Author inspired by 64-year-old teddy

ARTIST AT WORK: Children's book author and illustrator, Gavin Bishop.
ARTIST AT WORK: Children's book author and illustrator, Gavin Bishop.

Award-winning children's book author and illustrator Gavin Bishop tells BECK ELEVEN that swallowing a teddy bear's eye inspired his latest book. Sort of.

Most kids love a packet of brightly-coloured pencils and a pad but Gavin Bishop wasn't most kids. He wanted to be an artist. Today he is one of the country's most cherished children's book illustrators and writers so it is fair to say he achieved that dream. Not bad for a kid who didn't actually know what being an artist meant.

"I was tall for my age so all everybody said was 'are you going to be a policeman?'

A SOLID, LITTLE FELLOW: Gavin Bishop's 64-year-old bear.
A SOLID, LITTLE FELLOW: Gavin Bishop's 64-year-old bear.

"I never was. I was always going to be an artist but I doubt I'd ever really seen a painting on a wall. Maybe I'd seen a reproduction of something like Scottish cattle or the pictures on a calendar. Back then everyone got free calendars."

Bishop, 68, has just released a hardback book called Teddy One-Eye, it's the autobiography of a teddy bear filled with lovely insights into New Zealand culture and history. The teddy belongs to a boy but has spent vast periods of time tucked away in cupboards only being able to hear the stories of the family he belongs to.

The idea came to mind when Bishop uncovered his real-life childhood teddy bear in a cupboard.

That bear is now 64 years old, has virtually no fur left and wears the scars of cotton stitching and patch-up jobs but he's a solid little fellow. When Bishop takes it to classroom readings, younger children take one look at it and say 'ooh yuck!'

As the book's title explains, the teddy has only one good eye. The other is a stitched-on black button.

As a child, Bishop had actually swallowed one of his teddy's eyes. He told his grandmother what he'd done. She only warned: "You'll most likely die."

He didn't.

Anyway, the book is loosely based on Bishop's childhood, growing up in the south of New Zealand.

Teddy One-Eye is the latest of about 60 books illustrated or written by Bishop. He has collaborated with the likes of Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy, and won plenty of awards. Last year he received an Order of New Zealand Merit.

However, he wasn't an overnight success. In fact, it took almost 30 years of teaching art before he was able to make the leap and become a fulltime illustrator and writer.

Bishop was born in Invercargill in 1946. His family shifted to Kingston at the age of 3 when his father got a job working on the railroads. The town pub was the only place with electricity and school was tiny with a roll call of 12. He remembers the teacher having to light a pot belly stove for heat.

"By morning tea time it was usually warm enough to take your jacket and gloves off," he says.

Young Bishop's favourite part of the school day was afternoon readings during which the teacher would serialise books like Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio. Each reading unlocked a new part of the adventure.

Life took him to study fine arts with a master's in painting at Canterbury University where he met Vivien (they've been married for 48 years). They both went to teachers' college and were employed at Christchurch schools soon afterward.

"I loved spending time with the kids and enjoyed their company," he says.

"But I thought teaching would be temporary because I was really an artist."

His favourite age for teaching children is around the 7 or 8-year mark when they stop believing everything adults feed them.

"They're starting to get in on the joke. They're no longer gullible. They are nobody's fool and have a tremendous sense of humour."

He may have thought teaching art was a temporary job but he didn't leave the profession for 30 years, 20 at Linwood High School and 10 at Christ's College. In 1998, he successfully applied for a Creative New Zealand grant allowing him to work for eight months on an illustrated version of The House that Jack Built. It won children's book of the year in 2000.

"That gave me the confidence to go fulltime. So I took my superannuation early and that gave us enough to pay the bills but we've been living more or less off my income since that grant.

"We hear about those success stories like J K Rowling but that's really unusual. I don't understand Harry Potter, there's nothing that's fresh about it but it did turn a lot of reluctant children into readers which is great but it's not an easy industry.

"We, as a country, don't value the things that should be valued the most - artists, musicians, writers. They are our voice.

"We admire sports people and of course that is fine but who, in 200 years' time, will remember who the current All Blacks are, or John Key?

"Some historians might but they won't be the real part of the fabric of the country. What will be remembered are our best writers and musicians. Will people know about the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Janet Frame or Margaret Mahy? I bet your boots they will."

Bishop and Vivien, have lived in the same house on Cashmere hill since 1969.

Like many Cantabrians, there was time out for earthquake repairs. And again, like many Cantabrians, they are discovering that repairs take longer than expected so are living in one part of the house while workers bring the rest of the villa back to life.

They garden in fits and starts - currently he is trialling a "hugelkultur" style of growing vegetables. They love travelling. In 1999 Vivien went to Napier for a worldwide Art Deco congress. She enjoyed it so much she insisted they both go to another one. Now they meet up with people from the congress every two years, seeing art, architectural design, fashion, music and dance influenced by the art deco movement. It's not that they have a rabid interest in art deco but have grown to love catching up with the people and visiting places such as Eritrea, Tulsa in Oklahoma, Chicago, Quebec, Rio and Cuba.

They have three daughters and three much-loved grandchildren.

"We're seeing different family traits and attributes in the grandkids that Vivien and I definitely do not have. The other day Zoe said something like 'can we go home and do fractions?' We can't relate to that!"

His studio is filled with pots of paint and brushes. There are shelves of books but he tries not to analyse his own material too hard.

"Otherwise you'll think yourself out of something. You just have to jump in the deep end and go for broke.

"I do a lot of fluffing around before starting. I'm a great believer in the sub- conscious and I let my sub-conscious do a lot of work for me. I can interrupt by going for a walk or to the gym or supermarket but when I'm working, I come into the studio from 8.30am to 5pm or 6pm. Routine is vital.

"With illustration you have to get the story right. The book is the story. If the story isn't working, illustration can't save it. Once that's right, you can expand the story with the pictures."

His most successful book is a re- working of The Three Little Pigs, translated into Maori, French and Spanish. It has sold "hundreds of thousands" of copies but, he says, the contract is such that it brings in ever-reducing royalties. Even with an agent in America, picking up a contract for his books is tough.

"People don't realise how much we reflect our own culture and country. It's only when we go elsewhere we see how different we are."

For example, the old woman in his book Rats was deemed too ugly for the American market.

His next project is well underway with storyboarding almost complete. It's a sequel to the successful Quaky Cat book written by Diana Noonan for which the pair donated their time and royalties. It doesn't have a title yet but this time the cat is concerned about the other cats that don't have a home.

So it is still full steam ahead for Bishop. He can't see retirement quite yet.

"I'll give up when I lose me faculties," he says. Right now, those faculties are all present and correct.

The Press