This is a tale of the spooky and mysterious, houses that haunt their inhabitants, monsters that stalk us from the periphery of our nightmares, and an illustrator who has a lot of fun.
Byron Eggenschwiler draws—and is drawn to—art that summons those uncanny sensations. “I love that eerie, spine-tingling [feeling],” he tells me from his Calgary, Alberta, home studio. In his images, he likes to develop scenes that might seem mundane but contain “something that’s a little bit off,” as he describes, whether it’s a wallpaper hand grabbing a child in his personal work This House Is Haunted or his illustration for Alberta Views magazine featuring a figure curled on a bed, a seagull on his head, as his house sinks into the sea.
As a child, Eggenschwiler always found time to draw. He’d explored the idea of eventually making syndicated comics like Calvin and Hobbes or going into animation, inspired by Batman: The Animated Series. As he entered high school, his attention shifted more towards skateboarding, deck graphics and the ads in skateboard magazines. “I thought that was the coolest job in the world,” he says. “But after high school, I had no idea. I just knew I wanted to draw.”
Knowing that he wanted to go into a creative career but not which one, Eggenschwiler attended Grande Prairie Regional College in northwest Alberta for a program that encompassed many of his interests. “It was a bit of a shotgun-blast course,” he explains, noting that its disciplines included all kinds of drawing, design and animation. “I really had no idea where I would fit in, so it was nice to try all of that stuff. [For example,] I realized animation was a lot of detailed work—and maybe not for me.”
Comics also seemed daunting, so Eggenschwiler initially decided to try his hand at design and applied to the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD)—now known as Alberta University of the Arts—back in Calgary. “I learned that design was probably not for me either,” he says. “I wasn’t really into laying out pages of type.” But what did appeal to him was a career in illustration, the existence of which he discovered through ACAD. “Editorial illustration stuck out to me,” he remembers, “and doing book covers, too, but editorial seemed like a good gateway [to] making money drawing pictures.”
Editorial work, for Eggenschwiler, heightened his ability to develop visual narratives in imagery. Reflecting on a weekly job he held for a Calgary Herald Friday insert—“just a little booklet with what was going on around Calgary,” he explains—he recalls how it helped him figure out “what the heck I liked to do and even how to do [it], how to interpret stories into an image,” he says.
For example, editorial assignments that involved fiction attracted him, a good outlet for the themes he likes to explore in his work. “I enjoyed doing some [film review illustrations for] The New Yorker,” Eggenschwiler says. “You have to fly quickly, come up with something and go with it.” For The New Yorker’s review of filmmaker David Lowery’s movie A Ghost Story, he portrays the two main characters—the sheeted ghost and his still-living wife—with the ghost’s sheet appearing fragmented through a staircase’s banister, hinting at the film’s recursive narrative.
With his penchant for interpreting fiction, Eggenschwiler naturally entered the arena of book illustration. One of his first book assignments, Coyote Tales for publisher Groundwood Books, presented two collections of First Nations fables interpreted by writer Thomas King—with a cover and numerous black-and-white interior illustrations. “It’d been many, many years [since] I’d done any black-and-white sort of stuff, so jumping into that … was kind of scary but also a fun change of pace,” Eggenschwiler recalls. But the subject material was “right up my alley,” as he says. “I love any sort of fable-like stuff—creatures, running around scheming and scamming with each other.”
Groundwood summarily approached Eggenschwiler to work on Operatic, a graphic novel with writer Kyo Maclear. The comic, which follows middle schooler Charlie Noguchi as she explores her identity through the music of Maria Callas, seemed out of his wheelhouse, but he felt compelled to take it on. “I was terrified because, you know, drawing the same figure more than once seems daunting—still does,” Eggenschwiler says. “[But] I knew, like: ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it.’ And getting through it, it opened up a new part of [me] that I didn’t know I was capable of. Books [offer] a nice, finished product at the end of it: something you can hold in your hands.”
From there, Eggenschwiler continued to get more commissions to illustrate children’s books, and that’s what he mainly works on today. “It’s not something I was focused on doing or set out to do,” he admits, “but I’ve been enjoying doing that for the past couple of years. Especially with the pandemic, it’s kept me busy.”
In Strangest Thing in the Sea, a 2021 book he illustrated from Kids Can Press, Eggenschwiler had carte blanche to interpret author Rachel Poliquin’s text, where she describes the attributes of different sea creatures. “The conceit of it is [two images]: a wild representation of the text, and then readers fold through to reveal the second image [of] the real sea creature,” Eggenschwiler explains. “It was cool to pull from my other stuff and make a wild, experimental [book]. Kind of editorial, in a way. The book was made for an illustrator to just have fun with.”
