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Photo provided by the Irving Arts Center

Irving — The Irving Arts Center reopened in September after being closed for several months due to COVID-19.

The Arts Center is the first stop on a national tour for “Sonadora” an exhibit, which features whimsical sketches, acrylic paintings on paper, and mixed media digital collages from award-winning author and illustrator Yuyi Morales. Morales is a six-time recipient of the Pura Belpre Award, given to a Hispanic author and illustrator whose work best portrays the Latino cultural experience in children’s or youth literature.

Morales joined Marcie Inman, director of exhibitions and education of the Irving Arts Center, for a conversation via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 14.

“Readers and reviewers have praised [Morales’] illustrations as gorgeous, joyous, magical, resplendent, and breathtaking, her text as warm, sparkling and poetic,” Inman said. “Her work gives poignant insight from an immigrant’s perspective, speaking to the power of heritage and imagination.”

There was considerable leg work involved in assembling the exhibit. Morales was originally born in Mexico, but immigrated to the United States before returning to Mexico seven years ago. When Morales moved back to Mexico, she stored her works in San Francisco. She dispatched her son, Kelly, to retrieve artwork for the exhibit. The trip to San Francisco was the first time Kelly saw much of his mother’s art.

“Bringing [the artwork] to Mexico was dangerous for the materials,” Morales said. “Where I’m at in Mexico, Xalapa, is very humid. Any paper, textiles, anything inside a drawer or anything like that will be destroyed really quickly, so I decided to leave my work there.”

San Francisco also holds special meaning for Morales. There she met acclaimed Cuban writer Alma Flor Ada, who was a professor at The University of San Francisco and an early mentor.

“[Flor Ada] offered for me to take her class for writing,” Morales said. “I went one day and loved it so much that I asked if I could return to her class the next week. She said yes. I was learning how to write. I was trying to write things in English.”

After finishing the class, Morales sent a postcard with one of her illustrations to Flor Ada, who in turn forwarded the postcard to her editor and partner. The editor asked Morales to provide drawings and paintings for a book, ‘Todas las buenas manos,’by F. Isabel Campoy, who frequently collaborated with Flor Ada. The work for the book needed to be completed in 22 days.

“It was a very different experience.” Morales said. “I worked in my pajamas almost every day. It was really good for testing how it is to create images for a narrative. Can I do it? Can I actually meet their deadline? It was really good for my learning.”

Morales’ first book as a writer and illustrator was ‘Just a Minute: A Trickster’s Tale and Counting Book,’ released in 2003 and for which she earned her first award and Pura Belpre in 2004. One of her most recent works is the 2013 children’s book ‘Nino Wrestles the World.’

“Hijo del Santo is probably the most famous luchador of Lucha Libre in Mexico, and he’s an inspiration for the book,” Morales said. “At the same time, the book is inspired by many other things like the things I was afraid of when I was a little kid.

“He [Nino] is me in a way, because I see him as this boy who wrestles his fears. I was a kid who was fearful of so many things. I know I’m an adult who’s also fearful of things. I have learned through books and through life that one of the ways is making art, getting to know the things you’re afraid of. That’s what I did with this book. I took everything I was afraid of when I was a kid, and I made a story of it. Then, I got to play with them. What Nino does is plays with his fears.”

In 2015, Morales became the first Latin writer to earn a Caldecott Award, which honors the most distinguished American children’s picture book, for ‘Viva Frida,’a work celebrating acclaimed artist Frida Kahlo.

“I wanted to make a book not only to honor Frida, but also to create a mirror for children to see themselves and realize that like Frida and any other artist, they have everything they need to create,” Morales said.

Morales’ most recent book is ‘Dreamers/Sonadores,’ for which she earned her latest Pura Belpre in 2018.

“We [immigrants] cannot be defined by the words of others,” Morales said. “The immigration story of everyone is full of learning things that we’ve had to overcome and love.”