“My work is often described as offbeat or quirky,” says illustrator Kevin Hawkes. “But I also have a love for traditional painting.” Indeed, Kevin Hawkes is the rare artist whose work spans the gamut from whimsical fantasy to rich, intricate realism with equally extraordinary results.
“Much of my early childhood was spent traveling in the back of a white Rambler station wagon,” recalls Kevin Hawkes, whose father was an officer in the air force. “We moved all the time. I was always the new kid, always a bit apart.” Like the shipwrecked mariner in Robinson Crusoe, his favorite book, Kevin Hawkes as a boy spent many hours by himself, hiking, exploring, constructing forts and towers, and tracking animals. So when he first read the draft of Paul Fleischman’s Weslandia, the story of a young nonconformist who creates his own backyard civilization, it spoke to him “immediately, on every level.” Drawing on both boyhood memories and his own active imagination, Kevin Hawkes created a lush, mesmerizing environment for Weslandia that earned him the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for “outstanding illustration in a children’s book.”
It was a city landscape that inspired the illustrator when he set to work on the extraordinary Sidewalk Circus, a wordless picture book for which he again teamed up with Weslandia author Paul Fleischman. “As I worked on Sidewalk Circus, I spent a lot of time in Portland, Maine,” the illustrator recalls. “I was amazed by all the things going on in the city, and all the people and things I had never really noticed before. I am grateful to Paul Fleischman for opening my eyes.”
Kevin Hawkes’s collaboration with M. T. Anderson on Handel, Who Knew What He Liked presented the illustrator with a different set of challenges. Initially, he was drawn to the story because it showed “a different side of Handel,” allowing him to picture a composer who was not the “serious, dry kind of guy” he might once have expected, but a fascinating person with “a good deal of humor and a lot of good nature.” But rendering Handel’s surroundings in the depth of detail he aspired to meant extensive research and a lot of painstaking work. “It’s the hardest book I’ve ever illustrated,” Kevin Hawkes says. “I wanted every painting to be like an eighteenth-century painting.” The results are exquisite—from subtly lit indoor scenes to a luminous sunset reflected in water—but still stamped with the artist’s characteristic quirkiness. To capture the interest of young children, for example, he included such elements as a bird’s-eye view of Handel’s opera Rinaldo, in which live birds were released to the rafters, and adding a smoke-breathing dragon onstage. “I tried to make things really come alive,” he says.
When he’s not hard at work in his studio, Kevin Hawkes likes to garden, read, ride his bike, go camping, or craft homemade Christmas gifts with his wife and four children. “Every year we try something different,” he says—from making handmade glass beads to weaving, carpentry, stone-carving, and creating ceramics and mosaics. He lives with his family in Gorham, Maine.