Yappo: A Book About a Man and a Plant

A lonely man wanders across a strange and unruly landscape, his only possession, a three-leaved plant, bundled tightly in his arms. During his travels he encounters a milliner, a mermaid, a butcher and a dog, all of whom are curious about his plant and ask the man to share a cutting with them. But instead he replies only with Yappo, before moving onwards, the word echoing in his wake. This poetic tale of quiet and uncertainty is captured by artists Iro Tsavala and Henry Martin in their adult picture book, Yappo. We caught up with the creative pair recently to learn about the origins of this story and find out what great adventures they are looking forward to next.

Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala
Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala

What is YappoYappo is a limited-edition picture book, mainly for an adult audience, though hopefully enjoyed by children too. It is the philosophical story of a nameless man who travels the countryside protecting his one belonging: a small plant. On his travels he encounters a milliner, a butcher, a dog, and a mermaid, who each ask him for a leaf of his plant. Using only one word, “Yappo”, the man rejects each request, before continuing on his way. When he arrives at a town, his plant is taken from him, and he is banished. The following day the plant blossoms.

What are the origins of the word YappoHenry: Yappo is a word that can mean anything. It sounds a little like “yap” or “yapping” but the “o” at the end also turns it into an exclamation or question mark. In the context of the book, it might also be a different language, and as such, when one doesn’t know a language all the words sound or look cryptic: we know they have a meaning, we just can’t grasp it. This is true of the word, “Yappo”.

The setting for the story is inspired by a visit Iro made to the Scottish Highlands. What was it about this landscape that was so evocative? Iro: During the development stage of the project I went on a walking trip to Ardnamurchan in the Scottish Highlands with a friend of mine.

I thought it would be interesting to weave the act of walking into the creative process and make links with ideas of adventure, isolation, and silence which were suggested in the text.”

The colours, textures, and skies I encountered in Scotland were unfamiliar and extraordinary. I observed the elements around me and collected small findings (driftwood, stones, shells), as reminders and reference points for later. When I returned to my studio I tried to interpret what I saw, rather than reproduce it. Yappo unfolds in a land that is somewhere between the real and the fantastical – despite the impression Scotland made on me, my aim was not to create imagery descriptive only of the Highlands. Instead, I wanted to work with the unique elements of the landscape in order to create metaphors, placing the man in a plausible yet otherworldly land. The barren, remote, and otherworld atmosphere of the Highlands was the perfect location for the metaphorical and folkloric events that Yappo presents.

There is an air of mystery and magic steeped in the legends and stories of Scotland. Were there any local stories/legends that inspired you while creating your own story? There was no one legend or narrative that influenced Yappo. Rather, we were conscious of playing with elements found in fairytales and legends, such as talking animals, mythological creatures, craftspeople, walled towns, heroic journeys, and so forth. Though we both come from countries with strong storytelling and legend traditions (Iro, Greece; Henry, Ireland) we steered our story away from delivering the kind of moral often found in fairytales and legends. Despite this, the story still gives the reader some food for thought.

What do you hope an audience considers while reading your story? Are you ever surprised by the way your work is interpreted? Henry: I hope that the audience sees something different each time they look at the book. It’s very simple, but it is also purposefully deceptive. I hope readers are reminded of the fairytales and fables that most people grow up reading, whatever their country. I hope they reflect on the limits to our understanding, and how fun and rewarding uncertainty can be. It can make life more interesting.

I’ve always believed that asking questions is more important than finding answers.

I’m always surprised by the way my work is interpreted. My background is theatre, which means that people often come up to me immediately after a show to tell me their thoughts. I’ve had people come up to me crying (because they found the play moving), but also to challenge me. You can’t control people’s response, because it will be as varied as the weather.

It is equally important to listen to people’s interpretations and questions, as it is to stand up for your work, because you live with it the longest.”

Iro: Because we wanted Yappo to work as a picture book, retaining ambiguity in both words and images seemed like an important decision. I feel that the relationship we created between the text and images gives our readers the opportunity to interpret the journey in the book and construct meaning based on their own experiences.

And yes, I’m also often surprised by the way readers interpret my visual narratives and images. I think personal experience influences what each of us might read into a piece of work. This makes our individual interpretations quite unique. This is an integral part of my work – I rely on readers to add pieces to the ‘missing’ narrative and interpret the things that are left unsaid.

Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala
Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala

You were housemates when you began work on the book. What was it like, living and working together? It was helpful and personal. At the time, Henry was working on his book Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon and Iro was working on Unknown & Lost Creatures, so we both were very busy with other projects. We were both feeling a little isolated as artists; Henry went to the library to work alone, and Iro was working alone in her studio. So it was nice (and an antidote to isolation) to meet in the kitchen or talk about Yappo while we ate or cooked. In many ways the collaboration happened quite organically.

Living together helped us have an unspoken understanding of the interests we had in common, and it gave us a sense of what inspires the other person. This probably filtered down to our collaboration; we rarely had to justify our creative decisions to each other. Thankfully we were on the same page. Living together probably helped us bypass a lot of the confusions or misgivings that can permeate a collaboration. 

