Illustrated Prayer Books: An Interview with Constanze von Kitzing

As a new mother and a life-long bibliophile, I get giddy when new Baha’i books for children hit the shelves – in these early days of the Faith, they are so preciously few! You can imagine my excitement when I discovered Constanze von Kitzing’s works. She is a German illustrator of children’s books, and both the American and German Baha’i publishing trusts have already printed her illustrated prayer book for children and her edition of Blessed is the spot…

A book of excerpts from the sacred writings, entitled Pearls of Wisdom, will be available in the near future and I am grateful that my daughter will grow up with Constanze’s playful images in her hands when we share family devotions. Her art is joyful, colourful and delightful. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about Constanze and she graciously agreed to tell me about herself and her craft.

Baha’i Blog: Can you please tell me a little about yourself and your background as an artist?

Sure! When I think back, I was always drawing as a child, listening to tapes. My images were full of details and little stories, so I think this is really part of me. When I grew up, my parents would read picture books to us before going to bed and I remember that I then thought that it would be cool to illustrate a book one day. I was lucky to attend a weekly art school for the young for 10 years and after my year of service with Beyond Words in South Africa, I decided to study illustration.

Baha’i Blog: What is your artistic process like, both physically and spiritually – for instance what mediums do you use?

I mainly work in Acrylic and Color Pencil. I work with many layers to get the right color and structure I like to see. I feel that the process of painting is very spiritual, as the mind closes down and I find myself in a meditative state. Also, I’m trying to get better and better, which is supposed to be worship, so there you go. Another thing I find fascinating is to leave some things to chance, and not to plan everything in detail, but to sometimes be lead by shapes I find in my background patterns.

Baha’i Blog: What inspired you to illustrate a prayer book for children?

I actually started off with “Blessed is the spot…”. A US friend that I met when studying at MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design) who had a young son asked me if it would be a nice idea for a book — and sure it was. After it was published by the German Baha’i Publishing Trust, I immediately had the idea of first illustrating the prayer book and then a book with Baha’i quotations. I was asked to illustrate the book with the quotations for older kids and then the prayer book. I think that an illustrated prayer book is a very nice way to get children interested in prayer. Before they can really understand the words, they connect with the images and maybe understand more and more what the prayer can be about.

Baha’i Blog: How did you choose which prayers you wanted to include?

It was a little difficult, but I had help by the Committee for Children’s Literature here. So we went back and forth, and in the end we picked the prayers that are included. It would have been an option to illustrate more prayers, but it’s obviously not supposed to be the complete collection, but an introduction.

Baha’i Blog: Some of the illustrations contain their own stories – for example the illustration accompanying “Is there any remover of difficulties…”. How did you decide how you were going to illustrate each prayer?

I felt it was quite challenging to illustrate prayers in a dignified way, but that they would clearly speak to children and make them wonder, think and laugh. I tried to imagine in what circumstances a child might need to say a certain prayer or to show something the prayer is saying. It’s sometimes intimidating to illustrate a prayer or quotation, as it is of course a limited way to look at a text and also an interpretation. I can totally understand if someone prefers to have prayers without illustrations, as they can be quite strong, but personally, coming from a very strong visual background, I think it can also be inspiring and the older the children get, the more the parents or children’s class teachers will be able to talk about the prayers and quotes and the children will add new and more complex meanings to the images and ideas they have in mind.

Baha’i Blog: Your work is wonderfully whimsical: flowers with children’s faces and a snail with a house on its back are a few of my favourite details. I also really love the wolf shaped cave and the whale island in “Blessed is the spot…”. Where does your sense of whimsy come from?

No idea… My mother used to get really impatient with me when I was a kid, as I used to watch everything carefully, got lost in what I saw  and it took ages to get from A to B. I guess most children have moments like this, but my mother insists that I was an extreme case and I think I still am. I’m just watching everything and everything I see gets sorted into my inner visual encyclopedia. And when I start drawing or if I read a text, there are plenty of those images that all of a sudden appear. I guess it’s a blessing to be able to express myself this way and I’m thankful every day that I could make my passion into my profession.

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming book for Baha’i children?

The first book that has been published in the series is “prayer for children”, the second one “blessed is the spot” and the third will be called “pearls of wisdom” and it contains quotations from the writings. As I mentioned earlier, it is a little more complex, there are two quotations on a certain theme on one spread and there’s also a red thread that leads throughout the book. The quotes have been chosen carefully and have been edited again and again, so I’m sure everyone will enjoy them. I think all books work really well as presents, as well as for Baha’i kids as everyone else.

Baha’i Blog: Thank you, Constanze for this insight into your wonderful work!

Has your interest has been piqued? You can find out more about Constanze and her work here on her website, and English editions of her books are for sale here or can be obtained through your local Baha’i bookstore.

Also, if you’re as book crazed as I am, I recommend following the US Baha’i Publishing Trust on Twitter (@bahaibookstore) for updates about their newest titles. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for Pearls of Wisdom!

About the Author

Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a mother, a wife and a bookworm but professionally she is a museologist and a library technician. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

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Discussion 2 Comments

  1. The Baha’i artists of the 1970s used to always show figures praying doing a particular mudra with their hands: The hands lying down on the legs, palms up. There was never any explanation of whether Baha’is were supposed to pray this way, but the Baha’i artists were always drawing that mudra. Are Baha’is still keening and straining for a semblance of a mystical image while phobic about the mystical practices of the other religions such as had mudras? Just wondering.

    1. “Hey, Senator, are you still beating your wife?” Sorry, but I am noticing a lot of assumed accusations/generalizations in the wording of your “question.” Surely the Baha’is can do their thing and you can do a different thing without saying Baha’is are “keening and straining” after something. If you met a Baha’i demonstrating a “phobia” about “the mystical practices of other religions such as had mudras” (how? by saying it’s evil or perverted or to be feared? Not a teaching of the Faith), then most Baha’is I have ever known would say they should learn to live and let live and leave people alone about it.

      As for the mudra, I’ve pulled out some old Baha’i illustrations after I read your comment and I see people depicted as praying in a variety of postures. I know I’ve probably seen that posture some time (not in anything I have found in today’s search) but it’s by no means the only one that was around. Certainly, it wasn’t the most common one by any means that I recall seeing in the 70s and it’s not what we taught kids.

      If this posture was depicted a lot, I would guess the illustrator(s) might be trying to depict a diverse set of praying positions (that’s what I see in the kids’ stuff I pulled) and that all these ways of praying are legitimate even if different from the standard Judeo-Christian practices (which are also fine, BTW). Generalizing to all Baha’is that these are somehow big issues is contrary to my experience living in multiple communities around the world, but maybe you ran into one. People of any faith are also perfectly free (from our point of view) to pray or not to pray according to these practices without being “phobic.” One could also recognize virtue in another’s belief but not care to follow the whole nine yards of their practice. So I suggest you pray your own way and other individuals will pray theirs. If you want to educate Baha’is or anyone else about your practice, offer the educational opportunity in a spirit of friendliness and offer to learn theirs in return, and you may get a good exchange. If not, then move on and it will be their loss. Just IMO.

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