, and would enjoy pursuing something in that direction. Shepherd or forest ranger on the other hand seems like the ultimate no-stress job; we’ve met people here in Italy that took up the occupation of forest guard and truffle hunter. Can you imagine taking your dog for a lovely walk in the woods, digging up some truffles as you go along, and getting paid to do so? Then again, that’s probably what a lot of people say about my job as as well: sitting here in my studio in Italy, mucking about with some paint and paper all day, and actually getting paid doing it. Reality is perhaps not quite that rosy, but still, I’m very grateful to be able to continue to do so.