Ketchikan artist Evon Zerbetz and author Susan Ewing have released their new picture book, “Alaska is For The Birds: Fourteen Favorite Feathered Friends,” published by Alaska Northwest Books.
The pair met for an interview in the warm sunshine at Ward Lake on Thursday morning to talk about the book with the Daily News, and to share their experiences as long-time creative collaborators.
“This book has been 25 years in the making,” Zerbetz said.
Zerbetz said that the new book is the third that the pair have created together. The children’s book “Lucky Hares and Itchy Bears” was their first collaborative project. “Ten Rowdy Ravens” was the second. She also noted that even in the first years that she and Ewing worked together, they knew they would want to create a book focused on birds.
Ewing said she has authored four books for adult audiences on nature topics. Her most recent is a work titled, “Resurrecting the Shark,” which is a story about the extinct helicoprion shark, famous for its teeth arranged in whorls.
“Before that, I did ‘The Great Alaska Nature Factbook,’ and the ‘Great Rocky Mountain Nature Factbook,’ and ‘Going Wild.’” she said.
Zerbetz has illustrated nine books, she said, including “Dream Flights on Arctic Nights,” “Blueberry Shoe,” and “Little Red Snapperhood.” She is a relief printmaker, and has had a long artistic career during which she has created large items of public art, taught art to young students, and in 2014, she received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska Southeast.
Zerbetz said that she and Ewing were brought together by an acquisitions editor from their publisher. The editor had visited Southeast Alaska and saw Zerbetz’s work, and years later, realized that the pair would make an excellent match for collaborative children’s books.
Zerbetz and Ewing were then asked — they estimated it was the mid-1990s — to submit a proposal for a book, which Ewing called a “rare occurrence” in the publishing world.
Zerbetz added that from the very beginning, the publishers were looking for an “Alaskan bestiary” book.
Zerbetz is a life-long Alaskan, and although Ewing now lives in Montana, she described her many years as an Alaska resident. After high school, she moved from her home state of Kentucky to Fairbanks, where she lived for many years. Ewing said she also fished in Southeast Alaska from a hand-troller boat.
Ewing said she graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and left in about 1987, when she relocated to Seattle, then moved on to Montana in about 1991.
Ewing said that Alaska “shaped me” in her years of living here. She said she also worked on the Slope during that time, flew extensively in a small plane around the state and also worked staking mining claims in the Red Dog zinc mine area.
Alaska is “in my heart, in my soul, in my history, and Evon and I are close as can be,” Ewing said.
Zerbetz said she also has enjoyed traveling and learning about myriad corners of Alaska through teaching art in schools across the state.
As the pair worked to decide on what aspect of nature their new book should cover, Ewing said that Alaska’s birds are what drew them most strongly — an idea they’d been drawn to since the beginning.
Zerbetz said that the reported sharp decline of bird populations in North America as well as globally also compelled them to create a work that could possibly help the situation.
Ewing and Zerbetz listed predation by domestic cats, habitat decline, and window collisions as significant factors in the bird population decline.
They spoke of many architectural and other innovations that have been instituted in recent years to reduce the “billion-a-year” rate of bird deaths by window strikes.
Zerbetz said that as she learned more about the plight of birds, she suggested to Ewing that they pull out the 25-year-old draft of a bird book that they’d sketched out to explore its potential. They were excited about the idea, but realized the manuscript needed a complete overhaul.
Ewing said they thought, “what can we do? Because we both were really distressed about the population declines of the birds.”
One thing Ewing said they realized they could do was to try to inspire a new generation of bird enthusiasts with a new book.
She said that, “one of the beauties and values of learning about birds is your world becomes so much richer. You know, you are aware of so many other things and it’s like this direct connection to nature, and it just lets you in and you’re just part of it. … The more you know, the more connected you feel.
“It’s so enriching in our lives to know that we share our lives with all these amazing creatures,” she added.
Ewing described their new book as “fun, it’s playful, but it’s also an opportunity to start to learn.”
The book features Zerbetz’s signature bold, colorful prints of 14 birds alongside Ewing’s playful poems about each bird.
The first bird featured is a willow ptarmigan.
“Now you see him, now you don’t — this master of disguise,
In wintertime he looks just like a snowball with black eyes,” Ewing’s text begins.
Zerbetz said that they focused on describing a different aspect of bird natural history in each poem: one poem describes bird calls, another one describes feeding, and another one touches on migration, for example.
Ewing added that they also made sure they chose a variety of bird types as well — such as raptors, song birds, and shore birds.
In the back of the book are informational segments with more factual information about each of the featured species. Following those is a glossary, titled “Bird Words,” which offers definitions of terms that refer to bird behavior, biology and habitat.
Zerbetz talked about the most challenging part of the bird book project.
“For me, as an illustrator, to find that line between making my art whimsical — my whimsical style — but still having truth to the birds,” she said.
It took some amount of experimentation, she said, to find the balance between utilizing her naturally playful style while also adhering to the scientifically accurate anatomy of each bird. She said she spent a significant amount of time studying bird skeletons and their physiology as she prepared to tackle her illustrations.
Her true challenge, she said, was to “understand what this book was going to do — not be a bird ID book, but still have the bones of truth in the whimsy.”
Ewing said her main challenge was similar to Zerbetz’s.
Referring to her objective in their first book, Ewing said, “Just like 'Lucky Hares,‘ I wanted each poem to be based in some nugget truth of natural history. I wanted it to focus on at least one piece of information about the bird, but I still wanted it to be fun, and I wanted it to be kind of playful and also, in conceiving how I was going to structure the poems, I wanted to make sure that it would make a good illustration too, so that I would give Evon enough in the poem to create a little story.”
Ewing said of the bird book project, “it was just so much fun. It filled my heart every day. Reading about the birds and learning more about the birds, and deciding what to focus on and working with Evon — it was so fun to live in this book world for as long as it took.”
Zerbetz and Ewing are scheduled to lead an event titled, “Collaboration: How we build books together” at the Ketchikan Public Library focusing on their new book.
The event is planned to start at 2 p.m. Saturday. Books will be available for purchase, courtesy of Parnassus Books.