SHOREVIEW – The stories illustrations are able to tell, through stark sketches and the soft hues of watercolor, have captivated Katie Kangas since she was in elementary school. 

Now, Kangas follows her passion for visual communication through her career as an architect and as an illustrator. Her illustrations in a children’s book, “Elfie: Adventures on the Midwest Frontier,” was published June 1. 

“I just always loved the pictures in fairytales and other story books...it’s really fascinating how a story can be communicated [through colors and composition],” Kangas said.

“Elfie: Adventures on the Midwest Frontier” was written by Mary Nelson Keithahn, Kangas’ grandmother. Keithahn’s book is adapted from the memoirs of Elfie May Loverin Minard and Frank Clyde Sheldon, two of her ancestors. The book tells Elfie’s life story, as a young girl growing up in the Midwest. 

Although Kangas has illustrated for her own projects and for clients in the past, the publication of “Elfie: Adventures on the Midwest Frontier” marks the first time Kangas’ illustrations have been published in a children’s book. 

Kangas decided to illustrate “Elfie: Adventures on the Midwest Frontier” because of her love for illustrating and for her grandma. 

“I’ve always been close with [my grandma], we’ve worked together on projects and activities...traveling with my grandma when I was twelve was really meaningful for starting my interest in art and in architecture,” Kangas said. 

Before she started to work on this project with her grandma, Kangas learned about watercolor through four different teachers. She took community classes as well as a class in undergrad and in grad school. During her undergrad years she took a children’s literature course, and her final project was to illustrate “The Fir Tree,” a story by Hans 

Christian Anderson. When she worked for the firm MacDonald & Mack Architects, Kangas used watercolors to create floor plans and elevations for a book called “Minnesota’s Own: Preserving our Grand Homes.” She has also used watercolor to paint backdrops for plays Keithahn wrote at a music, art and drama camp.

“It’s been really fun for me to pursue watercolor within my job and projects outside. I’m really driven by being able to make things for others,” she said. 

Kangas and her grandmother, who lives in South Dakota, worked on the children’s book over email, Dropbox, and briefly even a blog.

“She’s a very tech-savvy grandma, she was learning how to use InDesign at 80 years old,” Kangas said.

Kangas and Keithahn first read through the book to identify moments in the story that could be captured well visually. After Kangas had created some stylistic examples of what her illustrations would look like, they started to spread them out evenly across the book. Then Kangas produced the final illustrations, sending them to her grandma for feedback and tweaking or redoing any that needed to be changed. 

Six months later, each chapter had two illustrations each. Kangas spent upwards of 6 to 10 hours a week on this project.

Kangas and Keithahn chose to use watercolors to illustrate the book, instead of just black-and-white sketches because of the softness they would add to the story.

“The style lends itself to the prairie scenery and to the story,” Kangas said. “I did play with a little bit of pencil and black and white, but it was a little stark for the story...watercolors are more suggestive.” 

Kangas also recalled liking colored pictures a lot more when she was a kid.

“Black and white pictures didn’t add flavor...looking at black and white pictures is a lot of times like reading words. It’s very plain,” she said.

The colors Kangas uses throughout the book also help to convey the time period and characters in the scenes.

“Colors are really important for showing different eras...[the illustrations are] a mix of detailed pictures, portraits, and landscape images to show some of the architecture and farm buildings they would have had,” she said. “[I also used color] so you knew who Elfie was because she’s growing up throughout the story.”

Elfie’s story also has personal value for Kangas.

“The fact that it’s a story about my ancestors in the Midwest, in an area that I love...and that I get to communicate these stories to my cousins and children in the future is really exciting,” she said. “I really respect the work that my grandma’s done with genealogy.” 

Kangas especially appreciated how Keithahn had made their ancestors’ stories of value to people outside of her family and captured the character of the time through a unique children’s book. 

In the future, Kangas plans to work as an illustrator as time allows. 

“I have stories that I would love to share through illustrating . . . I have notebooks of stories that I would love to pursue through illustrating,” she said. “I learned a lot from [this project], and I hope to apply that learning to another story in the future.” 

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