Anna Stack is a young woman with serious publishing ambitions. Some day, the East Cork 23-year-old wants to be a bestselling author, to live in the US, and to be a role model for young people.
Last October, Cork City Libraries published her children’s book, Squirrely’s Baby Sister, and it was launched in the library with a reading.
The book, both illustrated and written by Stack, is the first in a series she’s working on centred on Squirrely and a host of other woodland animals. In them, Squirrely encounters a series of dilemmas and challenges that young children can relate to, learning lessons along the way.
“I got the idea for Squirrely and his adventures from my friend in Castlemartyr who told me that when her daughter was younger she would make up stories about a little red squirrel running through the woods near her home,” Stack says, sitting with a folder full of her illustrations in front of her.
“I decided to turn that book into a whole series following the everyday adventures of a fun-loving plucky little red squirrel.”
Squirrely’s Baby Sister is not Stack’s first book, although it’s the first in the Squirrely series. Stack was diagnosed as autistic as a child, but she has worked tenaciously on her dream of being an author and illustrator for many years. She created her first book, Victoria Bunnyham, when she was in sixth class and producing a colouring book, Anna’s Dream World, when she was in sixth year in secondary school.
Her colouring book drew some attention from local press, and she loves to do interviews and discuss her work. She dreams of being on television, and being able to inspire others.
“What I’d really, really love to happen is I would love to be famous for writing middle-grade novels and to be a New York Times Bestselling Author,” she says. “I want to write children’s books in America so I can publish them worldwide, and hopefully become an iconic American heroine.” As she talks, she resumes working on her latest Squirrely drawing: Squirrely’s baby sister is being woken from a nap, in a book called Squirrely’s Drum.
“It’s raining outside and Squirrely is bored because he can’t go out and play,” she explains. “Grandpa gives Squirrely a toy drum to play with. Grandma doesn’t like the really loud noise of the drum but Squirrely loves it. Squirrely is driving everyone up the wall with his drum. This is a topic that both children and their parents can relate to because small children love making loud noise, but their parents don’t like it.” Stack herself doesn’t like to be around noisy environments: “I prefer the quiet,” she says.
“I’ve always loved reading and living in my own imaginary world.” Stack is one of three new members of the Crawford Supported Studios, a long-term collaboration between the Crawford Art Gallery and MTU Crawford College of Art and Design that provides support to artists with learning disabilities.
She and her fellow newcomers, Nicola Moran and John Noel Kenneally, came to be members of the groups through a SECAD STRIVE programme in East Cork, joining veteran artists including Rosaleen Moore, Yvonne Condon and John Keating, who have worked on a wide array of different projects and exhibitions in their time with the Supported Studios.
Stack is the first member of the group to be both an artist and a writer, though: she says she’s “able to be 100% both,” and equally invested in both the stories she writes and the illustrations she makes, a little like her hero, Beatrix Potter.
“I’ve been coming to the studio for more than a year,” she says. “I like that I get to just draw my illustrations here, and sometimes colour them. I used to do painting when I was younger, but now I like to stick to drawing. I use Uniball pens, Crayola twistables and colouring pencils, and sometimes glitter gel pens.” She´ll often start work on a story with the illustration, making the line drawings and coming up with the storyline and adding finishing touches of colour at the end of her process.
Stack, the youngest of four children, is currently living with family in Castlemartyr, where she can indulge her love of nature and animals with walks in the woods, but she would like to live more independently: “walking around town, getting the bus or the train to other places, those kind of things.” She brings the books that she’s working on into the Supported Studio with her, but will continue to work on her illustrations for many hours each week at home. It’s a lot of work, but “when it’s published, it’s all worth it,” she says.
Such is her work ethic that she has four Squirrely books either completed or nearing completion, and she’s eager to see them published, to get them out into the world. Readings and public engagements are something she’s keen to do more of. She recently did an autism-friendly reading of Squirrely’s Baby Sister at Midleton Arts Festival and has read in primary schools too.
The sky is the limit for Stack’s ambitions and her inspiring message is a simple one: autism may come with challenges, but she’s going to aim high and keep focused on doing what she loves.
“I always think that just because I’m autistic doesn’t mean that I can’t follow my dreams,” she says. “I may have autism, but I don’t let that stop me from doing what I love to do most in the world. Whether you’re autistic or not, you should go out there and follow your dreams and show the world what you love to do.”
It’s 15 years since photographer and nurse Hermann Marbe founded GASP, the Glasheen Artist Studio Programme; he had been working in the Cope Foundation and realised that many of the people he was assisting had little outlet for creative or artistic expression, often purely due to resources.
Marbe passed away tragically young in 2018, but his original vision and ethos continue to be upheld. Crawford Supported Studios was founded and artists from GASP and from another project, Cúig, which was founded in Mayfield Arts Centre, joined.
Artists meet regularly in spaces provided by the Crawford Art Gallery and MTU Crawford College of Art and Design. The Supported Studio provides studio space, art materials, equipment, studio facilitators, assistance with transport and communications, access to exhibitions, audiences, peers, and support with training and development.
The 18 current members of the Supported Studio live in Cope Foundation residential care, L’Arche Cork, or private accommodation.
In early 2020, Rosaleen Moore represented the Crawford Supported Studio artists and exhibited her work at the School of Visual Arts Gallery in New York.
Supported Studio artist Tom O’Sullivan received an Arts and Disability Ireland Connect Mentoring Award to work with abstract landscape painter Tom Climent and went on to exhibit the resulting works in the café of the Triskel Arts Centre.
Works by five Supported Studio artists were purchased by the Crawford Art Gallery in 2021 and are now in the national collection.