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This year, as part of The Big Read 2016, The Core Theatre had the pleasure of working with the superbly talented Birmingham-based artist Milan Topalovic. For two weeks in June Armed with his sketches, paint and a dash of whimsy, Milan embarked on a little adventure to The Core to create our BookBench.

Milan already has a number of awards under his belt, including Emerging Talent commendation from illustrator Shaun Tan, at the Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2011, as well as features in the prestigious Associations of Illustrators 'Best of British Illustration 2012'. Our marketing assistant Katherine caught up with Milan to find out more about his work and The Big Read.

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Hi Milan, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into illustration?

I've always been really creative and inevntive. When I was younger if there was something I didn't have i would cut up cereal boxes to make accessories - like title belts for my wrestling figures. I loved designing my own football shirts and drawing Spider-Man comic strips. It was the notion of 'what would I do with these characters, what happens next?' and becoming the author myself made me want to draw how these storylines would play out. This continued and manifested itself into illustration. I love all aspects of what illustration entiails - inventing what doesn't exist; drawing characters and writing stories. Creating my own escapism and sharing that vision - and it's a bonus when people see the crystallised result at the end of its cycle and appreciate it as a piece of art. I often get the comment "I feel like I could step into your illustration and feel what it's like to be there". I love detail, atmosphere, idyllic scenes and subtle nuances that one might only notice after the third or fourth time they look at an illustration.

What are the best/most fun parts of your job?

The obvious one is that being freelance I work remotely, either from home or tucked away in the corner of a cafe editing my illustration. I am my own manager; I set my own working hours - often till late with a long rambling podcast to keep me going. Another fun part is the variety of projects I get to work on - I like new challenges and pushing myself - and with this comes meeting new people all the time which is great. I have long periods where i'm a typical hermit illustrator and then have more collaborative projects where I get to bounce ideas off like-minded people. With the nature of projects coming and going too, I get to condition my portfolio and further my career to work on more work that I really enjoy. As much as this industry can be unpredictable - which affects the continuity of my income - being able to mould my future and get excited about the next big projects gets me out of bed in the morning.

Who are some of your favourite illustrators?

I specialised in children's picture book illustration at university so most of my favourites are European illustrators like Benjamin Lacombe and Nicoletta Ceccoli. There is more of a traditional grounding and mature feel in their style which I love - and is completely different to the obvious mainstream style of Axel Scheffler (The Gruffalo). I love Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers too, who are better known in the UK.

How did you become involved in The Big Read?

It is essentially a welcome continuation of a relationship that began with The Big Hoot last summer, which I found out about as an open submission competition. I ended up painting two owls and designing the Trail Maps. I worked with Wild in Art in the autumn and I expressed my interest early in 2016 for The Big Read. the Core's book bennch was a result of a slection process from other shortlisted artists. I projected my vision for this book bench and now here I am! I have another book bench at Thinktank Birmingham, and I am proud that they will both be permanent fixtures beyond The Big Read.

What are your aims for this project?

If a child, through some form via the events surrounding The Big Read this summer picks up a book that they wouldn'y have done otherwise and gets lost in it, then it's been a successful project. If a child puts pencil to paper and starts inventing and drawing their own stories, that's fantastic too. there's so much to be said for encouraging creativity, it helps with problem solving and taking fresh approaches to challenges which are such transferable skills throughout life.

How did you come up with the design for The Core Theatre BookBench? What was the design process?

A number of drop-in family workshops and The Core's famous pantomimes informed the stories and characters featured in the final design. I really wanted to celebrate The Core Theatre and Library as portals to escapsim, like going through the looking glass. Audiences fill out the theatre to be entertained and taken out of reality for the evening. I took inspiration from Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, whereby the storyteller of fantastical tales becomes part of the legend. My book bench design depicts The Core Theatre as the wardrobe to the Narnia-like patchwork of whimsical lands. The lower end of the bench is homage to legendary local author JRR Tolkien, with Bilbo searching for the door to Erebor - home to The Lonely Mountain and Smaug.

Do you have a favourite element on the bench?

The back of the design features a quiet and whimsical scene between Matilda and Fantastic Mr Fox to commemorate Roald Dahl's centenary year and this is my favourite section. It also echoes Solihull's Home Library Service, enabling elder or less mobile residents to access books. I love crafting classic storybook scenes and these two classic characters are a lovely fit. My interpretation shows Matilda using her telekinetic powers to arrange the book in the air and place it into Fox's hands. Whereas the front is a mural of classics, the back of the bench was an opportunity to create my own vision with these characters.

Do you have any plans on the horizon?

I have some commercial Christmas Cards out in the shops tentatively aimed at this Christmas. One of my pet projects is illustrating a 'Paris 1895' map around the time when all the artists and musicians flocked there to establish themselves - van Gough, Picasso, Debussy, Dumas. I would love to get into advertising and packaging for things like luxury confectionary, biscuit tins, and teas as they fit the sentiment that my style lends itself to. I would love to do a book cover too. I am very ambitious and always looking for new homes and platforms to celebrate my illustration.

Any advice for future illustrators?

Keep your eyes open all the time, for inspiration, influence, and opportunity. Having the right attitude when dealing  with not getting work for potentially long periods of time is so important, so be resilient. On the other extreme, being professional and having good time management when you do have a lot of work on is equally invaluable. Every greeting, handshake, email, tweet and project is an opportunity, an advert for yourself and if you do a good job, the spotlight on your advert gets a little bit brighter. We live in an age where people are moving through life faster and simple courtesy is sometimes lost. Being polite or doing a little extra, like getting a commission at short notice, goes a long way. Both of those things are second nature to me and helped bring further opportunities I might not have received otherwise.

If you'd like to see more of Milan's work, check out his website www.milanillustrator.com. The Big Read BookBench trail will run from 16 July until 13 September.

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