For years, Karen Blessen sought work illustrating children’s books.
But it was the most serious work of her 30-year career — about African women dealing with HIV and AIDS — that got her the job illustrating British filmmaker Jeremy Gilley’s children’s book “Peace One Day: The Making of World Peace Day.”
After an art director at G.P. Putnam’s Sons saw the Africaseries, the publisher decided to take illustrations for “Peace One Day” in a new direction, Blessen says.
“Africapropelled me in a different direction in what I do as an artist. … It changed me and it changed my work,” she says.
Blessen, a neighborhood resident, says she initially thought the new look of her illustrations would have little commercial appeal.
“But exactly the opposite is true,” she says. “I found that if you do soulful work and engage people, people will respond.”
In 1999, Gilley set out to enact a global, United Nations-sanctioned ceasefire, nonviolence and peace day. The film “Peace One Day” documented Gilley’s travels and meetings that led to the U.N.’s 2001 declaration of Sept. 21 as the annual celebration of the International Day of Peace.
The “Peace One Day” book describes Gilley’s efforts and encourages children to make commitments to peace. Peace One Day is also the name the organization Gilley formed to support his effort.
Blessen’s art is collage-style, with pencil drawings, words, photos and textures scanned separately into a computer. The layers are then assembled into a single digital image. The overlapping elements suggest a sense of place, Blessen says.
“I want to evoke not just the person’s face but also their location and something about their life,” she says. “I’m hoping to create images that stick with people.”
For “Peace One Day,” Blessen combined “screen grabs” of images from Gilley’s film with her own drawings and quotes from the book and film. She created 23 images, each one spread across two pages of the book.
“Each spread carries an emotional message in my mind,” Blessen says.
Blessen has spent most of her career as a freelance illustrator, but while working at the Dallas Morning News, she was the first graphic artist to win a Pulitzer Prize. She has done commercial work for numerous clients, including Times Square Business Improvement District in New York. She also is working on the art and design for a new Dallas Area Rapid Transit station.
But Blessen, a member of the HIV/AIDS Advisory Committee of the international relief organization Save the Children, calls “Peace One Day” a “dream-come-true-type of project.”
“It’s not your typical children’s book at all. There’s some tough imagery, and I commend the publisher for taking the risk,” she says.
“I so admire what Jeremy has done. … I’d love to do another book with him. I think he and I are of the same spirit.”
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