Passage East is a tiny village on the coast of Waterford, and Passage East National School is a tiny, four-roomed school that has sat at the top of the hill for decades. In this school for most of these decades, you would find John Burke, who served as principal and 5th and 6th class teacher until 2013 when he retired after 38 years of service.
Never have I been more excited when I turned on the radio last Christmas to hear a familiar voice on the national airwaves, talking about the book he had recently released with his daughter Kathi, an accomplished illustrator. ‘Irelandopedia’ a beautiful visual display of facts and illustrations about Ireland, became one of the biggest Christmas books and won a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award and a CBI Book of the Year award.
Mr Burke was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had, and there are hundreds of others who will say the same. It brought a tear to my eye to see him finally get recognition as not only a one-man library of knowledge, but also as a gentleman and a scholar.
So, with this in mind, I was really excited to get to have a chat with Kathi (who goes by Fatti professionally) and to see how a working relationship with you Dad really works, how much he influenced her, and how she turned her passion into her job.
Kathi, your Dad was your teacher in primary school. How was that for you? Tell us honestly, did you ever call him ‘Dad’ in class?
Of course I did! It’s hard for most kids to not say Mam or Dad in class, so I had it extra hard. I actually loved having Dad in the school all the time, it was great for me and my sister cause we got to have a parent with us all day long. I get along really well with Dad so it was very comforting knowing he was around when I needed him. I usually did my homework in the classroom as he was finishing up admin work in the staff room, so it meant I always had my homework done in time (in primary school at least!)
Apart from your experience being taught by your Dad, how was secondary school for you? Would you describe it as a happy experience?
Secondary school was a bit different for me. I still really enjoyed it, but definitely cared more about some subjects more than others, especially when it came to the Leaving Cert. I have always loved Art, English and History and so I spent a lot less time studying the other subjects in favour of them. Since Transition Year, I knew I wanted to go to an art college, so my last few years were spent building my portfolio and learning about what it was I wanted to do with myself. I really just didn’t care about things like Maths or Irish – I just wanted to be writing or drawing instead.
Do you feel that Irish schools support and nourish the arts enough or is there too big a focus on academia?
I wish I could say otherwise, but I honestly feel that creativity isn’t a huge priority in the current curriculum. Even though Art is a subject for the Leaving Cert, I never really felt encouraged to pursue a career in it. For a lot of people it was just a doss class, and for those of us who really cared about it, we had to put extra learning in ourselves. I knew what I wanted to pursue because I put all the work in myself – interviewing designers, learning about typefaces and graphic artists. Design isn’t taught at all, or wasn’t when I graduated. The art course, as it is, is very limiting in terms of what it deems acceptably ‘creative’. Learn the different types of church architecture by rote, draw some fruit with heavy shading, describe the different kinds of ancient Irish relics etc. I don’t think it is flexible for students who want to express themselves in a different way. Creativity and artistic ability is hard to grade, for sure, but I think I wouldn’t have done very well in my exams if I drew then how I draw now!
Mr Burke (I can never call him John), had a passion for local history, and his stories and teaching were often far removed from the curriculum. Which of his passions rubbed off on you?
Oh definitely his passion for history! It used to bore the hell out of me as a child, all the stories and anecdotes that went on for hours (no exaggeration!) but now I feel myself doing the same thing! Dad always encouraged his classes to draw and paint too – my favourite time of year was when the classes were allowed paint on the windows for Christmas. Those two passions really show through in our new book, since it’s all history based – it’s like we’ve come full circle now!
Last Christmas, you released ‘Irelandopedia, which is a clear partnership between both of your passions and talents. How did that come about?
I was approached by Gill & McMillan (now Gill Books) about a prospective book that they wanted me to illustrate, but we hadn’t landed on the right author yet. We discussed getting a primary school teacher to write it, as they’d know the right tone of voice to write in, and that’s when I had the idea to ask Dad to work on it with me. And let’s just say he didn’t take much convincing at all!
Who was the ‘boss’ during the process? How did you find working together?
Oh me, definitely! Dad would tell you the same – this is what I do for a living, and I’m very much a perfectionist when it comes to my work. Dad would write up the facts for each county, send them to me, and I would choose the ones I wanted to go with. Then I would draw the map for the county and include the text which would be sent to the editor. And then we’d move on to the next county and so on. My part took a lot longer to finish, since it would take 2 or 3 days to do each double page spread and then extra days for edits. I am so glad now that Dad is my partner in this, since it would be much harder for me to chop and change a stranger’s work. We honestly work really well as a team!
Obviously, it is a collaboration that works, as you are now working on Historopedia. What can we expect from this next book?
Well, if the first book was a guide to Ireland county by county, Historopedia is a guide to Ireland, year by year. We wanted to see a book for children that will give them a fun, but accurate, overview of Irish history from prehistoric times right up to the Troubles, with everything in between. In school, we learned Irish history mixed together with the Egyptians, the Romans and all the World Wars, and it can get quite confusing! Who was Michael Collins and did he know William of Orange or was that before or after the Famine and when was TV introduced? So we’ve produced a fully illustrated guide to Irish history with everything in chronological order, but which is still really fun and actually interesting! I swear, as we were putting it together, I finally got my head around loads of things I didn’t understand about our history. We have such a fascinating background here in Ireland, its so important for us all to know a bit more about how far we’ve come.
Who else has influenced you and your career? Who would you consider to be your greatest role models?
My friends are hands down my greatest influences. That probably sounds really cliché but I am very grateful that I’m surrounded by people who pursue what they love, overcome stuff in their way and work really hard to get what they want. I’m drawn to ambitious people who make things happen for themselves, whether its in their hobbies, careers, education or relationships.
What is the most important thing you have learned about yourself and how did it come about?
Since working for myself over the past few years I’ve learned so much through trial and error, and I’m learning a lot about myself every day still. My work and my career are extremely important to me, and I’ve discovered that once I really want something, I’ll eventually find a way to achieve it.
At the beginning of 2015 I wrote down some goals for myself, just a little list of things I wanted to achieve, and the main one was to have a children’s book published. Flash forward to that October and my first book is a national bestseller, winning awards and getting me lots of new jobs. It all happened so quickly that I did start to develop a pretty serious imposter syndrome – something that I’ve always had but which escalated recently. I guess I’m quite hard on myself – once I reach a goal, I don’t relish it as much as I should, and I just throw myself into the next goal without congratulating myself. That’s something I have to work on, but I guess it’s part of what makes me enjoy my work so much – it’s never truly finished.
What advice would you give girls who are artistic, and don’t know how to develop a career from it?
Firstly, and most importantly, do you. Don’t try to satisfy anybody with what you do creatively, otherwise you’ll forget why you loved it in the first place.
Secondly, look to people who are successful in your chosen field and see what route they took to get there: what course, if any, did they do? Is it something you could internship in? Read blogs and books about these people and educate yourself about your passion.
Lastly, be nice to people. So many of my jobs come to me through word of mouth, and nobody wants to work with somebody unpleasant. Go to events and gallery openings and afterparties, talk to other artists and make friends with writers and musicians and entrepreneurs. These are the people who will give you your first big break; your own peers. So it’s very important to be sound – and that applies to all areas of life.
She’s also the craic on Snapchat: fatti_burke