Orundelllco, known as “Jemmy Button” (c. 1815-1864) was a native from the islands of Tierra del Fuego, in modern Chile and Argentina. In 1830, Captain Robert FitzRoy took him hostage in a larger group, then purchased him for with a mother of pearl button, hence his name. Jemmy Button was taken to England, where he became a local celebrity and met King William IV. He sailed home the following year along with young naturalist Charles Darwin. Jemmy Button returned to Patagonia, where he shed his European ways and took a wife. He declined an offer to return to England and settled back into his native life.
Jemmy Button’s travels to England have become the subject of a book of the same name, illustrated by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali, published by Candlewick USA. Selected as the best illustrated book of 2013 by The New York Times, the book has been published in ten languages. Illustrator Jennifer Uman speaks with The Chic about her experiences that brought her to Jemmy Button, a character who speaks to her heart.
Uman recalls, “My Dad took me to a Frank Stella exhibition at the MoMA in the 1980s. Sculpture with glitter and linear dimension made me feel like everything mattered. I remember wanting that around me all the time but I didn't understand what that feeling was.
“I was brought up with a lot of support in seeing through my ideas without realizing at the time that was even happening. My dream when I was little was to be a waitress. I made menus for every meal with pictures and descriptions. I also took everyone's order in fake shorthand with fat crayon and my family went along with it like it was what everyone did at dinner.
“I always liked to paint and draw but I never studied it in an academic way. I've messed around in a lot of mediums: making videos, collaborating on art projects, and curating. I was doing whatever I wanted to with no structure or consistency. I was shy to share my works for a really long time because my friends had the territory of artistic success territory flawlessly. One night I finally started whipping out ideas on paper with gouache paint and Bic pens. That was it.
“I had seen a lot of movies from India and had been deep in that world for a long time; so when I really started focusing on painting I felt like all of what I had seen and the colors and camera and the dialogues fell into my work. Things I didn't expect to inspire me were all over the place. I remember listening to a Gogosh record on repeat while I painted. I had to listen to that record. I was obsessed with eating hot roasted peanuts from the Soho peanut cart man and small hot cakes from a woman in Chinatown who sat in an aluminum cake cart on Canal making them fresh per order. Ten-for-one-dollar. Walking home after work in Manhattan with hot cakes in my hands inspired me as much as the movie ‘Zindagi Ek Juaa’.
“The more I worked on creatively, the more I wanted to make. I started meeting people who wanted to work with me on collaborations and I started illustrating my first book, Jemmy Button, with Valerio Vidali. He lived in Italy and we became friends online as fans of each others’ work. We could only communicate through Google Translate. He only spoke Italian at the time. I only spoke English. We emailed using Google Translator for years and the more we connected about our work and inspirations the more we discussed collaborating. We made a pact if he came to NY we would make a book and even agreed the story will be about Jemmy Button. We both found elements in Jemmy Button’s story that we identified with and for different reasons.
“I have had homesickness my entire life. It’s still hard for me to leave home and once I get where I’m going it’s hard to leave. Valerio has perpetual wanderlust. We both found elements of Jemmy’s story in ourselves. After one year of correspondence Valerio flew to New York from Italy and we began. We still didn’t speak the same language and we worked next to each other often not saying anything and painting.
“With Valerio and I, there was this super honest drive to collaborate and our sleight of hand(s) stepped in. Working with someone can go bad when there are ego’s and drama and zero logic in place. With clear perspective and knowing we were in a place we had never been before creatively tied us together through-ought the process.
“I read two novels about Jemmy Button and the sea travels of Captain Robert Fitzroy. Sadly these books were never translated into Italian so I had a lot to explain to Valerio via Google Translate. None of it made sense in the translations but somehow he still ‘got it.’ Once we got to work we understood the history and we relied on senses and textures from the 1800s. Smells of the sea and fabrics. Emotions, language barriers, sound, and travel. Valerio and I do our works with our hands and not the computer or technologies. Maybe this helped secure our take on the essence of this era.
“I worked for a long time with Valerio to see our book through. It has been hard to describe what making this book has been like. It took us years to start it and years to complete and it’s as unreal as it is real that we did it. Since Jemmy Button was released, it has grown wild. Creating an entire world for Jemmy Button with new shapes of trees that don't exist pushed me hard to trust my ideas. The book took years to complete so I made time to decompress. Having copies in ten languages and the book in paperback I am just now starting to comprehend it all. We have won a lot of awards from around the world and being given The New York Times best illustrated book of the year was a first-class honor.
“Our publisher recently told us there was a teacher in the UK who was nominated by the United Kingdom Literacy Awards for her work with Jemmy Button in the classroom. UKLA hands out prestigious awards, which celebrate achievements in literacy education. This teacher works with students who have very few verbal communication skills and struggle to understand any text in a storybook. The teacher motivated the class to engage in the text of Jemmy Button by picking one pupil at a time to would bring the story to life. They all took turns filming each other with an iPad; each one telling the story to the camera. This enabled everyone in her class to be a part of the story using our illustrations as symbols. The end result was a short film of all of the class accessing the story in this way. Because they all helped make the video they took ownership of the story and were then able to answer questions on the text. I was told everyone on the panel was impressed with the quality of this response to Jemmy Button and the teacher won the 2014 Award.
“Each person gets something different from reading pictures. Sometimes I look at a picture and my eyes go straight to details and lines that make the real subject of the work not immediately visible for me. It takes me a while before I can focus again on the whole picture and see exactly what the artist intended to depict. To me, chic is natural subtleties that are so simple nothing else is needed to make them better. When I'm not looking is when I see it the most.”