Saturday, June 27, 2009


This week I played hooky for a few days to sit in on lectures at the Illustration Academy in Sarasota, Florida. The Academy assembles some of the most talented and successful illustrators in the country to discuss their work and teach young artists in hands-on sessions.

I had the pleasure of listening to presentations by
Mark English:

Sterling Hundley:

Gary Kelley:

Anita Kunz:

George Pratt:

If you tried to single out some distinguishing characteristic that accounted for the success of these illustrators, it was certainly not the way they marketed their services. (They had very different techniques.) Nor did they work in a common style-- they used a wide variety of approaches. It was not the stage of their careers (their ages range from 33 to 76) or the medium they used (some painted with computers and some painted with roofing tar). It was not their geographic location (they came from all around the US and Canada) or their gender or their politics. Yet, this group repeatedly won top awards and received choice assignments from the premiere publications.

So what did they all have in common?

It seemed to me that they all shared a deep curiosity about images and the interplay of form and content. Each of these illustrators had the enthusiasm and energy to cast their net again and again for fresh inspiration, exploring new themes and media. This, more than any career roadmap or promotional strategy, seemed to be their common ingredient. Not one of them lapsed into using a repetitive formula. I was surprised at how much of their work was self-generated; one persuaded a symphony orchestra to team with him in an experimental show of projected images to accompany Gustav Holst's
The Planets. Another went on a pilgrimage to the backwoods of the Mississippi delta to develop a project on the blues. Their broad intellectual curiosity added a richness to their illustrations that seemed to distinguish them from illustrators who took a more perfunctory approach.

Finally, I would like to add one other observation about my experience at the Illustration Academy. I've spent enough time around the New York art gallery scene to develop an extreme distaste for the phony hocus pocus that often accompanies the creation and sale of art. Sure, I respect the mystery of the muse-- my skin has tingled at the feel of her breath on the back of my neck-- but I can't stand it when her mystery is exploited to inflate a price or glamorize a particular artist. Many artists and art galleries today operate like the high priests in ancient times who cloaked sacred activity within a mystic tabernacle to keep the uninitiated awestruck.

The artists at the Academy, on the other hand, de-mystified everything they could legitimately de-mystify. They had a healthy respect for the role of the muse in creating art, but they did not expand her role for their own self-aggrandizement. Instead, they spoke in honest and functional terms about the genesis of ideas and the ways that art communicates. It was as clean a discussion of the making of art as I've heard in a long time, by people with a sincere interest in passing along helpful information to younger artists, and it reminded me why I like illustration so damn much.

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