Bears dance, dogs sing, and hairy girls save the day in the works of illustrator Denise Gallagher. Now, at age 50, she's adding “writer” to her resume, wrapping up work on a middle-grade novel, her first in the genre after a string of illustrated children’s books.
Just six years ago, she was working in advertising, retiring as BBR Creative’s senior art director after 14 years with the company. She’s since made a name for herself as a go-to illustrator, finding collaborators near and far.
Gallagher's first book was a collaboration with folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet and UL Press in 2016. She created illustrations for Jean-le-Chasseur et ses chiens, an adaptation of a Louisiana French folktale about a young man who lives near a forest with his mother and three dogs. Her whimsical style and muted colors of green and red depict Jean, his dogs and the woman who enchants him.
Her own A Tip Tap Tale, also with UL Press, followed in 2017. Geared toward children, this book features BouZou, a singing, guitar-playing houndog that lives in the Louisiana swamp. It was a finalist for the Indie Book Awards in the Children's Picture Book Category.
It was her illustrations for Jean-le-Chasseur that put her work in front of a publisher in Canada. Running the Goat Press, based in Tors Cove, Newfoundland, was looking for someone to illustrate an update of a traditional folktale from that region.
“I made the decision to contact Denise about the book after a publisher from New Brunswick showed me a book that she’d illustrated for her,” says Running the Goat founder Marnie Parsons. “I loved Denise’s work in it and decided to keep her in mind in case a project might arise that would suit her style.”
The tale of Peg Bearskin is unique to Newfoundland and had previously been published in black and white. “I looked at her [Gallagher's] website to get a better sense of the range of her work and was convinced she’d be perfect for the book,” says Parsons. “You can imagine how delighted I was when she read the story and agreed to take on the job of illustrating the book. And how even more delighted I was when I saw her illustrations. She’s been wonderful to work with and has given a whole new look and feel to a story that I dearly love.”
Peg Bearskin is an unusual type of heroine — big, ugly and hairy. Her two beautiful sisters want nothing to do with her, but she follows them into the forest anyway. At dusk, they knock on a witch's door and ask to spend the night. Peg soon realizes they are in danger and saves herself and her sisters before she comes up with a plan to find husbands for them all. Peg may not be beautiful, but she is smart and brave.
Gallagher returns to her signature style for Peg Bearskin — those who have a copy of the 2016 Festival International poster will recognize it — and her earthy green and beet red tones bring Peg, her sisters, the witch and a king to life.
Peg Bearskin first realized Gallagher's desire to branch out from Louisiana themes. But illustration remained at the heart of her creative endeavors, even laying the groundwork for her first middle-grade novel. While waiting for her son to finish a violin camp, she began drawing a 12-year-old boy with a violin and a dancing bear in her always-present sketchbook. What would become Bastien and Berlioz and the Teaspoon materialized two years ago and is still working its way toward publication.
“It's about an orphan boy who lives and works with an unscrupulous traveling magician and snake oil salesman,” Gallagher tells me. “I like stories that have that folktale feel and come together with a ‘wow’ moment at the end. I think illustrations are more immersive for the reader, too, especially as they make the leap from picture books and graphic novels. If I'm reading, I want to lose myself in a world.”
A bit of luck helped her find an agent with Mansion Street Literary Management in New York through a Pitch Madness session on Twitter. An ArtSpark grant from Acadiana Center for the Arts and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority allowed her to hire an editor and put together an exhibit of her work at the Hilliard University Art Museum this summer.
Gallagher is currently in the editing phase for Bastien and Berlioz, with an end of July deadline. After that, her agent in New York will receive the full manuscript, complete with a few of her spot illustrations, and the search for a publisher will be on.
Two of her illustrations from Bastien and Berlioz will be on display at the Hilliard, and she will also read an excerpt from the novel during a July 10 artist talk.
“It took working in advertising and learning about business and years of experience to believe in myself and have the discipline I needed,” she says. “Now I can say I'm an artist, an illustrator and an author.”
"A Teaspoon and a Bit of String: The Illustrations of Denise Gallagher" goes up June 14 at the Hilliard Museum and remains through mid-August. Gallagher will also have an artist talk and read an excerpt from Bastien and Berlioz on July 10 at 6 p.m.