VAMPIRES, ALIENS AND FAIRIES – an interview with talented Artist and Illustrator Fiona McDonald

FIONA MCDONALD is a classically trained artist whose passion for toys manifests itself in the compulsive making of dolls and puppets. Her life size cloth and mixed media figures have received international acclaim and are eagerly sought after by collectors.

Apart from writing and illustrating her own books Fiona recently worked with Keith on THE LITTLE BOOK OF GENIUS,  to be published by The History Press in October 2011.  This happy link up was forged by our wonderful agent, Isabel Atherton at Creative Authors.

The Little Book of Genius

Keith: I very much enjoyed working on the book with you, Fiona. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

Thanks Keith. I loved doing the pictures for the Little Book of Genius, and I enjoyed the text as I worked – I must say I’ve learnt a lot.

I was born in Armidale, NSW Australia in an area called New England. It was founded by a McDonald, probably a relative, but certainly with strong Scottish ties and I think the town’s population reflects that.

I hated school and left in year 11, the second last year of secondary school. And I have never regretted it.

I went to art school in Sydney. Julian Ashton’s is Australia’s oldest independent art school and it is one of the few left that teaches classical skills of drawing, perspective, anatomy etc. To pay for my tuition fees I cleaned the premises, including the toilets and made the ritual lunch time pot of tea in an enormous tea pot. Art school was one of the highlights of my life.

From Sydney I went to the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney with my young daughter. It was in Katoomba that I began developing my cloth dolls. These started as toys for my daughter based on an imagined and longed for doll from my own childhood. I took the results to a local gallery and they took them on and sold them.

I began wiring them inside and painting them with oil paints and they got larger and larger till they were life size and could no longer be called dolls.


After my son was born I enrolled in university and studied Italian and English literature. This led to a pause in my art as I got further immersed in the world of Dante and Milton.

I am back doing art now. I’m drawing, painting and designing knitted dolls and other toys. I am trying hard to make a living out of these activities but have to resort to teaching every now and then.

Keith: I am envious of people who can draw. You have a wonderful and very unique style. When did you realise that you had this skill, and how have you developed it?

From childhood! Well, at least I have always had the passion for it. 
I loved drawing princesses with long curly hair only I left out the noses because they looked awful. I doodled my way through high school. I still have some of my old books and the margins are full of intricate and delicate drawings.

Keith:  What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a book of knitted vampires for Search Press, they have brought out Knitted Babes, Knitted Aliens and will shortly release Knitted Fairies. I finished the manuscript for a history of textiles for Remember When, an imprint of Pen and Sword and I am working on a book about the 1920s for them at the moment. And I’m doing some large, detailed pen drawings.

                                                                    To Sleep

Keith: Who have been your biggest influences?

I have been in love with a group of women artists who were closely associated with the Surreal movement: Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. I also adore Paula Rego’s work.

What type of books, films, music do you like?

Music – I like lots of different times and styles from medieval to rock. I hate bland music. I play baroque flute and recorder with a small group here in Armidale.
Books- I read lots of children’s and young adults’ novels. I can’t go past a good who- dunnit though.

Keith:  (Cough, cough.) I know someone who writes passable who-dunnits! But on a serious note, what  are your ultimate aims artistically?

I want to make a decent living out of art and writing. I’d love to be able to produce work that I want to do and then to sell it. This is probably not very realistic these days. I would certainly settle for regular illustrative work.

What are your aims professionally?

Apart from making a living from my art work I want to open an alternative toy shop. Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard, specialising in handmade and unusual toys. I want the shop to look old fashioned and to act as an antidote to all that modern plastic and inanity. I like dolls to have character and to act as companions and confidantes to children. I feel that the kind of play I did with my cousins, as a child, is getting rarer. WE used our toys as the cast of thousands to support us in our conquests of space, the ocean or when we were teaching school and fighting dragons. The toy shop is an idea that keeps coming back to me so I think I will work on it to make it happen.

                                                            In the Toyshop

What advice would you give to other artists and illustrators?

Firstly, hone your technical skills. You can never have enough drawing skills even if your style is very stylised. And then go for your passion. Work, work, work. And grow a really thick skin so you can accept rejection after rejection. But don’t give up. Bounce back, reassess your work and push your foot into as many doors as possible.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

It is funny you ask this question. I have just joined a women in business mentor group as a mentoree. I have just been answering the same thing for them only it was in six years. My answer was that I would be busy, as it was pre-Christmas, 2016, in my Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard, helping my staff sell, wrap toys and give out sweets to children. I also said I’d have some of my music students playing beautiful carols outside the shop door. I don’t want to be tied to the business but want to be able to sell my own, as well as other people’s, designs through it. I think it would be lovely to have a toy shop. I guess this means I have never really grown up. I would also dearly love to have some fiction publishes, aimed at children and young adults of course.

Finally, the strange thing is that we may be related. My mother’s side of the family are McDonalds. Your daughter visited the UK this year. Unfortunately I had to go up to Scotland and we missed each other. Have you any plans to return to the old country?

I’m sure we are cousins somewhere along the line, Keith. And if I can make it 2011 I will be over. I think must do it. I have a very strong desire to visit Britain, Scotland in particular. My McDonald family came to Australia around 1880 as free settlers and almost straight away ended up in Armidale. I take my Scottish heritage very seriously. Beatriz, my daughter fell in love with Scotland long before she got there and she was even more in love when she left. I know I will be the same.

Thank you for your time, Fiona
It’s been a pleasure Keith.

Author: keithmorayauthor

Part time doctor, medical journalist and crime writer. Author of the Inspector McKinnon Mysteries and the Sandal Castle Medieval Thrillers

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