Jesse Bonelli gets high marks for book illustrations

The illustrations in the new children's book, "The Legend of Hobbomock: The Sleeping Giant," earned Old Lyme native Jesse Bonelli, an "A"-quite literally.

A senior at Rhode Island School of Design (RISDE) where he's majoring in illustration, Bonelli completed the pictures for the book last winter as an independent study, so he could devote the time to creating the 14 full-color oil paintings while keeping up with his rigorous studies.

Written by Jason Marchi of Guilford, a journalist and published poet, "The Legend of Hobbomock" is Marchi's interpretation of a Native-American legend about how a group of hills in Hamden came to look like a giant sleeping on his back.

Marchi "discovered" Bonelli in 2008 while attending the Shoreline Arts Alliance's "Future Choices" high school art exhibition at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. A senior at Lyme/Old Lyme High School at the time, Bonelli took first place in the show's drawing category. The young artist had already won numerous awards and was heading to RISDE in the fall on a full four-year scholarship.

"There were many wonderful works in the show, but Jesse's self-portrait as a firefighter jumped off the page at me," Marchi says. "I felt like I'd just discovered a gold mine. I arranged through his high school teachers to meet him. He showed me his portfolio and I trusted my judgment that Jesse would be able to expand his own horizons and illustrate some books for me. He was only 17 at the time."

Marchi commissioned Bonelli to illustrate his short story, "When the Rain Stops," which appeared in a limited edition chapbook.

When it came time for a much bigger project- a retelling of the Sleeping Giant legend for his start-up publishing company, Fahrenheit Books, Marchi hired Bonelli to do the artwork.

Bonelli says he did a lot of research and multiple sketches before applying a brush to canvas.

"I was trying to figure out how to (show) Hobbomock not as an evil spirit, just an angry spirit," he says. "In the folklore, he's a good spirit. People are causing the destruction, although he's depicted as the one doing all the damage."

It was a challenge to paint the giant as a real live moving figure, yet made of a material as rigid as stone. He did several small sculptures of the giant to "get a better sense of his reality."

"I wanted to control the point of view so that at times he'd look really big and you'd feel really small, and at others you'd be eye-to-eye with him," Bonelli says.

It was also a challenge, he says, to create the character Blackbird, because an adult is differently proportioned than a child.

"I needed to capture Blackbird's growth from a really young age up until what would be considered adult at that time-14," he says.

"The Native-American naming process is typically derived from nature and animals," he continues, "so I imagined him with markings that allude to those of a blackbird, which is also why he has a blackbird feather in his hair."

Marchi and Bonelli went on several "field trips" together to inspire the book's artwork, including to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

"It was really helpful to see the wax sculptures of the Native Americans and go inside the long houses and get a feeling for what it was like inside them," Bonelli says.

They also hiked through Sleeping Giant State Park, and Bonelli spent time in the woods behind his house in Old Lyme-which informed his illustrations of the landscape as a product of both real places and his imagination.

"I was trying to give (the book) a mystical feeling," Bonelli says. "I'm really interested in the creation of the light and using atmospheric perspective to my advantage, as well."

Although oil paint adds richness and depth to illustrations and captures light in a way no other medium can, it isn't typically used for book illustrations, Bonelli explains, because it's slow-drying and hard to photograph, due to glare.

But the outcome is worth any obstacles for Bonelli.

"What I like most about oil is it's very fluid and you can manipulate it," he says. "It's really translucent; there's a lot of luminosity."

He eliminated hot spots on the paintings, which he photographed himself for the book, by using a butterfly layout-shooting from six different angles around the images, and retouching with Photoshop.

Bonelli has been interning as a character artist at a videogame company in Providence since the summer. He's looking forward to spending the upcoming RISDE winter session in Italy "seeing some real Rembrandts and masterpieces."

The writer and illustrator plan to do another book together after Bonelli graduates this spring.

"It was a lot of work, doing my first fully illustrated book, but really fun to depict the words through images and (create) the characters," Bonelli says. "I definitely want to do more children's books and start to develop my own signature style."

"I could not be more pleased with the outcome," Marchi says. "When people open up the book and see the illustrations, I hear immediate 'oohs' and 'aahs,' and the book sells itself. I think Jesse's fine-art-style oil paintings capture the feeling of the story perfectly. I'm very lucky to have found-and become friends with-such a fine young artist."

In this illustration, Rakorota tells young Native-American children  tales about Hobbomock.
In this illustration, Rakorota tells young Native-American children tales about Hobbomock.

Where to get it

"The Legend of Hobbomock" (Fahrenheit Books) is $16, hardcover and is available at local bookstores including Bank Square Books in Mystic and online at www.omicronworld.com/HOBBOMOCK.htm. Fifty cents of every book purchase will be donated to The Sleeping Giant Park Association, Inc.

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