World artists illustrate Chinese Alice in Wonderland charity edition

Proceeds from sales of Beijing publishing start-up Pickatale's crowdfunded 150th anniversary edition of Lewis Carroll's children's classic will fund children's art lessons in rural Mongolia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 10:27am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 11:59am

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and fans and organisations around the world are marking the occasion with exhibitions, readings, musicals and lectures on Lewis Carroll's tale. Among the more creative efforts is a collaborative book project by Beijing-based start-up Pickatale.

The multimedia publisher, which specialises in interactive tales for children, recruited 150 artists from 42 countries and asked each to create an illustration to accompany different passages for a commemorative edition of the fantasy classic. Aside from celebrating the anniversary, the project, 150Alice, also aims to help fund children's art education in Mongolia.

That's why Pickatale has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise US$50,000 by August 10 to cover the production costs of the book - a hefty tome weighing 2.7kg. Proceeds from sales of the book and related items will go towards running art classes in the small city of Zuunkharaa in Mongolia. The company hopes to produce 1,000 copies to begin with and to print more if there is demand.

Pickatale founder and serial entrepreneur Sigbjorn Dugal, who has frequently travelled to Mongolia since he moved to Beijing 13 years ago, came up with the idea for the charity book project.

"I first visited [Mongolia] in 2002, and it was very clear just how underdeveloped the country was, especially in rural areas. The country is filled with resources and beautiful nature, which was a sharp contrast to the poverty of certain communities," Dugal says.

Children living in the countryside usually lack educational opportunities, Dugal adds, and he figured Pickatale's experience could be put to good use.

"We had developed a vast pool of skills and resources when we started Pickatale [in 2013], especially in the scope of art and design. I had always wanted to do something for children in Mongolia," says Dugal, who also manages a London-based private equity fund.

Pickatale had previously undertaken another charitable book project using a similar arrangement, with 50 artists drawing their interpretations of elephants.

The result did not resonate as much with the potential clientele as Pickatale had hoped, but the team continued to believe in the collaborative format - they just needed a better idea.

"We had to think of something that would match with us and children in Mongolia, so we decided to focus on storytelling," says Pickatale chief operating officer Mark van der Maas.

When he and the team learned of Alice's upcoming anniversary in 2013, they began mapping out the project.

"The story is in the public domain and it's a well-known one, with so many movies, TV shows, games and books, so everyone is familiar with it," says van der Maas. "We wanted to do a cool version of the story."

After dividing the tale into 150 sections, the company began scouting for artists to contribute illustrations to each passage. Leading the research was Thomas Winther-Rasmussen, who as the start-up's chief creative officer regularly liaises with writers and illustrators.

While Pickatale had about 100 artists on its books, dozens more had to be found. The team scoured the web and asked their contacts to spread the word. "Most of the artists are young, not so established, and we gave them the opportunity to present their interpretation of the text. We wanted Alice to look different on every page," Winther-Rasmussen says.

But a few are well known in their own countries, such as Brazilian artist Shiko, who was delighted to be invited to contribute, as was his countryman João Faissal, especially since Alice is one of the latter's favourite books.

"I love how the surrealistic imagination of a creative writer from 1865 is still provoking our minds and creativity. The story itself is so immersive and fantastic that we still have people getting amazed by it," Faissal says.

"It was a crazy challenge [to illustrate my section]. First of all, my work is very versatile and I like to work with a lot of techniques, so I needed to decide how I would translate that page into an image. I love to do collages, so I started to look for surrealistic and intense painters to use pieces of their work. In my work there are pieces from Salvador Dali, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt."

Of the 150 contributors, two come from China: Guan Wei, who is based in Beijing, and Shi Xingwen, who lives in the US.

Shi, too, was very excited to participate as Carroll's tale was her favourite story as a child.

"I remember when I was a seven-year-old, every night before bedtime, my father would tell me part of the tale. The story was so amazing I could not wait for the next day. Alice's story affected me as a young child and still does. It expanded my imagination to make me a better artist," Shi says.

Some artists were assigned to illustrate a specific page because the Pickatale team felt their style best suited the text, but at the same time, they felt it was important that there was no visual consistency. But with about 200 images submitted, the team had difficulty selecting the best ones for the book.

"We went through a few rounds of evaluation where we asked other people's opinions, those who had art knowledge and those who didn't have much, to see what images people liked," says Winther-Rasmussen.

All illustrators were given an honorarium and those whose work made the cut will receive a copy of the book.

Pickatale's Indiegogo fundraising campaign offers funders a range of options, from purchasing a PDF edition (US$25) to packages including an audio book, or a leather-bound, numbered and signed limited edition copy. It has raised more than US$25,800 in the past month, with just over a week to go before the deadline.

Chances of achieving the target of US$50,000 by August 10 look slim, but Pickatale will have the books printed even if it only manages to raise US$30,000. "We think of this project as more of a social enterprise than a charity. We want it to be financially sustainable," van der Maas says. "We're hoping this project will generate awareness and then find a process where we can always print and distribute the book. It's a very beautiful book with a good story, too."

With an estimated one NGO for every 500 people, Mongolia is not short of aid groups. That is why Dugal and his team are focused on developing art education for children.

"To have your basic needs provided for is surviving, but not necessarily living. There are already plenty of organisations that provide basic needs, facilities and education for children. However, it's all still a bleak view," he says.

"It is extremely important for children to have fun, feel loved, play and dream. These are all achievable by allowing them to explore their creativity and see the results of their efforts. That's why we decided art education was important. Even the smallest of efforts can have such an impact on the lives of these children."

Pickatale's goal is to eventually open an art school, but but for now it is funding art classes, which were virtually non-existent in the region. To that end, the publishing house is collaborating with the Independent Research Institute of Mongolia to develop a programme to equip youngsters with knowledge of drawing, graphic design and even traditional woodworking.

"We don't just want to give them the usual academic knowledge, but to make them smile and enjoy what they are doing," says van der Maas. "At the same time, we want them to understand the business side of things, how to market their work, not just creative skills but practical ones to use in life."

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