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Jemmy Button

Separated by land, sea and language, illustrators Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali collaborate on the historical tale

by Graham Hiemstra
on 25 March 2013

As the incredible true story goes, in the mid-1800s the HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy, landed in Tierra del Fuego on the coast of Patagonia. After one of his boats was stolen Fitzroy reportedly took a group of hostages including a boy he paid for with a mother of pearl button. He renamed the boy Jemmy Button and took him back to England to be "educated and civilized." There Jemmy encountered a brief period of celebrity before returning to his home in the jungle just one year later.

While the story is centuries old, a recent rendition of the uncanny tale takes the vague history into brilliant color thanks to an inspiring collaboration between American illustrator Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali of Italy. Available tomorrow, 26 March from Candlewick Press, the 48-page book appeals to art and design enthusiasts of all ages. Much like that of Jemmy Button, the story behind the book is deeply rooted in cultural barriers and unexpected adventures.

Jen-Uman-sketch-Jemmy-Button-3.jpg Jemmy-Button-2.jpg

In 2009 Uman, then based in NYC, happened upon an illustration by Vidali through a friend. Deeply moved by the image, Uman felt compelled to reach out to Vidali and introduce herself. The initial email revealed two things: neither spoke the other's language, and they both adored each other's work. So from there the two began a longstanding correspondence by way of Google Translate. Although separated by land, sea and language, the two grew close and Vidali decided to travel to the US for the first time to meet Uman in person. On the eve of his visit he wrote Uman one last time, mentioning the tale of Jemmy Button and how it hadn't left his mind since the moment they first made contact.


Uman didn't know the story, but grew intrigued when she began to research, recognizing what she felt were parallels to her relationship with Vidali. Like Jemmy, in making the trip to America Vidali embarked on an unknown adventure—presenting a contrast to Uman's preference for the familiar. The two overcame language and culture barriers to work together, and immediately decided they had to collaborate on a project to illustrate the story that seemed to connect them.


"We really exploded when we came together to storyboard," says Uman. "We had so much fuel from the travel and how we met to being working together in foreign lands. We often worked together without talking because we hadn't a grasp on each other's language until close to the end." Sharing complementary styles, the two worked as one mind. "Everything we did we sat side by side and worked together. We'd start with a blank piece of paper and just go. I'd start on one side of the paper and he'd start on the other, then we'd switch and complete each other's work."


Whereas Uman's style is what she describes as "primitive" and heavy handed, Vidali's is more mathematic and precise, with a conscious eye for symmetry. By working shoulder to shoulder Uman tried her hand at collage, an area she had never explored before. Uman explains, "the things he was comfortable doing I wanted to do, and the things I was comfortable doing he wanted to do." As a result, the variations in style came together beautifully, blending into a single cohesive body of work.

Dropping tomorrow, 26 March 2013, Jemmy Button is now available directly from Candlewick Press for $17. For a closer look into Uman and Vidali's creative process see a handful of early sketches and mid-process paintings in the slideshow.

Book images by Graham Hiemstra, all other material courtesy of Jennifer Uman

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