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Mourning through a Masters

“I live in a picture book, it’s where I do my battles.” - Maurice Sendak


I graduated from Stellenbosch University in 2018, I had planned to do my Masters degree the following year, but the curriculum changed and I decided I didn't want to spend the next two years doing something I wasn't fully invested in, so I refused the offer and pretty much since then, I've muddled through life a little. Always knowing that I wanted to go back and study. I'm one of those people that love 'school' structures, love the deadlines, love the reading and learning. I would definitely describe myself as an "eternal student" - I am forever signing up to short courses and taking lessons, if being a student was a profession, I would ace it! So after delaying my Masters and joining the "workforce" instead, oh and moving to the United Kingdom to be with my husband ( partner at the time) , I had secretly checked out universities when covid hit - and my dreaming was halted. Putting it off seemed easier and not to mention the financial cost seem irresponsible.


Omi's Dinner Party, Ulrike Mieke
Omi's Dinner Party, Ulrike Mieke

After losing my mom in July 2021 - I was lost and desperately needed the structure, the space to find creativity again, the space to try to understand grief in my way. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” ( Didion 2006: 188). I won't try and explain it, and even now as I watch what is happening in our world it's hard to comprehend the amount of suffering.


Timothy Keller (2020) explores a very interesting perspective on the ‘hiddenness’ of death. Due to the development of science and modern medicine, we no longer experience death in our homes, very few people have elderly family members living with them or ever come face to face with fatal diseases and infections in the home environment. “Death was something that people used to see up close”, whilst now we experience death from hospital waiting rooms or even through social media clips. This hiddenness has resulted in a denial of death, Keller suggests that modern society is unrealistic and unprepared for the most certain stage of life. The tragedy is that even when we see it, our human ability to show empathy is clouded by politics, history and selfish economical advantages. ( My rant for the day)


So... one of the best decisions I made was applying for my Master's degree in Illustration with Falmouth University. For the next two years, I worked part-time on my studies, focusing on children's illustration, more specifically looking at grief in children's literature, I found solace in the academic literature about memory, grief and trying to understand death. Creating imaginative worlds of my own, filled with characters and stories.


Joan Didion's book, The Year of Magical Thinking is probably the start of it all, and the small, gentle moments and imaginings of my niece and nephews. Their wild imaginations and innocent memories filled with wonder inspired me, and pushed my own imagination to question my grief and approach it like a child.


Floris Drawing, Ulrike Mieke

Ladybugs drawings, Floris Eigelaar


I worked on various projects throughout my course, but my favourite two would be: All things Red, and Omi's Dinner Party. I'm currently reworking All things Red, the compositions and characters needed development, so back to the sketchbooks for that one. Stay tuned for this! ( I need some accountability, so please nudge me in a few)


Omi's Dinner Party - is a fun one though, and ended up being my final major project. It's a cookbook picturebook which follows a family of ladybugs as they prepare meals to celebrate Omi.


Who is Omi? 

The central character in my picture book is ‘Omi’ , a term of endearment given to my mother by my nephews and niece. In the Afrikaans and German language the name for a grandmother is “Ouma” or “Oma”. Hence, “Omi” is a combination of the two cultures.



Omi's Dinner Party

Why a cookbook picturebook?


The day my mother passed away, she had made a sandwich for my father. I recall it so well, how he ate it slowly, mourning but savoring the last meal my mother had prepared for him. Or sifting through our deepfreeze finding frozen soups and stews, counting them carefully and considering how many more meals she would be able to prepare for us as a family. And then finally, reaching the end of her provision.

Memory is so closely tied to grief and imagination. Reflecting on one’s memory when crafting a picture book is so valuable, as it is utterly unique to you, it enables you to journey back into the past, to relive moments and emotions. In many ways, some of my fondest memories of childhood, were in our kitchen, surrounded by my family, cooking apricot jam, making endless Christmas cookies! We spent hours around the kitchen table, enjoying a meal cooked by mom.


“Mourning and memory are symbiotically linked, the one does not stir in the mind without the other also stirring.” - Liz Stanley.


Enjoying a meal, calls on different senses and can hark one back to the past, to nostalgia. Nostalgia strengthens our connectedness to a person or group, and reaffirm memories. Specifically recipes that are associated with special occasions or events, through the process of preparing and enjoying the meal, nostalgia creates a better understanding of ‘selfhood’, increasing our ability to understand the presence, by momentarily restoring your self to an idealized past. Often these nostalgic memories are linked to one’s childhood.


Paging through my mother’s recipe books and my 104 year-old grandmother’s recipe books, which she meticulously hand wrote, adding in her own methods and tips. I decided to recreate the recipes and found a way to celebrate her. It was a way to relive a moment, a memory in the kitchen with my mother.


