American-born, Brisbane-based artist and illustrator Renee Treml has discovered she is tougher than she thought. In 2010, she learnt she had breast cancer, and while the temptation was to stay in bed through the taxing chemotherapy treatment, she forced herself to do soul food things, like play with her baby son and develop a manuscript for a children’s picture book. She also used the downtime to experiment with making necklaces and brooches from her delicate scratchboard drawings of birds and bilbies. Now, with a book deal, exhibitions and design markets planned for 2012, Renee is ticking many of her dream boxes and highlighting an urgent environmental message along the way.
When Renee Treml returned with her husband and toddler son from a weekend getaway to celebrate the end of her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer last year, a life-changing email awaited her. A publisher wanted to bring to life her manuscript about one very tired wombat. She had entered the story in the 2011 Children’s and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators Conference competition and had won first prize in the Illustrated and Picture Books category.
“I was just so ecstatic,” Renee recalls of the moment she opened that email. “It really lifted my spirits and I think it kick-started my healing … It feels like, after going through so many awful things, it came at a time when we needed it. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.”
Renee signed a contract with Random House Australia in November last year and her picture book, One Very Tired Wombat, will hit bookstores in September. It tells the tale of a weary wombat and the flock of cheeky Australian birds, including curlews, frogmouths and penguins that conspire to keep him awake. Renee’s muse for the story lives at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane. She often visits the mini zoo with her son.
“The first time I ever saw that wombat there he was just crashed out in the corner. There were little kids running around him and he didn’t seem to care,” she recalls. “I love birds so I started drawing him with different Australian birds and one day that story finally came to me.”
The book is the realisation of a long-held yet distant dream. “I think after going through the chemo I just thought, that’s it, I’m tired of saying I’m going to do it one day. It kind of gave me the strength to do it,” Renee explains. “But I still never thought it would really happen. I thought it would be good for me – to go through the process and try – and at least then I could say I tried. It’s very exciting and I’m already thinking about a second book.”
Renee isn’t just passionate about wombats – she’s been fascinated with wildlife since she dreamt of being a vet as a little girl. “I saved every bird my cat would bring home – and mice too. I tried to nurse everything back to health,” she recalls with a laugh. Renee enrolled in a science degree but realised she was more interested in the bigger picture and “into how we as humans are interacting with different habitats and species and the environment”.
She graduated with a Master’s in Environmental Science in South Carolina and worked for five years in the field of technical remote sensing, using satellite imagery and aerial photography. Until that point, she had sidelined her love of art as a hobby – a reward for working in a day job. Renee credits her husband Eric for motivating her to become an artist at age 27.
At the time, Eric had quit his job to fulfil his dream to study a PhD in marine ecology. “He was so happy and he just really encouraged me,” Renee shares. “He said: ‘Let’s both let it all go and start over and do what we’re really passionate about.’ So we did.”
Renee enrolled in local fine-art courses and began creating and exhibiting watercolour paintings and mixed media works. An artist friend introduced her to the scratchboard technique and she was instantly hooked. Renee likens the technique to writing on black paper with a white pen. It involves using sharp knives and tools to etch into a thin layer of white China clay coated with black India ink. The result is highly detailed, precise and textured artwork.
Ironically, Renee’s artwork enables her to realise her childhood dream to work with animals, albeit on paper and canvas rather than in the flesh. Her recent scratchboard series depicts boobook owls, fairy wrens, bowerbirds and baby kangaroos variously nestled in porcelain teacups, teapots and milk jugs. The scenes are not only cute-as-pie, but also gently ponder the exigent issue of how wildlife is expected to survive if native habitats are destroyed.
Renee was inspired to confront this issue while in the United States when she came home one day to find a huge chunk of the managed forest she lived beside had been cleared, despite it being a haven for nesting owls. “It made me really sad. And I just started imagining this owl in all these different places – in mailboxes and flower pots, and somehow I saw him in a teacup and that’s when I started thinking about making more of a statement about where we expect this wildlife to go if we keep destroying habitat … They either have to go somewhere or they’re not going to survive.”
Renee and Eric moved to Australia in 2007, realising another long-held dream to live in a foreign country. Their son was born in 2009. These two happy milestones also rate as Renee’s greatest challenges – living apart from their loving family is tough, and becoming a mum was a challenge too.
“Like all new mums I had all those unrealistic expectations about how I would work when the baby was napping and I would get so much done. And that was a reality shock for me. And then obviously the breast cancer was a huge challenge,” Renee shares.
“That’s been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with. The treatment for breast cancer was horrific.”
Asked how she remained motivated, Renee credits their incredible support network of friends and family. “They were so encouraging and helpful and supportive. I get kind of choked up thinking about it,” she confesses.
As Renee neared the end of her treatment, her loved ones encouraged her to make art again. “But there were times when I was so sick that I couldn’t imagine having extra energy to do anything besides just sit there.” Fortunately, art proved the perfect therapy.
“I think the wombat book was really what pulled me out of all of that,” Renee explains, referring to her award-winning manuscript. “I knew the deadline was coming up for that conference and I was determined to enter my work … I clung to it and I worked when I didn’t feel well and I forced myself to keep going and that helped because by the time that was done I felt like, wow, I can start doing stuff again.”
Now whenever Renee faces an uphill battle, whether with her health or a tricky drawing, she boosts herself with wise words. “I usually try to tell myself I can do whatever it is … I think it’s more stubbornness than anything. I try to have faith in myself and get through whatever I have to do.”