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Author and artist receives literary award


By Cheryl Petten, Birchbark Writer, Ottawa







Ontario Birchbark

Page 13

Award-winning author and illustrator Leo Yerxa has just received another honor, being named this year's recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award in the Children's Literature-Illustration category.

"Through a unique creative process, and with poetic honesty, Leo Yerxa's emotionally powerful images transport us, with the echo of ancient hoof-beats, over the Great Plains," the jury in charge of selecting this year's winning children's book illustration wrote of Yerxa's book, Ancient Thunder. "Using the motif of traditional dress and a rich palette, Yerxa creates compositions that illustrate the mythical connection between horse and humanity."

Yerxa, who was born on the Little Eagle reserve in northwestern Ontario and who now calls Ottawa home, has had a love of creating art ever since he was a child.

"Some of the first things I can remember is painting, drawing, making things. So it just grew out of that," he said.

Yerxa studied graphic arts at Algonquin College in Ottawa and fine arts at the University of Waterloo before turning his attention to illustrating. His artwork can be found gracing the pages of books written by others, and within three books he himself has written. His first book, Last Leaf, First Snowflake to Fall was published in 1993, was filled with Yerxa's art and poetry and earned him the Mr. Christies Book Award and the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Award.

In 1995, Yerxa published his second book, A fish tale: or, the little one that got away.

His latest book, Ancient Thunder, celebrates the wild horses of the Prairies that played an important role in the lives of Aboriginal people in days gone by, while also celebrating man's connection with the natural world.

"I'm trying to, well, of course, tell a story," he said. "But I have a little theme in the books that I sort of write about, a reconnection with nature, like man reconnecting to nature. Because I think that's one of the problems with the world, with the environment, is that people aren't really connected to nature and they lose respect for it rather quickly. And that's why its sort of overly exploited. So anyway, that's a little theme in it. If children get something out of it, I hope its something like that."

Yerxa chose to create children's books for a couple of reasons.

"When I started, my children were little, for one thing. And then the other thing is it's considered an art form, more so in Europe than in North America," he said. "So someday I think that'll catch on more in North America, where the children's books are an art form all by themselves."

Yerxa said he has a formula he follows when it comes to creating his books. First he writes the story, then he puts it away for a long enough time that he still remembers the story he wants to tell, but not the specific words he's used to tell it. That's when the illustrating begins.

"And then after I'm satisfied with the way I'm illustrating it, then I look at the words again and bring them together that way. So I make adjustments to the words or to the pictures, whichever seems necessary."

Only time will tell which of the many projects Yerxa is currently working on will be the next to reach fruition, but with the accolades being showered on Ancient Thunder, it will no doubt be met with eager anticipation.

"I have about ten things going, you know, at various stages of completion," Yerxa said of his ongoing creative process. "So I'll just keep working on them and eventually one of them will be finished."

Each of this year's Governor General's Literary Award winners will receive a cheque for $15,000 and a specially-bound copy of their winning book.

The awards will be presented by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean during a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Dec. 13.