“Grief is a certain, and very powerful, form of memory.”  Bladek (2014)

Ulrike Mieke

My mom and I, drawn by Karin Marais 2021


 The work of Genevieve Godbout, a freelance Illustrator based in Montreal, who specializes in children’s illustration was a helpful guide to understand how a story can be structured around a recipe. Godbout has a beautiful, distinctive style of soft, warm coloured pencils and pastels. 


Apple Cake: The Gratitude

Apple Cake: A Gratitude, Genevieve Godbout


Apple Cake: The Gratitude

Apple Cake: A Gratitude, Genevieve Godbout


Her picture book Apple Cake: A Gratitude written by Dawn Casey. A story of gratitude for the seasonal harvests, ending with the characters baking an apple cake together was useful to consider for narrative development. As well as, Felicia Sala's work - specifically her book, Lunch at 10 Pomegranate Street

which is absolutely stunning - a celebration of diversity in cultures. Plus great recipes, I have a copy at home, and even though my version is in Dutch, the illustrated food make it so easy to understand!


Felicia Sala

Lunch at 10 Pomegranate Street, Felicia Sala


My process

After deciding on the recipes I wanted to include in my picture book and working out a rough story around it, I quickly realized that the best way to gather research and practice observational drawing - was to cook the recipes. And so I did!


Ulrike Mieke Sketchbook
Ulrike Mieke Sketchbook

Watch this little video to find out more about my process to create Omi's Dinner Party



Why Ladybugs?

Growing up, my mom used to read German stories to us, first Max and Moritz ( possibly to scare us into obedience) and then the magical worlds of Fritz Baumgarten. I absolutely love his work, and the magical worlds of birds in suits, weddings under flowers or bugs playing in an orchestra! I think it's far more enjoyable to think of the world in this way!



Anthropomorphism is giving human-like qualities to animals or insects. Most commonly derived from the Greek, giving human features and qualities to gods and deities. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, believed that humans make use of anthropomorphism to explain a mysterious or unfamiliar term or make sense of the world, while Sigmund Freud argued that we use it as an emotional coping mechanism, to make a threatening world seem less so. Driven by my need to understand my mother’s death; it provided comfort and emotional distance, much like “a flight into fantasy”. Creating these worlds in many ways was a form of escapism for me.



Ulrike Mieke, Ladybugs


And here is Omi's Dinner Party.





Illustrating and creating Omi’s Dinner Party provided the opportunity to be completely nostalgic, to cook like I’m standing in the kitchen alongside my mother, to experience similar tastes, textures and smells, to experience and reaffirm a memory. Through drawing, the memories helped to make it bearable, comprehensible and start the process of understanding. Much like Sendak who said “I live in a picture book, it’s where I do my battles.” (Pedlar 2020: 153)  I have found solace in my sketchbooks, and have adopted the same thinking, “I live in my sketchbook, it’s where I fight my grief”. 


 

Bladek, Marta. 2014. ‘“A PLACE NONE OF US KNOW UNTIL WE REACH IT”: MAPPING GRIEF AND MEMORY IN JOAN DIDION’S “THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING”’. Biography (Honolulu) 37(4), 935–52.


Brabant, Sarah and Linda A. MOONEY. 1989. ‘When “Critters” Act like People: Anthropomorphism in Greeting Cards’. Sociological spectrum 9(4), 477–94.


Didion, Joan. 2006. The Year of Magical Thinking. London: Harper Perennial.


Marowsky, Juliet Kellogg. 1975. ‘Why Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature?’ Elementary English 52(4), 460–6.


O’Keane, Veronica. The Rag and Bone Shop How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us. Uk Allen Lane, An Imprint Of Penguin Books, 2021.


Pedler, Caroline. 2020. ‘Sketchbook as Therapist: Self-Authorship and the Art of Making Picture Books’. Journal of Illustration 7(1-2), 147–77.

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This is So so beautiful. I love your work and your ideas. This book. My mum asked my sister and I recently if there was anything of hers that we wanted, she would bequeath it to us in her Will. She didn't want there to be any future misunderstandings you see. My sister and I talked about this. We couldn't think of anything that might be a cause for concern except.... mums recipe books. 3 Folders 1 for each starters, mains and desserts. Hand written recipes from friends. Recipes typed on a typewriter. Some from friends and relatives long since passed. Mums hand written notes down the sides of newspaper cuttings and magazine pullouts. Things written in German and notes…

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Ah Sabina, I'm only getting to these comments now! ( Of course I missed them!) But thank you so much for sharing, those recipes from your mom so precious! Would love to share recipes, hope to see you soon!

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