“We talked about dreams, nightmares... but tried to focus on the positive...”

Illustrator Fatti Burke has been working with Cork children from diverse backgrounds to bring Oliver Plunkett Street to life for Midsummer, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
“We talked about dreams, nightmares... but tried to focus on the positive...”

Illustrator Kathi ‘Fatti’ Burke.

IT’S easy to imagine that children’s illustrators need to keep in constant contact with their own inner child.

“Oh, yes,” Fatti Burke says. “I’m in my studio right now, and I’m surrounded by Garfield memorabilia, children’s books, paints and crayons.”

“I think about my childhood all the time: the things that interested me and the way my mind worked. It’s very important that I keep that. If I’m trying to communicate with children, I have to think like a child. Luckily, that comes naturally to me.”

Fatti, originally from Co Waterford, has recently found her “forever home” in Drumcondra in Dublin, having moved pack to Ireland at the start of the Covid crisis in March 2020, from Lisbon.

Illustrator Kathi “Fatti’ Burke pictured at the launch of BOOKS ARE MY BAG tote.  Picture: Mark Stedman
Illustrator Kathi “Fatti’ Burke pictured at the launch of BOOKS ARE MY BAG tote.  Picture: Mark Stedman

But the 31-year-old illustrator, renowned for her brightly coloured graphic style in children’s books like Irelandopedia, GIY’s Know-it-Allmanac, and a series on Irish historical figures with her teacher father, John, is looking forward to spending some time in Cork.

As part of Cork Midsummer Festival, Fatti will be painting a mural on a section of the road surface on Oliver Plunkett street, and she’s going to have the assistance of some very special guests. The project, Open Road, has seen Fatti, in conjunction with UCC’s Glucksman gallery, hold workshops with children from a variety of backgrounds in order to map their hopes for the future, she explains.

“The workshops were about gathering the dreams and ambitions of the kids I’ve been working with, who are all coming from diverse backgrounds where they might not have been given as much opportunity to express themselves as other kids,” Fatti says.

“I worked with children experiencing homelessness and children from the Travelling Community; we wanted to work with children in Direct Provision too, but unfortunately, during Covid, it wasn’t possible for them to get a pass to visit us: they would have needed to get a bus to from the workshop and it couldn’t happen.”

Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns have disproportionately impacted on communities that already struggle, and none more so than children who are homeless.

While Fatti’s workshops were accentuating the positive and encouraging children to exercise their imaginations and aspirations, they also gave the artist an insight into some of the challenges homeless children have been facing.

“They’ve been experiencing so much more than most people have had to deal with, with the restrictions, including a lot of isolation,” she says.

“We talked about dreams that they’ve had, and unfortunately, that also includes nightmares and that opened up discussion around the things they’re scared of. But I tried to focus on the positive: we talked a lot about what they really want and a lot of kids really want to be with their friends, and they want to play. There were people that they really miss.

“A lot of the kids had family and friends living in different countries or even in different parts of Ireland that they haven’t been able to see in a long time because of Covid.”

The primary school age-group of five to 12 that Fatti has been working with are endlessly creative and optimistic despite the challenges they face, though.

“You don’t go more than a few seconds without laughing when you’re working with kids,” she says.

“It was joyous, as well as touching on the stuff that’s worrying them. We talked about their dream-town, and what would be in Cork if they could design it. We talked about what their ideal pet was, what games they would play in the sports field in your dream- town.”

Fatti and John Burke launching Focloiropedia. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Fatti and John Burke launching Focloiropedia. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Fatti has worked up a mural design based on the children’s ideas, right down to a colour scheme based on colours used by the children for self-portraits.

“It will be quite bright,” she says with a laugh. 

“There’ll definitely be pink, and there’ll definitely be red because there were a lot of Spiderman fans who wanted to use red.”

Growing up in a family of teachers fi1 not only her father and frequent collaborator, John Burke, but also aunts, cousins and a sister who teach — art school graduate Fatti has recently discovered that she has a passion for education, and for using her work to ensure equal access to education for all children.

“When I got into publishing, I just thought, OK, I’m an illustrator and I love to draw,” she says.

“But actually, the education stuff is in my blood. And I realised that I do feel very passionate about it, about teaching kids who don’t feel like they’re seen, and voicing the importance of equality and fairness and the representation of different social groups. So that all kids can feel like they can enjoy learning, but in their own way.”

Open Road has been a learning experience as much for her as for the children.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she says.

“I normally don’t get to work with kids enough unless I’m doing promo work or a reading with a school library or something like that.

“To actually have workshops with kids who are creating art is so exciting. I definitely want to do more of this.”

Open Road by Fatti Burke, in conjunction with The Glucksman Gallery, will be installed live on Oliver Plunkett Street from June 14, with an unveiling at noon on Sunday, June 20. The installation will be displayed until June 27.

https://www.corkmidsummer.com/whats-on/open-road

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