The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

Diary by STEVE BONELLO: A cartoonist’s tribute to trees

Sunday, 19 September 2021, 08:37 Last update: about 26 days ago

STEVE BONELLO is a freelance artist, cartoonist and illustrator. In his previous life he worked in the aviation business for thirty years, following that with a short stint in commuter transport. Steve has contributed cartoons to The Sunday Times of Malta since 1991 and has had two personal shows of his work locally. In 2015 he was the Maltese cartoonist chosen to participate in an EU wide exhibition organised by French NGO Cartooning for Peace at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In 2018 he teamed up with Marie Briguglio to publish the book No Man’s Land, which was given a rousing welcome (see below). So, how did he deal with the pandemic?

"When I look back, the year 2020 actually started very brightly for me - in late January the book No Man's Land which was co-authored by Marie Briguglio and myself (she did the writing while I complemented the text with some 230 environment-related cartoons previously published in the Times of Malta) won the National Book Prize (2019) in the "Literary Non-Fiction" category. Although I have illustrated quite a few books in my time this was the first volume with my name on the cover. Marie and I had worked hard to make this collaboration a success and winning the Book Prize was the cherry on that particular cake.

By that time we were hearing rumblings of this strange virus from China. When the images of empty Wuhan started emerging I thought the lockdown there was draconian and probably exaggerated, made possible only because it was imposed by a regime one hardly argues with or dares oppose. But when the virus came to Europe and the Venice Carnival was cancelled I was gobsmacked and my initial thought was that the Italians were also exaggerating matters. Then came the regional Italian lockdowns and I simply could not believe that Italy was actually copying China. Watching events unfolding in nearby Italy at that time felt surreal, knowing only too well that Malta was hardly likely to avoid infections.

I was at a protest commemorating the house collapse victim Miriam Pace when word starting circulating that Malta had its first covid case. Life continued normally for a couple of days but within a week things changed completely. I remember the strange fascination - part horror, part wonder - of driving along empty streets, parking the car in Hamrun and walking from there to Valletta. I clearly remember a rush hour Portes Des Bombes with perhaps a car passing once every two minutes or so. Valletta in those days was also fascinating - an empty city at midday. I did this walking into Valletta ritual a few times but at one point the sadness of it all caught up with me and I stopped altogether. Mdina was another thing altogether. Here was the silent city once again reclaiming its moniker with a vengeance. I must have visited Mdina every week in those early pandemic months and I can say it has never looked so beautiful although of course I am painfully aware of the huge financial losses people who own and do business there suffered.

Empty streets and cities were not the only novelty. Shockingly within a couple of weeks my freelance income and work was cut by half too and any sort of new work opportunities died as well. Working in the studio increasingly became a sad experience and with spring coming up and fine weather on most days I started taking the studio outdoors. A couple of years earlier I had tentatively started drawing trees and I now continued doing this with more gusto. I began looking and observing trees more keenly: their particular shapes (one can easily say character here) and what their particular locations added to the trees themselves. I started drawing groups of trees rather than single ones, and although these drawings are very small ones, I experimented further with different tree species and varied compositions. In short it became something of a love affair - one which happily is still ongoing. These drawings are highly therapeutic to me - but they are also a political statement of sorts because we live in an island where the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Malta seem to have declared a fatwa on anything sporting a trunk, branches and leaves. These drawings were my most popular works during the pandemic and the best compliment I've been given is when people tell me they have started looking at trees differently (and appreciating them much more) since seeing my work.

The pandemic was a 'bonus' as far as my cartooning is concerned as no doubt it has been to cartoonists worldwide. There is nothing a cartoonist loves better than novel situations replete with promise: new concepts and phrases like 'new normal', 'social distancing', 'herd immunity', 'virus variants' lent themselves to several cartoon concepts which were simply not even an option just a year earlier.

This series is conceived and edited by Marie Benoît who contributes her own Diary occasionally. [email protected]
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