What other writers/poets/creatives inspire your work? Henry: Being Irish I grew up reading and studying the work of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Eavan Boland, and two of my favourite writers as an adolescent were Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Sense of place is strong in the work of these writers, to the extent that they come to be identified with specific places: the Irish countryside, and the American south. In recent years, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, Josephine Johnston’s Now In November, and the work of Agnes Martin, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), François Ozon, Nederlands Dans Theater, or the theatre director James McDonald are always poetic sustenance.

Iro: I love absurdity, especially when it is presented as a normal part of the everyday. The magic realism in Julio Cortàzar’s and Gabriel García Márquez’s stories is something I often refer to when I start a new narrative project. One of my favourite books is Hannah Höch’s Picture Book. It’s a collection of poems and collages, presented in a beautifully simple and playful way, they appear almost scruffy and childlike. Yet every time I read this book I discover something new. Whilst developing Yappo I loved looking at Pangnirtung by Robert Frank. It’s a photographic documentation of the Inuit hamlet, in black and white, and with very little, simple text. I think the book captures the sound of silence perfectly.

In your own minds, what is the plant the man is carrying and what does it symbolise? Henry:

For me the plant is a physical extension of the man; it symbolises something belonging to him; an aspect of his personality or identity, something intrinsic in him.”

It is this which is taken from him by the end of the book. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, though. As much as he was the plants protector, this responsibility may also be a burden. Perhaps the man is free to roam the world without it.

Iro: I chose to see the relationship between the man and his plant as incomplete. Neither seems to thrive in the other’s company, yet there is an unwillingness of the man to share and let go. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it symbolises a love affair, but for me there was a melancholic sense of satisfaction when the two were parted and were finally able to function as independent entities, perhaps for better or for worse.

Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala
Illustration from Yappo by Iro Tsavala

Why are picture books an effective medium for adults? Henry: I think different art forms act on the human mind in different ways. Seeing a piece of dance is very different to hearing a piece of music, and the two together create another experience again. Most of the images adults encounter in their daily lives are trying to persuade them to buy something. Art in museums can be a respite from this, and picture books perform the same function; they can connect us to a visual landscape and restore that very primitive need we have to be visually stimulated (without being sold to). The same is true of words. Sometimes it seems – and in certain circles this is definitely the case – that the more wordy and incomprehensible a book, the better or more original it is.

Bringing adults back to picture books, where text and image are carefully crafted together, can offer a more reflective experience for adults, reminding us that less is sometimes more.”

Iro: Picture books have something different to offer to comic books or graphic novels. Words and images can work alongside each other, whilst offering slightly different perspectives. This way it is possible to create interesting storytelling combinations, where words can say one thing and images purposefully hint at another. There are also design considerations that are integral to the reading experience. For instance, the size of the book, how tactile and thin the paper is, how much text goes on each page, and how much reading time each spread commands, are all ways that a reader’s experience can be subtly manipulated. I think picture books can appear deceptively simple, but they can present very exciting possibilities when the reader assumes a more active role. 

The illustrations are really lovely, haunting in a way which matches the scenic landscape it is inspired by. Can you tell us about the process of making these? During my time in Ardnamurchan, I took many photos which seemed loosely relevant to the key ideas of the initial text. I also collected found textures, like bits of rock or moss, effectively creating a bank of references to jog my memory but also to have something that I could perhaps use later on. I ended up using some of these textures directly in the image making, through frottage (a process of transferring a surface’s texture to paper, by rubbing the paper with graphite) and monoprints.

In my mind there was a direct link between creating marks on paper and walking the land and leaving physical traces behind.”

I then built more elements around those initial rough compositions, using soft pencils, printmaking ink and rollers and ink washes – generally media that were harder to control and would allow for happy accidents and looser types of mark making. The colour palette is limited on purpose, with very prominent areas of blue and earthy black and brown, chosen to highlight the textural qualities of the landscape and the open skies that felt so impressive during my trip.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Henry: Growing up in Ireland, my home had an orchard and I remember many hours picking apples from the trees in the summer heat. The orchard was a magical place, full of bees, cobwebs, the smell of sweet rotting fruit, and dappled sunlight. I was very lucky that both my parents liked plants, so our garden had roses, bluebells, daffodils, honeysuckle, holly, rhubarb, tomatoes, and much more. One of my favourite plants as an adult was my basil plant, Basie, who mysteriously disappeared from a first floor window ledge in Bethnal Green, London. I hope he’s out there having an adventure, and feeding someone else.

Iro: A lemon tree. When I was born, my parents planted a dozen or so lemon trees on a barren piece of land that they had just bought in the Peloponnese, on the Greek peninsula. Eventually, my dad built his own house there and it’s now surrounded by beautiful pomegranate, olive and almond trees. But the lemon tree orchard is the same age as me and their fragrant blossoms are just the best on early summer days.

What is the next adventure for you both? Henry: I spent a month in Taos, New Mexico in 2014 and I’m eager to return to the American Southwest because I found the colour, light, and landscape stunning. I’d like to drive from Taos to Denver, Colorado to see my friend Jina, so we can visit the Clyfford Still Museum together.

Iro: My partner and I will be travelling California this summer with an 80’s VW van and I think it will be a case of closing our eyes, putting several pins on a map and following a random route. In terms of creative adventures, it will be another collaborative project, this time a sci-fi animated film!


Yappo is a limited edition picture book with text by Henry Martin and illustrations by Iro Tsavala. It is available to purchase here

Find out more about this creative duo by visiting their online profiles.