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Q+A: Meet the Artist and Author Behind You Animal

Q+A: Meet the Artist and Author Behind You Animal

by Raven McCutchen

A year ago

Spend time in the studio with artist Becca Barnet and author Kaleigh Hastings—the bad-ass duo behind You Animal—and you will quickly notice three things: 1) These are two insanely talented women; 2) They complement each other perfectly; 3) In most everything they create— from restaurant design to museum installations to their storybook—they’re sharing their passion for protecting and celebrating the natural world. Thanks for sharing a peek into your cool world, Becca and Kaleigh!  

You are friends and work together, which can be tricky. But you seem to have mastered it. What's the secret to your creative synchronicity?

KH: It IS tricky! Part of what makes us such good partners is our very different skill sets - we both love the same things but approach them from very different backgrounds, so we’re both able to bring a lot to the project without feeling competitive. We also have gotten to the point where we treat each other like sisters - we can have disagreements knowing that it won’t affect our relationship. I think it’s really important in a partnership to be able to have hard conversations.

BB: Communication is key! In my opinion, relationships (business or otherwise) don’t work if there isn’t a flow of honest, open communication. Sometimes its as simple as answering a work question as a partner, then answering it again as a friend and clarifying which is which. Sounds crazy but it works for us! 

Where does your fascination with animals and the natural world come from?

BB: My mom had two boys after me so I was left to my own devices at age 5+. She would sit me down with creative supplies or let me explore our neighborhood. I would draw, paint, sculpt anything I saw, making things from natural materials I found outside and things she got for me. My love of animals must be genetic, we grew up rescuing baby squirrels and hurt birds and lost rabbits.  

KH: I’m lucky enough to have parents who are just as obsessed with and fascinated by the natural world as I am! My mother is a very talented gardener (and pre-school teacher!) and my father is an avid outdoorsman and fisherman who studied veterinary science before pivoting over to the computer science field. Between the two of them, I spent most of my childhood outside catching animals, collecting rocks, and studying the world around me.

What do you hope children learn from You Animal?

KH: I want kids to really identify with the animals in the book, and realize that people are just animals too! We’re all in this together, so we should be looking out for other animals, and taking care of them (and their environments). I hope our book sparks an interest in and love of animals that turns today’s children into the environmental advocates of tomorrow.

BB: I hope children connect with You Animal! on a variety of levels. My dream would be that at a very young age, they think it’s colorful and fun to look at. I hope when they start to understand the words, they realize that animals do some pretty amazing things. I hope when they read it again, a little older, they understand that they are just like the animals in the book and feel a deeper connection with them. It’s so important to get kids to take care of the future of our planet by forming a report with its inhabitants early on! 

Which artists or artistic periods do you love and why?

BB:  I’m drawn to art as a function of society, for example, Ancient Egypt’s art and artifacts. It was both religious and necessary to make the most beautiful items that were also very functional. I love the idea of spending time to create an aesthetically pleasing and highly adorned everyday object. Nothing is taken for granted, everything is celebrated.  

KH: I’ve always loved the diagrams and sketches in old explorers’ and naturalists’ notebooks. The crossroads of science and art and nature is so fascinating to me! Like how Audobon or Haeckel wandered around literally just documenting their worlds and the new creatures they came into contact with, and at the time that was so utilitarian, and now their sketches are framed as decoration in people’s homes. It’s like they’re accidental artists.

Which children's book has had the largest impact on you and why? 

KH: We read a lot of books, so I don’t really remember one that specifically had a huge impact. I asked my mom if she could think of any, and the only book she remembers me fixating on was this insane book called “Survival: Could You Be A Squirrel?” It was like a very short choose your own adventure-style picture book where you lived a day in the life of a squirrel, and different decisions sent you to different pages. But the stakes were high! You could actually be killed by a fox or a pine martin or something! There was a whole series of these, but I really loved the squirrel one. I guess it probably had some kind of impact on me, haha!

BB: Emotionally, “The Giving Tree” really wrecked me. It made me think about death, self-preservation, and loss. The illustrations and the message are timeless and poignant. “Where the Wild Things Are” scared and delighted me. I always imagined meeting fairies or creatures in my woodsy backyard, and to see a Max find this island of misfits who were boisterous and loud made me feel some kind of childhood adrenaline I can’t quite compare to anything I’m feeling at this age!  

What's a must-have in your studio space? (i.e. anything from Spotify to natural light to coffee...)

KH: A huge desk or layout space! My workspace usually reflects my mind, so most of the time it’s very organized and tidy, but when we’re deep in a project I love to have space to spread everything out, overlay, sketch, compare, and take notes. We call it “beautiful minding”, like that Russel Crowe movie where he writes on the windows.

BB: I love open space, for spreading out, and the appropriate tools at an appropriate distance. Never underestimate the power of a well-made jig. 

Becca:  What's one thing everyone should know about Kaleigh?

BB: Kaleigh is fiercely loyal, whip smart and insanely organized.

Kaleigh: What's one thing everyone should know about Becca? 

KH: Becca is easily the most talented artist I’ve ever met - she can really work in any medium and style! But somehow she can’t fold a fitted sheet and it still BLOWS MY MIND.

What's next for Sisal Creative? (cough... another book, please... cough!)

BB: Having completed our renovation of the Charleston Museum’s Natural History Gallery last year, we are moving into doing a lot more interior design projects. We view these as art pieces in themselves, and are excited to see what it brings for us as a company. However, we will never stop playing with materials and making art, and I will never stop illustrating and taking on jobs where I get to paint and sculpt! 

KH: Who knows! I’d love to make another book. We’ve been doing a lot more design lately, so I think we’re both itching to get back into making custom art and working with our hands. We’ve talked about how fun it would be to get into larger-scale public art as well. At the end of the day, we just really love trying new things!

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