The Whimsical World of Elissa Turnbull


The illustrator discusses her career path, her blue-ribbon Ag Fair poster, and why there is always enough time for creative pursuits.


The 17 tons of Portuguese cobblestones did not sell. For reasons now forgotten, the 2004 business venture failed, and the crew, who had worked so hard to prepare the once derelict cargo vessel Kwai for its voyage from Portugal to Martha’s Vineyard, found themselves drifting between Packers’ yard and the Oak Bluffs Harbor without adequate funds to repair the ship and move on. Among them was Elissa Turnbull, a young Torontonian who landed a job at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway and settled into the local lifestyle. The Kwai was eventually repaired and departed for Suriname. Turnbull remained.


If Islanders did not know her as an artist then, they would. The thousands of Islanders and visitors expected at this year’s 157th Martha’s Vineyard Livestock Show and Fair will see Turnbull’s work on the emblematic fair poster, a staple of one of the summer’s most popular events. 

Illustration was a logical career choice for Turnbull, though it took her awhile to realize it. After a season at the boat yard, she picked up a gardening job and used her savings to work through a degree in fine art from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

“I came out making art,” Turnbull said. “It wasn’t for a market, or trying to be for a market.” She outfitted a model with an enormous set of found-plastic wings for a wearable art gala at the Louisiana State Museum. She toiled through a sunny September in residence at a dark church in New York State, where she constructed and photographed sculptures of candy and junk food. She spent a fair amount of money shipping those photographs to a New York City gallery, then shipping them back when they didn’t sell. Disillusionment crept in. “Even though that was what I had been envisioning, it didn’t feel exciting to me.” Turnbull said. “That’s when I sort of disengaged and realized I didn’t care about being part of that scene so much.” 

“When Will We Rise”

Turnbull took a break to start a family, welcoming two daughters in the span of two years. But a restlessness soon set in, and Turnbull wondered what to do next, trying “to think it into existence.” Meanwhile, she began drawing in her spare time. It took an old friend, who had known Turnbull since childhood as “the art kid,” to state the obvious: Turnbull was a natural-born illustrator. 

“The only thing I could think of that an illustrator does every day was to draw,” Turnbull said. “I didn’t have any of the connections, I didn’t know how to make it happen, but I knew I could start by just drawing and enjoying it.” She began sharing her work on Instagram, and was surprised by the response. “The stuff I was sharing in the beginning had a lot of energy, in some ways it was really fresh,” Turnbull said. “I was so into it and focused, and I think when you approach it that way, people relate.” 

It wasn’t long before Turnbull’s account drew the attention of art directors, and she landed her first magazine gig. “It was a way better job than I even expected existed in the industry. It rocked my world,” Turnbull said. “It made me realize I could invest in this.” 

Turnbull was struck with newfound inspiration for editorial work, where market norms and the author’s words provide structure, but the artist is allowed freedom of style and interpretation. “The drawings I’m really happy with are my own visual representation of someone else’s story,” Turnbull said. “The main part of being a good illustrator is pinning down the idea, the concept behind what you’re doing.”


Since those early days on Instagram, Turnbull has honed a distinct style. It’s whimsical and bright, playfully messy, yet texturized. “I work over things a ton, so I end up getting smudges and gray areas,” Turnbull said. “The ghost marks end up doing interesting stuff that I’m not doing on purpose.” Turnbull frequently uses ProCreate, an iPad app, to rescale and color her work, though she finds the “frustratingly digital” brushes take away some of the magic that comes from drawing with a pencil. 

As Turnbull’s style has solidified, she’s expanded her portfolio to include children’s illustration. She said it’s been a lot of fun practicing book techniques, such as repeating a character in different environments with different expressions, and adding to the plot with drawings. “You don’t want to just repeat the story; you want to tell a parallel story, expand on it rather than imitate it,” Turnbull said. But as agents and publishers call for illustrators to double down and write material, Turnbull is pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone to channel a writer’s voice. “When you’re doing illustration, you’re a storyteller, but I didn’t think I’d be a storyteller with words,” Turnbull said. “It’s a different discipline.”

“Writer’s Desk”

In spite of the challenges, Turnbull is optimistic that creativity can spring from a healthy balance between putting in the work and allowing oneself the time to step away from it. Take the Ag Fair poster contest, for instance. “I’ve been meaning to do that for awhile,” Turnbull said. This year, a few days before the deadline, Turnbull’s friend Mary Vivian reminded her about the contest, and suggested that the poster “needed a mermaid.” “I didn’t think I had time, but sometimes I find if you just put in the work, something unexpected can happen,” Turnbull said. The time materialized when her daughter contracted the flu, and Turnbull was presented with a day at home to finish the project just ahead of the deadline. 

Turnbull came down with the flu not long after, and was fast asleep when the news came in. “When I woke up there were like 100 messages on my phone from my friends celebrating,” Turnbull said. “I knew the fair poster was a big deal, but I had no idea how big a deal it was.”

“The Fair”

While the saga of the fair poster sounds fated, it’s demonstrative of Turnbull’s interaction with her own creative process. “We think we have no time, and therefore we have no time,” Turnbull said. “It’s a story we tell ourselves.” In a culture where “busy” is a brag and mom guilt is laid on thick, artists can find it difficult both to partake in creative endeavors and to allow themselves the time to reset. “It comes down to, How do you really want to spend your time, and how do you want to feel about your time?” Turnbull said. “When I decided to be an illustrator it felt like such a frivolous investment, but I just decided to dive into it … and I found that the time exists.”

And investments sometimes pay off, with a little bit of hard work. Remember the Kwai? It was eventually relieved of those cobblestones, and has become a beloved sailing vessel, transporting cargo between Hawaii and the Cook Islands. It’s a ship that’s known many existences, but it looks like it’s finally found its calling. 

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