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Fiona Lee Illustrates Adventure
Her Art Communicates to the Young and Old Alike

By Tessa Permar

Children’s book illustrtor Fiona Lee MacLean brings stories of nature to life with vivacity, curiosity, and wonder. She draws from her own experience as mother of two, a lover of animals, and a Vineyard-grown artist to depict young characters who are finding their own strength in their ever-changing worlds. Fiona uses watercolor, pencil, paint, digital design programs, and even kids’ crayons. With her rich patterns and expressive characters, Fiona illustrates the joy of being a kid in the wondrous natural world.

Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, Fiona describes her early relationship with art as meandering, at times present as a friend, at other times dropping out to let other interests lead. While she didn’t study art until much later, her young world was filled with creative souls. Fiona’s mom taught French in school and her dad was a carpenter turned architect, as well as an artist. “When I was growing up, he was painting a lot, drawing us these beautiful paintings for our birthdays and Christmas. He was a big influence as far as knowing that I could love making art,” she recalls. Another important figure was her close childhood friend, Lily Morris, who is a contemporary artist and painter also from Martha’s Vineyard. “Lily was a really big influence on me,” says Fiona. “Our families were the best of buds growing up so we spent a ton of time together. We spent our entire time drawing. We would just hole up and draw draw draw.”

Fiona also grew up building close bonds with animals. “My family is a big dog family. We like large dogs who are a little mischievous.” Her mom kept horses, and later in her 20’s she would relish extended visits to family members’ farms on the mainland. “I was always around horses and big animals. I would go and visit, hang out for a month or two, milk some cows, wrangle some pigs, and I just loved it.”

From a young age Fiona was fascinated by the textures of the world around her and felt at ease outdoors. In grade school, her class took a series of trips to Felix Neck that continue to live vividly in her memory. “The two things that solidified in my mind were mucking around the shores of Sengecontacket, and also going back into the classroom and reading these freshwater ecology and estuary books that were beautifully illustrated. I have this image of an illustrated frog, and you see him half in the water and half out. I remember as a kid just being floored that you could get a window into this other world.”

As she got older, creativity continued to weave like a comfortable current in and out of her life. Fiona danced at a local studio several days a week. In high school she ran track and danced and sang in the school plays. Her interest in the natural world led her to Connecticut College where she majored in Environmental Studies, focusing on the natural sciences. When she wasn’t in class, Fiona was in the dance studio or rehearsing choreography. After college, she moved to California and became an outdoor educator at a non-profit called Exploring New Horizons and other programs. She taught a science and natural history based curriculum to visiting 5th and 6th graders. There, she met her husband Jake, a fellow environmental educator and enthusiast, and they remained in the Bay Area for six more years.

In her late 20’s, Fiona sought a change. “I was really looking for a way to connect and deepen my own skill with attention and connection to nature,” she says. California State University in Monterey Bay happened to have a top science illustration program. “I became a naturalist for a while and that’s how I found my way back to art.” In class she honed her skills in realism, depicting birds, reptiles, flowers, and vegetation in lifelike accuracy. While she enjoyed this artform that required such intense obser-vation and celebration of the natural world, something was missing. “I love science illustration but the work can be very prescriptive. I was looking for more creative freedom. When I create a piece my natural tendency is to be experimental and a little bit messy in my process. I was getting restless curbing that instinct.”

Fiona reached out to some industry illustrators and realized that children’s book illustration felt like the perfect path. She began to make connections with authors and developed her first works. “I realized this is what I really want. You can be expressive but you can still help kids form connections with nature.” In 2020, Fiona was discovered by her agent, and work from publishers began to flow in.

Fiona’s books express care and wonder, often amidst a growing and changing world. She layers contrasting textures and pat-terns to depict the fullness of the natur-al world through the eyes of children. Her books uplift the love between care-givers and their kids, as well as their ani-mals. She illustrates books for a range of ages from infants to grade school.  

In Brilliant Bea, a Story for Kids with Dyslexia and Learning Differences, Bea uses a tape recorder to unlock her joy in learning and storytelling. Fiona draws Bea’s world in vivid color from all different angles–birds eye, close up, at a distance–demonstrating Bea’s ability to process many kinds of information and weave them into a story, and at the same time, showing her experience of having difficulty decoding the words on a written page. In Sylvia Finds a Way, a yoga-loving snail uses her flexibility and ingenuity to help broker peace between a farmer and the local animals. Fiona’s most recent book features a tale that feels right out of Martha’s Vineyard. Bark Ship Bonnie follows Bonnie Lass and her dog Bark Sailor as they navigate their ship through calm and rough waters, onto beaches ripe with buried curiosities, and back to safe harbor. The story weaves practical sailing language and techniques into a colorful, windswept adventure. Fiona has also provided illustrations for several board books for infants and toddlers, including Thank You, Tree that introduces different varieties of their trees and their many gifts, and Ways to Say I love You.  

While she illuminates other author’s stories, Fiona draws inspiration from her own experience as a mom of two children on Martha’s Vineyard with their own mischievous, kindly dog and spirited barn cat. When accepting work, she shares, “I’m very partial to anything with a nature story, or girl and a dog…” In her illustrations, “not all dogs look like Pepper [Fiona’s dog], but she is in my mind all the time.” She continues, “I’ve also done a fair amount of caregiver-who-loves-their-child stories. I love those. I have a deep well to pull from when I’m thinking about those illustrations that either depict love or the hard moments, or both in one.”

When she first receives a project, Fiona starts by reading the text several times and then gives it space to sink in. She says, “I think about it when I drive my kids to daycare, or when I’m nursing, or anytime I have time to think and process.” Finding time to create takes a lot of creativity in itself. “You have to find moments here and there, in the little armpits and pockets of the day,” she says with a smile. She will paint patterns, design textures, and create sketches to submit to the design team. The back-and-forth collaboration is a part of the process she savors. The entire process up to publishing can take mere months or several years. While Fiona has developed a style that is distinctly her own, she continues to explore and hone her craft. “I’ve been trying to figure out more how to bring out the lovely yummy textures and the looseness of my work that’s not traditional media.”

In addition to exploring new patterns and techniques in her art, Fiona is working toward an exciting new role. Drawing from her experiences raising kids and animals on Martha’s Vineyard, she is currently working on writing and illustrating her own stories. She will continue to bring other author’s stories to life with compassion and creativity. And she is ready to tell her own stories, shaped by the curious kids and caring adults, the mischievous animals, the imaginative artists, and the lush natural world around her.  

Fiona’s most recent book Bark Ship Bonnie can be found at local libraries and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. She is currently working on four more books that will be published in late 2024 and 2025. Her art prints and books are available for purchase on her website: