Behind the Book: A to Zåäö

With Tara Sweeney and Nate Christopherson


We are a mother-and-son creative team. A to Zåäö: Playing with History at the American Swedish Institute is our debut picture book. It’s taken nearly four years to complete it. Our individual artistic styles are polar opposites: I use vivid watercolor to create convincing illusions of the observable world; Nate uses ink to invent black and white characters in response to those illusions. My favorite question is, “What would happen if . . . ?” Nate’s favorite question is, “What can happen next?” Collaborating to create our magical realism together is both exhilarating and risky. We often get asked, “What happens when you mess up?” because we literally work over the top of each other on one piece of paper. We pay attention to the unexpected, keep going to see what else can happen and explore solutions. This gets us outside our established ways of thinking and seeing and making. It wakes us up to lots of stuff we probably wouldn’t discover otherwise, which results in a distinctive creative product. And it’s fun.

The idea for A to Zåäö sprouted after I taught a 2016 watercolor workshop using objects from the American Swedish Institute’s (ASI) historic collection as props. Participants signed up for beginning watercolor but were just as keen to share the heritage stories the artifacts inspired. I wondered what would happen if an alphabet of objects could be illustrated somewhere in ASI where visitors could see the creative process happening, investigate the objects up close, ask questions, and tell more stories. I gave Nate my watercolor of the “Louis Chair,” one of the objects from the ASI workshop, and asked him to play around with inventing some characters to explore it. It made us both laugh.

Satta sig_AtoZprototype

I wrote an artist’s initiative grant proposal. The Minnesota State Arts Board funded our 2017-18 artist residency at ASI where a talented team of experts helped us create A to Zåäö. To make the first round of artifact selections we toured the collection with Inga Theissen, collections manager extraordinaire. I wrote a list of 300 verbs to describe how I’d explore the collection if I were a child. Chelsea Bowen, then educational programs coordinator, translated the verbs into Swedish. ASI set up an online survey for the public to select a third of the objects. We chose the remaining artifacts and each one for a specific reason. 

For example, Carl Larsson painting, Gunlög utan mamma (Gunlög without mamma) is one of the objects illustrated in A to Zåäö. Gunlög was Carl and Karin Larsson’s first grandchild; and Carl and Karin collaborated to create the work that made them famous. For me, a grandchild is an invitation to play. I have two which doubles the fun. Often, we make marks on the same piece of paper. The first time I tried it my granddaughter was not quite two.

Nate started drawing with his children long before I did. In fact, some of their exuberant mark making is in A to Zåäö. (See if you can spot it.) I don’t know if the Larssons thought about collaborating with children and grandchildren quite the same way we do, but their first grandbaby and their family certainly inspired great work. Karin’s body of textile, furniture and home interior design would likely not be known today if Carl had not featured it in his paintings. Similarly, his body of work would not have been notable in his lifetime for its unique subject matter–intimate daily family life and light-filled home interiors–without a family of models and Karin’s unique design vision. Their collaboration is an inspiration for what is possible when artists trust each other and their individual strengths enough to create something greater than the sum of their parts. 

Nate and I utilize very different materials and methods. During our residency, the salon of ASI’s Turnblad Mansion became a public studio where visitors could watch as I painted watercolor portraits of each object from direct observation by available light and see the curious characters Nate drew in ink right over the top. In combining the best of what we are capable of and trusting each other as we illustrated A to Zåäö we learned that we could create something very distinctive together. Asking questions, listening carefully, and responding honestly helped us grow A to Zåäö from a seed of an idea to a picture book. By taking the risk of working together we learned more about who we really are and what we are capable of.

So, trust your curiosity. Look–really look–at what’s right in front of you. Don’t worry if it’s ordinary. Pick it up if you can. Investigate. Ask lots of questions. Make messy art about it, maybe with someone else. Take time to tell stories. And have fun. We did.





Nate Christopherson is a special education teacher and freelance illustrator. He created art for Amy Leach’s Things That Are and a special edition of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass for the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. He received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to illustrate The Island, an award-winning limited-edition collaborative artist book.

Award-winning artist, illustrator, and author Tara Sweeney received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to co–illustrate and author A to Zåäö with her son, Nate Christopherson. She is author of Close to Home: A Minnesota Year in Sketches, a collection of illustrated creative nonfiction. She is professor emeritus at Augsburg University, where she taught drawing and painting for twenty-five years. Sweeney and Christopherson both live in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A to Zåäö will make its debut Dec. 7–8 during the American Swedish Institute’s Julmarknad. Details here.

The book is also the inspiration for the upcoming exhibit “extra/ordinary,” opening at ASI on February 29, 2020.

Leave a Reply