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A porcelain-faced girl straddles a polka-dotted beast while slaying a pink-eared dragon. A boy reads a book as the walls of his bedroom skew wildly and fish float in the air with less than good intentions. Black birds fly from a girl’s hair as she sits alone in a field.

Welcome to the dream world of illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli.

“I love to play with contradictions inside my drawings,” the artist explains during our transatlantic e-mail chats. “They are like the dark side of a nursery rhyme, whimsical, tough, disturbing—a dream of lovely things with a hint of darkness.”

Quiet and lonely as a child, Ceccoli grew up in sight of the fairytale medieval towers that grace the coat of arms of her country, the Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino. Tiny San Marino, the world’s oldest republic, is an hour and a world away from Italy’s Adriatic coast.

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Ceccoli was raised in the countryside surrounded by her father’s menagerie of hens, rabbits and turtledoves. She worked in her father’s woodshop making toys and objects with her hands. “My father is a craftsman; he is the creative part of my family,” she says.

But it was her mother, a primary school teacher, who sparked the illustrator’s early passion for drawing and books. “Since I can remember, I was always surrounded by beautiful children’s books. I simply never stopped buying them or loving how they smell.”

When time came to choose the direction of her education, she traded the towers of San Marino for a ducal palace in order to attend the Art Institute of Urbino in the nearby Marche region of Italy. “It was incredible to have our classes there,” she says, describing the Palazzo Ducale. “It was a magical castle where time seems to have stopped.” She spent seven years studying in the Renaissance city with her last two years focused on animation for its creative possibilities.

But she never lost interest in books. “I always felt the wish to tell stories with my artwork, to create worlds of my own, to live other lives different and more magical than the real one. I found that picture books for children were the perfect medium for me.”

In 1995, while still a student, her work was chosen for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Show. “It is a show that selects the best in book illustration, published or unpublished worldwide, probably one of the most important in the field,” she explains. After that first trip to Bologna, she got work from US publishers and later acquired an American artist rep. (As a teenager, she was fond of the new wave band, The Cure; she not only knew all of their songs by heart, but learned the exact meaning of every lyric. It is how she learned English.)

My personal pictures express a delicate nostalgia, vanity or fragility, cruelty and beauty simultaneously." —Nicoletta Ceccoli

In her first children’s book commissions, Ceccoli painted in acrylics on paper. Client Kate O'Sullivan, executive editor of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, talks about Ceccoli. “I first worked with Nicoletta when she was working primarily in pastels and acrylics for her picture books. I remember when her glorious paintings arrived in-house, everyone was clamoring to get a peek and hoping that they'd be able to buy a piece. They were absolutely luminous.” The response to the artist’s current mixed-media work for A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts has been no less enthusiastic.

O’Sullivan adds, “Nicoletta’s sense of whimsy and magic is incomparable; her point of view is wholly original and she is a master at transporting us to new worlds. All this, and she’s also a joy to work with (and has great taste in fashion as I found when I finally met her in person)!”

When Ceccoli first started illustrating children’s books, she adapted her dark, surreal style to a lighter, brighter one in order to appeal to publishers, but she never lost interest in the ideas that had originally inspired her in school.

For her, the whole city of Urbino had been an open-air museum—and an inspiration. “All is ancient, timeless,” she recalls. In Urbino she also had her first chance to see Piero della Francesca’s masterpieces in person. “I feel the neat stillness of my personal artwork comes from his influence.”
Her other fascination, and a recurring theme in her work, is with dolls and toys, both collecting them and recreating them in her paintings. She even wrote her graduation thesis on the subject. “I am fascinated by these mysterious, silent creatures and whenever I am in a new town and find there is a toy museum, I never miss visiting. I find toys mysteriously lifeless yet full of lives.”

The book, The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum, published by Schwartz & Wade, a Random House imprint, brings her fascination with places and dolls and toys together. “I see the doll-girl of the book, trapped inside her beautiful toy castle in a toy museum as if she were me. Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped in my illustrations and imaginary worlds. It is a beautiful, safe place to stay away from the real life, away from real people. I am very shy!”

Wade Lee, vice president and publisher of Schwartz & Wade Books, talks about working with Nicoletta. “Like all good picture book illustrators, Nicoletta always did a lot more than just illustrate the text. She created a world that was beautiful, haunting and mysterious beyond what the words described. And she drew characters that were emotional and relatable.

“Here at Schwartz & Wade Books we have a lot of opinions and I shared them all with Nicoletta,” continues Lee. “Even though there was a little bit of a language barrier, she always understood our concerns and she would regularly come back with solutions that took the illustrations and the book to new levels. She is deeply creative, flexible and a joy to work with.”

Ceccoli tries to find a different approach to each book project. “Each story should suggest a style,” she says. She prefers to come up with ideas in advance of knowing a client's vision—and then loves feedback and direction after she's had time to create freely. Even when a client requests a certain style or treatment, she still pushes herself to do something new in the technical execution of the project.

Nicoletta’s sense of whimsy and magic is incomparable; her point of view is wholly original and she is a master at transporting us to new worlds." —Kate O'Sullivan

Today she likes working with digital media (although she’ll never completely give up her brushes and paint). “All can be changed many times during the process, colors, shapes, so I am more open to the surprise when I use digital.” She has been creating illustrations using a combination of clay puppets and digital photography in her books, Oscar and the Mooncats for Houghton MiZin and The Boo Book for Simon & Schuster.

“I did the sketches on paper of all the artwork for approval by the publisher. Then I translated the characters and the settings into Plasticine and painted them. Finally I took photographs of these and assembled and rendered everything in Photoshop, adding shadows, textures and modifying colors.” She continues, “I was not sure about the results, but I wanted to try and see where it would take me.”

She draws inspiration for both her personal work and her commissions from a list of artists that she says “goes on and on”: Remedios Varo, Mark Ryden, Alberto Savinio, René Magritte, M.C. Escher, Hieronymus Bosch.

“Stasys Eidrigevicius is one of my favorite illustrators because of his dark, surreal humor. Binette Schroeder is another children’s book illustrator who has influenced me with her whimsical surrealism. I can continue and continue...”

With a client list that now includes, among others, Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, United Airlines and Mondadori, she talks about what she’s interested in doing next.

“Even though I still love books, in the last few years I’ve wanted to try projects with a more adult target, where I could express myself in a different way.” She is prolific in her personal work and has had gallery shows in the us, Canada and Europe.

“My personal pictures express a delicate nostalgia, vanity or fragility, cruelty and beauty simultaneously. I love especially to portray girls who are kind of my other self, in between childhood and adolescence. Maybe because inside of me, I don’t feel like an adult yet.”

She is looking forward to taking a break from her work for children. “It’s almost seventeen years that I have been dedicated to children’s books and I feel the need to move a little away from there.”

No matter what Ceccoli’s next direction, M.C. Escher will no doubt continue designing her floors and Piero della Francesca painting her walls. Her melancholy doll-girl will stare out at us and continue her solitary search. ca

Bonnie Smetts (bonniesmetts.com) is a designer and writer whose essays on Italian culture, art and artists have appeared in magazines, anthologies, newspaper travel sections and online guides.

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