The concept of arts and science are joined together in the world of academics as an area of study. Ottawa artist Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa, joins the two in his daily life. With a background in biochemistry, Merryl-Royce works for Health Canada, but with a talent for drawing he also makes time each day for his work as an illustrator, something he’s done since he was a child. “Illustration is something that I have been doing my whole life, it’s been a passion,” he reveals.
While Merryl-Royce doesn’t define himself as an illustrator in the traditional sense, he’s aware of his work similarities. Traditionally, an illustrator is someone who has the ability to draw in a variety of ways to show environments and people on paper using tools like charcoal and pencils. “What connects the artist to the word illustrator is the ability to recreate environment on paper,” explains Merryl-Royce. He’s able to accomplish this through digital illustration using his iPad, although he does draw with charcoals as well.
Touting the benefits of illustrating with an iPad, Merryl-Royce says, “I now use the iPad Pro which really makes the artwork easier. There are a lot of tricks with digital art that allow me to draw faster and more accurately. I can transfer directly to my computer from my iPad. The colour palette is endless which is something that wasn’t possible traditionally.”
Prior to finding a community of like-minded artists through his Instagram account, he didn’t have a connection to the medium, given that friends and family were not fully able to relate to his work.
Social media also provided him with a connection that evolved his work into the literary space. He was introduced to Toronto author Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore when she put a call out on Instagram for an illustrator or an artist to partner with her on a project. Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada, is a children’s book that introduces the reader to Black trailblazers whose stories are under-represented in Canadian history. Written in poetic form, each story is accompanied by one of Merryl-Royce’s illustrations.
Once completed, Merryl-Royce and Tiyahna reached out to publishers without any luck. “They questioned the way that some of the stories were being told and if they would appeal to their public,” Merryl-Royce says. “We felt like that was them trying to lower our voice, the Black author/illustrator voice, to suit the white public. They wanted to change the book in a way we weren’t comfortable with.”
The death of George Floyd, in May 2020, changed the conversation around racism. “We really wanted to put out a product that represented what we wanted. We stopped contacting certain publishers because we didn’t want to compromise the book anymore,” Merryl-Royce said. “Some publishers started to respond to previous messages because the conversation had changed and there was now a focus on Black stories. This felt disingenuous and that their interest was only because of the change of mood in the world.”
They eventually decided to self-publish and started a very successful Kickstarter campaign in June 2020. “It was really reassuring because we hadn’t changed the concept of the book,” explains Merryl-Royce.
The attention led to a partnership with Indigo. “They wanted to empower us and help us get the book we developed out there without making any changes,” Merryl-Royce said. The book launched in November 2020.
“The Trailblazers book was an experience that I am proud to have been a part of,” Merryl-Royce notes, adding, “It’s a really important piece of literature right now, there’s a lot of learning that happens. People are introduced to characters that were part of Canada’s history that they likely hadn’t heard of before.”