Menahem Halberstadt is a children’s book illustrator and fine artist. He recently illustrated A BASKET FULL OF FIGS (Green Bean Books). Written by Ori Elon, the picture book is a retelling of the Midrash about an Emperor’s encounter with an old man who plants a fig tree for future generations. As a child, Menahem loved to draw says he hasn’t stopped since. He mainly illustrates children’s books but for many years has also been illustrating the newspaper “Makor Rishon” where his artwork appears in Shabbat, the magazine for thought and literature. He also does art design for animation. I was able to interview Menahem with the help of a family member who assisted in the translation of Menahem’s Hebrew. Despite the language barrier, it was delightful to learn about Menahem and his work, including his connection to the hit Israeli TV show, Shtisel. Author Ori Elon is the co-creator of the show. I’m delighted to introduce Menahem and share a bit about his process.
What was your creative process like for A BASKET FULL OF FIGS?
I usually start the illustrating process by designing the characters. As always, it is more fun to design the ‘bad guy’, which is why I started by designing the emperor. By a wonderful coincidence, there was a special exhibition about Emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum which includes a beautiful bronze sculpture in his image. I based my design on this reference along with other sources. It was clear that his character had to be threatening at the beginning of the story, but also able to turn into a curious child while he’s meeting the wise old man. Together with the emperor I also designed the horse who seems scary and threatening at the beginning of the story and then becomes a cute character. In the old man design, there were two stages. In the first stage, the character was a little grotesque and not likable enough, so I redesigned it into a more pleasant and smart character.
What materials do you like to use in children’s book illustrations?
When I first started, I was combining hand techniques and digital coloring. Today, like most illustrators, I only work digitally. My goal while working digitally, is to preserve the authentic look of the handwork technique. In this book I wanted to preserve the ‘sketchy’ look, which I have in my sketches but usually, some of it gets lost along the way to the final illustrations. In contrast to many other illustrators, I work in many styles and try different approaches to stay fresh and to challenge myself professionally. Every project brings its special voice.
Did you collaborate with Ori Elon or did you work independently?
I know the story about the old man and the emperor from my childhood, but I was happy to give it my illustrative interpretation. I liked the cooperation with Ori Elon, who I also know from childhood. The unique nature of the Talmudic stories is the special ability of those ancient writers to describe dramatic events in very few words and create a multi-dimensional story with multi-layered ideas. In Ori ’s beautiful text there is great respect for the route and the sources of the story, but there is also a lot of humor and music, which is why it was great working on it.
You are also a fine artist as well as a children’s book illustrator. Is there a difference in the creative process?
I am essentially a fine artist and that’s where I come from. There is, of course, a difference between fine art and a children’s book illustration. The first difference is the audience – the children who will read the book and look at the illustrations. I want to make them laugh, and interest them, which is why I searching the funny and curious child in me. I do have this side in me and I am happy to visit that place so often.
When I deal with fine art I am getting more introspective and allow myself to touch more complicated and personal issues. On the other hand, there is, of course, a similarity and connection between the two – the principals are the same and there is a lot of space for personal expression in children’s books. So far I have only worked as an illustrator, although I have some stories I have written. I hope that soon I will publish some of them as an author-illustrator.
I have heard that your work appears in the show “Shtisel.” Can you tell me a bit about that?
Correct. In the first season of the great series “Shtisel,” I was part of the art team. The main character of the series, Akiva, is an artist at the beginning of his artistic journey and I did all his artworks. There were some notebooks with funny sketches, along with artistic drawings and large oil paintings. Throughout the series Akiva finds himself becoming a ‘ghost painter’. He works for a crook who pretends to be an artist whilst employing other artists to do the work. So, in fact, I was the ‘ghost artist’ of the ‘ghost artist’. It was an exciting experience. Besides my artistic work, I also took part in a few filming days. I drew a few pictures in real-time. You can even see my hand on the screen when there was a need to see the actual work process of the artist’s work. I love cinema and animation very much. Another interesting experience I had (and another collaboration with Ori) was to be part of the screenwriting team for ” The Conductor” TV series, an excellent series, little less known than “Shtisel” since it was only broadcast in Israel.
To learn more about Menahem’s work as a book illustrator and fine artist, please visit his website. https://www.menahemhalberstadt.com/