A London-based publisher released a book Tuesday in the United States called Edible: 70 Sustainable Plants That Are Changing How We Eat, and the story behind the illustrations says as much about the state of creative professions today as it does about winged kelp and dandelions.
The book’s authors hail from Europe, but in searching for someone to illustrate their celebration of both familiar and obscure edible plants, they finally landed on Katie Kulla, a Dayton-area farmer for whom art and writing are central to her life.
“I love images and text,” she told me recently at a McMinnville coffee house. When she was working 20-some years ago on a double major of art and English at Western Washington University, a popular vehicle for that sort of love affair was the ‘zine, which had enjoyed a resurgence as part of the broader “riot grrrl” feminist punk subculture a few years earlier.
“Pretty much any opportunity I had to make a little book or pamphlet, I did,” she said. “For both my art classes and English classes. I’ve never gotten into the ‘zine community, but I’ve always been inspired by the aesthetic.”
After college, Katie and her husband, Casey, settled in Yamhill County and became organic farmers. The Kullas led the vanguard of Yamhill County’s then-fledgling community-supported agriculture scene, running their popular operation from 2006 to 2020. During that time, Kulla hit the pause button on drawing, and after having two children, her writing tapered off as well, although she kept up with the farm’s weekly newsletter.
Then the pandemic happened.
“A lot shifted for us,” she said. “Our kids were older, and I’d started drawing a little bit before that, keeping nature journals. I’d design a whole page like, ‘This was my hike at Baskett Slough, and this is what I saw.’” She also returned to ‘zines, teaming up with a friend to make seasonal ‘zines a staple of care packages circulated among her local interfaith circle.
“It was just a super-fun project,” she said. “At the same time all this was happening, I was also drawing again, just in general. I really liked drawing plants, and because I’m a farmer, I know a lot about vegetables, and I knew at this point that I wanted to restart my writing.”
That’s why Instagram became part of the picture.
Kulla at the time was writing occasionally for Growing for Market, an indie trade magazine, and also was working on book proposals. “I knew I had to have a platform,” she said. “I knew there were a lot of farmers on Instagram, so that seemed like the place to be to build a following. The drawings I’d done of vegetables always got the most interaction. So I started drawing illustrated guides, like ‘How to eat leeks.’ It was just a side project, just to be drawing.”
Kulla’s images, drawn with an Apple pencil using the Adobe suite on an iPad, had sharp, clean lines and bright colors, accompanied by the #PlantIllustrations hashtag. In the spring of 2022, someone across the pond noticed.
“I got this email from an editor in London,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Hi, I’m working on a book about edible plants, would you like to illustrate it in this style?’ It had screenshots of four of my Instagram posts in the email. And I was like, ‘What, is this real? Do they really want me?’ I met with the editor and talked about the scope of the project, and at every step I thought, ‘Well, I guess they believe I can do this, so I guess I’ll do it.’”
It was a case of whimsical, creative play resulting in actual work.
Kulla spent the next seven months researching the 70 plants (a few of which she was unfamiliar with) that authors Kevin Hobbs and Artur Cisar-Erlach had identified for Edible, the text for which was mostly finished. She produced more than 150 separate images to illustrate the book.
The authors had previously published a book on herbs featuring what Kulla described as very stylized artwork. They were looking this time, she said, for illustrations that were more “accurate” so the reader could, without photographs, identify the plants.
“We knew the illustrations had to be something special, as there are many books about plants on the market, most with absolutely beautiful, but nevertheless somewhat dated, classic print illustrations,” said Cisar-Erlach, an Austrian ecologist and educator. “We both loved her work on Instagram, as she had found the perfect balance between simplifying the plants but still adding enough detail that they are instantly recognizable. Also, her illustrations have a highly recognizable style, while still being very unique individually. So every page means new, exciting artwork.”
Edible features plants from every continent, using nearly two dozen icons as keys to indicate a plant’s characteristics: tolerant of fire, highly nutritious, enhances soil quality, resistant to drought, etc. In researching each, Kulla spent a lot of time online looking at multiple images of each plant, then depicting each with an original, singular creation and not just a drawing from a photograph.
It was a fun project, she said, but even as she was starting on the first of 70, Kulla said she realized “this was going to be like doing another year of school, in terms of refining my skills and the volume of work.” Her eye got sharper, her technique got better, and even with her own book projects in various stages, she acquired a better understanding of how a book comes together. In this case, it was a transcontinental affair enabled by technology: the writers in Europe, the illustrator in North America, and book designer Ashlea O’Neill in Australia.
“It was a really great team,” she said.
Edible was published by Thames & Hudson based in London and is for sale in Yamhill County at Third Street Books in McMinnville and Chapters Books and Coffee in Newberg. It will also be available through the Pacific Northwest Booksellers 2023 holiday catalog.
Kulla will be joined by fellow plant enthusiast Neyssa Hays of the nonprofit group Outdoor Education Adventures at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the McMinnville Public Library, where copies of the book will be available for sale and check-out. For more information about Kulla and her work, visit her website or, of course, the Instagram where this seed was planted, @KatieKulla.