When I talk to Poliquin, it turns out that was exactly what she had in mind. “Strangest Thing in the Sea was the second book I’d done with Kids Can—after Beastly Puzzles—and I just always knew Byron would be the one to illustrate it,” she says. “His style is so strange and surreal with an unconventional beauty—just perfect for illustrating underwater weirdness. Imagining how he would illustrate scenes brought me a lot of delight during the writing.”
“When the wonderfully peculiar concept and manuscript for Strangest Thing in the Sea landed on our desks, we knew we had to bring Byron on for another collaboration with Rachel,” says Olga Kidisevic, senior production editor at Kids Can Press. “His talent for conceptualizing the unusual and seemingly inconceivable while also getting the technical details right is unparalleled.”
Besides his fondness for preternatural themes, what strikes me about Eggenschwiler’s style is its syncretism. Some characters within his work almost appear to have sprung out of a cel from a 1920s rubber hose–style cartoon, and others may have wandered their way in from an impressionistic, Gustaf Tenggren–illustrated children’s book from the ’50s. But all of it feels distinctively connected by Eggenschwiler’s own touch. “It’s been organic,” he notes on his style. “I do have a hard time committing to just one sort of approach or look; especially when doing commercial work for other people, you’ll get different themes and moods. I love cartoony, simple things, and then I love deep, dark, gloomy things. I like to be able to play in all those different sandboxes and push what I can do.”
While Eggenschwiler finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly where his style began, he hints to me of one possible origin: in his personal work, he likes to cultivate a sense of mystery, as though the viewer has stumbled across an illustration that only gives them a glimpse of a larger story—much like a dream that goads us into interpreting its meaning. “I like to evoke the feeling of flipping through an old storybook, seeing the picture and having to make up your own mind on what the heck it’s about,” Eggenschwiler says. “You don’t know what happened before and you don’t know what happens after, but maybe there’s enough clues to conjure a narrative.”
One apt example of this is Eggenschwiler’s mysterious illustration titled The Other Side of the Mirror, which portrays a young girl standing in the corner of a house, her face obscured by a hand mirror with its reflective side pointed towards the viewer. In front of her, an egg lies cracked on the floor. “Doing illustrations like that is fun because I start with an idea and then [delight in] how it evolves, especially [when] adding some of those elements,” Eggenschwiler says. “The egg was a later addition because I was feeling, ‘Maybe one more little clue…’ I didn’t want to give away too much—I didn’t want to tell too much of a story—but I also didn’t want to tell too little.”
Other hallmarks that define Eggenschwiler’s portfolio include adding textures and employing limited color palettes, inspired by his forays into screen printing with a Yudu machine—a personal screen printer that produces eleven-by-fourteen-inch prints. “I started playing around with that and doing a couple two-color prints,” he says. “For The Other Side of the Mirror, that’s only two colors, so in theory you can screen print it more easily. I like those limitations; I really like that look of how far you can get with having the restriction of only two colors.”
For textural elements, Eggenschwiler likes to incorporate painted textures or occasionally ink rollers to add depth to his images. “It’s almost like I’m looking for my work to have a certain richness,” he explains. “I always set off to keep things simple, because I really like flat, blocky things, like Paul Rand—I wish I could do that. But when I get in there and add textures, to me, it comes a bit more alive.” It’s easy to see this depth in the hazy, ink-rolled background of his illustration for a Vancouver Magazine musing on where the city’s crows migrate to in the evening, or in the painterly, crumbling finish of his cover for author Riel Nason’s book The Little Ghost Who Was A Quilt.
Samantha Swenson, executive editor at Tundra Book Group, had been following Eggenschwiler for some time before contracting him for The Little Ghost. “I love his aesthetic, particularly in his uncanny otherworldly pieces,” she says. “When Riel’s charming manuscript came along, it seemed perfect [for Byron], who could certainly capture the spookiness of a ghost world and the story’s melancholy. But his art can also be lovely and sweet, which we needed for this character.”
Upon seeing Eggenschwiler’s illustrations for The Little Ghost, Nason couldn’t imagine a more perfect artist to complement her writing. “The vintage feel, limited color palette, and the perfect amount of whimsy, humor and detail that he incorporated were exactly what the story needed,” she says. “Also, the little ghost himself—the emotion that Byron managed to bring to the main character that had lived in my head for so long was wonderful.”
For now, Eggenschwiler enjoys working in children’s books—and at the time of writing, he’s working on two more simultaneously. “Typically, I get moodier and darker stuff, so it’s been fun to pull that into the children’s book world and find a sweet spot,” he says. “It’s a different way of thinking for a different audience.” But no matter where he goes, Eggenschwiler aims to bring his sensibilities and style into all kinds of work, spellbinding us with the depth of his imagination. ca