Drawing on experience
Tai Snaith didn’t always envisage herself as an illustrator.
Despite a keen childhood interest in painting and drawing, she directed her talents elsewhere after leaving school.
“I applied for quite a few courses and was accepted into everything except painting and drawing,” she recalls.
“So instead I studied sculpture at the Victorian College of the Arts.”
Ten years after graduating, Ms Snaith has developed a versatile career. With a portfolio ranging across formats and sizes, she has become one of Melbourne’s most widely exhibited artists.
Earlier this year, a new chapter began with entry into the children’s book market. It was a venture she originally found unsettling, needing persuasion from a publisher who had previously exposed her illustrations to a wide market.
“I had always thought I would love to do a children’s book, but never properly acted on the idea,” Ms Snaith says.
The publisher (Thames and Hudson) drew inspiration from its extensive Street/Studio: the Place of Street Art in Melbourne – a book featuring Ms Snaith as one of 10 up-and-coming Melbourne artists.
With interests in painting, sculpting, drawing and installation art, Ms Snaith’s versatility made her an obvious contributor.
“I was displayed on about ten pages of Street/Studio, which had a really good response,” she says.
“The publisher wanted to follow up on the positive feedback I had received as a contributing artist and asked me to put forward an idea for a kids’ book.”
Ms Snaith originally reacted with reticence to the idea, which focused on Australian animals.
“I was a bit put off by that at first, as I had not previously enjoyed drawing Australian animals.”
She soon became convinced however of the project’s merits.
“I then began to think of a way that I would like to draw Australian animals – one which would be of interest to me and others.”
The result was The Family Hour in Australia, a 36-page book placing 15 Australian animals into an anthropomorphic environment.
Ms Snaith believes her comfort with drawing and human expression developed during a 2009 artist’s residency in Japan.
“I did a residency in Tokyo through the Australia Council, where I was given a studio apartment for three months. It was a tiny area, meaning I had to focus on small drawings and collage,” she says.
“So I created this body of work that made me have faith in two-dimensional art.”
Much of that work focused on animism, which was a pre-existing interest.
“I was fascinated with the animist cultural background, which is inherent in Japanese philosophy and religion, particularly Shinto and certain elements of Buddhism.
“I became captivated by that cross-over between people, animals and objects. I think anthropomorphic stories are very interesting.”
Her interest in story-telling was also influenced by motherhood, with her son, Leo, born in 2010. Ms Snaith’s voracious reading appetite alerted her to the limitations of existing children’s books.
“I was reading almost 40 books a day to my son and quickly realised that a lot of the illustrated books are either ‘dumbed-down’ or simply not very interesting,” she says.
“So when creating The Family Hour, I wanted to provide something deeper.”
While humour and fun were important, Ms Snaith wanted an educational element to emerge.
“I wanted to portray some of the more unusual or little-known Australian animals, such as the Gouldian Finch, Tasmanian Devil and the Weedy Sea-Dragon,” she says.
“I did a lot of research on those species, and found unique facts about them that I could extrapolate and illustrate in a way that would interest kids.”
The Family Hour consequently succeeds in providing both entertainment and an educational resource for older children.
“The younger kids get the entertainment and the images, while the facts in the book mean that the seven-year-olds can do a project based on that reading,” Ms Snaith says.
A diverse skillset means Ms Snaith can call on a range of mentors. Her larger painting and sculptural work is regularly exhibited throughout Victoria, with the Helen Gory Galerie representing her in Melbourne. (The Galerie has held two solo exhibitions, with a third one planned for March 2013).
Alongside her busy career and motherhood, Ms Snaith also juggles community responsibilities. Understanding the struggles of younger artists, she has dedicated her time to working with West Space, a Melbourne-based artists’ organisation whose Bourke Street premises provides a non-profit gallery for upcoming artists.
“It’s a really beautiful gallery space, which attracts a very high-calibre of emerging and cutting-edge visual artists,” she says.
A broadcaster on Richard Watts’ ‘SmartArts’ on Triple R, Ms Snaith is keenly aware of the talent that exhibits on the Melbourne art scene. Crucially, it is a scene that constantly refreshes and informs her ideas.
“I feel like I’m in a place that is at the heart of ideas. That gives you dynamism, which is crucial to producing good art,” she says.