Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Creating the Cover Art for Dream of the Antique Dealer's Daughter by Robin Smith-Johnson

A few years ago we got the good news that my poet sister-in-law, Robin Smith-Johnson, was going to have a book published! It would be a collection of her poems. Everyone in my husband’s family is a writer so being published is a goal for all of them. We were very excited and happy that Robin would have her hard work compensated and a dream fulfilled!

I was humbled and honored when Robin approached me to produce the cover art for her book. I am trained in the fine arts of painting, drawing, and printmaking but I make my living now producing mostly small 3-dimensional works. I have done some invitations, brochures, and other graphic design projects over the years but never something like a book jacket. Still, I wanted very much to be a part of this exciting event.

Robin didn't specify what kind of cover she envisioned. She told me the title of her book, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, and I instantly pictured a pencil drawing.  It was Wendell and Moo, Robin’s parents, sitting in front of the antique shop the Smiths ran for years, The Incredible Barn. I imagined myself drawing the scene depicted in an old black and white photo we had in our collection, it depicts the last day of the shop being open and evokes a melancholy feeling. I knew I could produce this drawing and do a good job. I said yes to Robin.

She asked if I wanted to read the title poem. I admit, sheepishly, I was distracted at the time and I said it wasn't necessary, I thought I had all I needed just from the title! Later, I reflected further on the question and realized it was foolish not to read the poem so I emailed her and said of course, yes, please send me the poem.

Well. The title poem is not about the kind of dream I had assumed. It was not “dreamy” and nostalgic. It was powerful, intense, and dark. The dream was more like a nightmare. My heart skidded to a lurching stop. I immediately realized I was completely wrong about the art I had planned to produce. I realized I should read the whole book and start from scratch.

Robin sent me her manuscript. I stayed home, I put soft Brazilian jazz from the 60s on repeat and read all the poems. The collection Robin assembled is a journey through her life. Observations about emotions, life situations, are met with a clear and steady eye. She does not shy from the dark things, she appreciates beauty as well. The two extremes play off each other in many of the poems.

As I read, a new image slowly formed in my mind. And to my dismay, I realized it was emerging in a medium I was not expert in. I knew the cover had to be mixed media collage, I could already see it! I read the poems again and this time I wrote down all the keywords that represented the essence of the book to me. I wanted the artwork to be specific with imagery but also abstract, like the poems, to represent a dream state anchored by real objects.

The next thing I did was research mixed media collage techniques. I looked at tutorials online and downloaded e-books. I talked with textile and mixed media artists in the building where I have my studio. I bought books, I borrowed magazines. I studied.

Then I started collecting materials and images. I borrowed a photo my husband snapped of a mannequin and made that the focus. I printed her on fabric. I had an old atlas with a map of Moldova which I copied and painted a wash over. I scanned a pastel that Wendell had made of the seashore. I used fabrics from my vast stash, including some vintage calicoes from my mother’s collection. I used real sand and shells I had collected on Cape Cod beaches. I added magazine clippings, a drawing of books my mom had made, lace, and more. I assembled the whole collage with acrylic medium on vellum and canvas paper then I drew on it and sewed and embroidered right through the whole thing by hand.

didn't get it right the first time, it took several tries. But I knew when the last shell was glued on that I had echoed, at least for myself, the feeling I had when reading Robin’s powerful poems. I wanted a person picking up Robin’s book to get a feeling from the cover about what was inside, I wanted the cover to evoke an overall feeling that accurately represented the contents. A close reading would reveal the correlation between certain poems, individual lines of poetry, to the various symbols used in the cover image, like a little treasure hunt, a puzzle solved.

Now that it’s published and out in the world I feel nervous and excited. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. I hope I was successful. I want to be worthy of the trust Robin placed in me to create the face with which her book would greet the world. And I hope you pick up a copy of the book, it’s an amazing collection that won’t fail to leave you moved and thinking about life, about both the darkness and the light. 


  1. Liz -- I am thrilled and humbled by the journey you went on to create the cover for my book. It is beautiful, powerful and haunting! Thank you so much for collaborating on this special project. Love, Robin

  2. I love the cover you made. The poems are powerful and beautiful. I am honored to have the watercolor of my little stack of books be part of the cover.

    It was like a treasure hunt finding the elements of the collage in the poems.

  3. What a beautiful piece about your journey, Liz! You have not only created a stunning cover for Robin's book, but you have written a wonderful story to go with it.