Sea you there!

Artist Elissa Turnbull’s whimsical design wins this year’s Ag Fair poster contest.

Elissa Turnbull with her winning Ag Fair poster design. —Lexi Pline

“All Roads Lead to the Fair, Sea You There,” is the theme that inspired this year’s winning and whimsical fair poster design: a mermaid drives a tractor, shepherding an assortment of farm animals across the page, headed to the fair. Last winter, Elissa Turnbull got a reminder that the contest deadline was coming up from a friend’s aunt, Mary Vivian, who also suggested the idea of putting a mermaid in the poster. Turnbull ran with it. 

“I wanted to include the mermaid to represent what is specific to the Vineyard, which is the fact that we live by the sea. Of course, there are other ways to represent that connection, but the mermaid is especially fun,” she says. She did most of the work on the poster one winter day when one of her children was sick and the other was playing with a friend next door. “So I basically got a day I hadn’t expected to make the poster happen,” Turnbull says.

This was her first entry into the poster contest, but she’d been meaning to do it for years. Turnbull has been working as a professional illustrator for a long time, alongside her work as a gardener and now as children’s librarian at the Aquinnah library. Her published work includes illustrations for corporate and university magazines. Her illustrations for children’s books are represented by agent Rosemary Stimola. As an illustrator, she has a well-developed process. “I always start by making thumbnails. Thumbnails are tiny drawings consisting of scribbles of black and white areas,” she says. “It allows you to work through all your bad ideas and bad compositions until you find one that’s worth committing to.”

She applied that process to the poster.I drew a few thumbnails to figure out the composition and content. Usually they’re scribbly enough that nobody can tell what they are, except for me. My first ideas were too static and got scrapped. When I had one I knew would work visually I just drew it, scanned it, and colored it in Photoshop. I got it printed the next day, and dropped it off,” she says. “Originally I was drawing the mermaid riding one of those giant horses, but in my thumbnail sketches it looked static, and didn’t have enough negative space. After working through it for a while and not hitting on a composition I liked, I decided to put her on a tractor.” The tractor wasn’t just any generic tractor, it’s one that lives just up the road from the fairgrounds. “I used to live at Mermaid Farm, and there was this old Farmall I loved, which I used to sometimes draw. So I put her on that tractor.” She also switched to a diagonal layout, with more negative space.

Turnbull wasn’t prepared for the reaction when she won. “I didn’t know it was such a big deal, but a day or two later when I won, I was sleeping off the flu and woke up to about a hundred messages from my friends about it. It was a party in my phone! I didn’t tell anyone I was home sick.”

Now that August is here, Turnbull and her kids are looking forward to the fair. The fair is a major part of the summer for her up-Island kids.

“My kids like to do everything at the fair,” Turnbull says. “The rides hold their attention the longest, with the fries and ice cream coming in second. There’s a baby roller coaster that makes them cry every year, but they insist on going on it every summer because they never remember how it made them feel the year before.” They also like to watch their friends compete in different events, and of course they love visiting the animal barn. 

“At the end of the day I like to hear the local bands play over by the food stand that sells the deep-fried sSnickers bars. I spend the whole time struggling to keep an eye on my two kids who are constantly moving in separate directions. It’s a wonderful feeling at the end of the evening, getting into the car with a stomach full of cotton candy and both my important people fully intact.”