Instructor Carol Fabricatore has work in the latest edition of Carrier Pigeon. Last Friday they had their release party at Grit and Glory on the LES.
Artphabet goes to Cyprus
The ABC’s of SVA posters and 26 individual Artphabet letter prints will be exhibited as a solo show at the 5th International Conference of Typography & Visual Communication in Cyprus this June.
The conference is organized by the Design & Multimedia Department of Nicosia University and the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication University of Reading, UK.
For details about the exhibition and the 5th ICTVC in general visit: http://www.ictvc.org/en/events
Tuesday, May 7th started a week of celebration for the Class of 2013. Here are some photos from our annual thesis show celebration.
Ever see an illustration and wonder what the person used for reference? Well, wonder no longer! These generous contributions from the SVA MFAI class of 2013 pull back the curtain on this mysterious process:
And the following which ended up not being used for Daphne & Apollo illustrations:
The fantastic Karen Steinecke brings the pain:
1. How did you get here?
I feel like a “life story” is best told in person, so I’ll just give some highlights:
I’ve worked with dead people, I’ve worked with business people, and I’ve played roller derby. None of those things have anything to do with illustration, but I credit them all equally with getting me here. I’ve always drawn, but never had any real training because it was just what I did on the side when i wasn’t busy doing all of those other things. At some point, “on the side” wasn’t good enough anymore. In the space of two months, I applied to this program, got accepted and quit my job of 8 years. I took the long way (scenic route?), but ended up where I belong.
2. What kinds of images and projects do you like? What about them compels you?
Being able to tell a story in only one or two images has this puzzle-solving aspect to it that really appeals to me, so I’m drawn to things like book jackets, murals, posters, etc… I really enjoy lettering for the same reason–drawing words is a unique challenge. The letters need to fit together a certain way and they need to tell a story.
My favorite kinds of movies are those with a good twist. The best part is watching them a second time to see the clues that were there all along but seemed irrelevant and just kind of added to the movie in a general way. I think that’s started to influence what I draw. With my thesis, my goal was to create images that on their own are interesting to look at, but once you read the story there’s that “Ohhhhhhhhh, I get it now” moment.
3. Can you talk about your process and how it’s changed or been changing?
Well, before SVA I pretty much only drew with Sharpies and mechanical #2 pencils (those yellow, fake pencil-looking ones are still my favorite). So really, the use of any other medium was an evolution in process for me. There were two major game-changers though:
When I started the program, I was constantly comparing myself to everyone else and feeling like I needed to play catch-up (which was, of course, impossible). On top of that, because my application portfolio drawings were realistic/portraits, I was so locked into the mindset of “this is why they accepted me. I need to keep drawing this way.” At some point Marshall and Carl hammered home (in a nice way) that all of this thinking was ridiculous and jamming me up creatively. My god, were they right. It was incredibly freeing to let go of all of that, and I think if you compare my Viktor [Koen] project to the Krampus book to my thesis, the relaxation progression (did I just invent that phrase?) really comes across.
Also, I was never a “thumbnailer” before this year. I totally dismissed thumbnail sketches as messy little drawings that took time and effort away from the “real thing.” David Sandlin, thankfully, was unrelenting in his pro-thumbnail approach, and really drilled in the importance of this step, both for content and composition. He was so right- SO right. It’s made my flow much more efficient and energetic. Viktor’s weekly editorial Bootcamp assignments also helped with this. Our “solutions” didn’t need to go farther than the sketch stage, and it was eye opening to see how little visual information is actually needed to get an idea across. It can be intimidating to have a big fresh piece of paper and think I need to fill it with the Sistine Chapel, and so there has always been a long lag between my planning stage and putting pencil to paper. But knowing I’m just going to do a bunch of quick, rough sketches that don’t have to look good takes all of that apprehension away so I can just get down to business. (You hear me, all you “non-thumbnailers??” You really gotta get on this train.)
So I guess the long and short of it is, I used to think too much about drawing and now i don’t. It’s not a poetic answer, but there it is. Who knew illustration was so mental??
4. Could you talk about your thesis. Why Roald Dahl? How do you manage to make your book covers so damn creepy?
My thesis is a series of book covers illustrating some of Roald Dahl’s short stories written for adults.
I decided to do covers after Mirko Ilic took our class to meet with Paul Buckley at Penguin last spring. And I mean, right after. Maybe even during. Paul’s office was filled with crisp books whose covers were these perfect, little pieces of art—literally stories wrapped around stories. I pity the person I walked home with that night because I definitely didn’t stop talking about it the whole way. This was also when I started to seriously consider asking Mirko to be my thesis advisor. Fortunately for me, when I popped the question a few months later, he graciously accepted.
Roald Dahl was my author of choice for a few reasons. First, I knew the project would require a lot of reading/research, and I was confident Dahl’s work would keep me interested for an entire year. Second, I read his autobiography BOY: Tales of Childhood when I was younger, and it was fraught with this tragic yet humorous misadventure that would be really fun to illustrate. Third, he’s awesome.
Originally, I was planning to illustrate covers for Dahl’s children’s books in a way that would make adults want to read them too. There’s so much depth and darkness in his writing, parents are really missing out by dismissing them as “kid’s books.” In the process I learned that he wrote an extensive amount for adults, some of which was later adapted by Hitchcock, Tarantino, and Spielberg. (Guess who created the original Gremlins?) Mirko made a point during one of our meetings that totally crystallized everything (as he often did). He suggested that if I drew Dahl’s children’s books in a way that was too dark and honest, it might actually scare parents away from letting their kids read them. Instead, by concentrating on his stories for adults, i could re-introduce Dahl to grownups that remember him from their childhood.
I can’t take full credit for the creep factor. Having Mirko’s brain to pick (and library to borrow from) kept me from falling in the traps of making images that were too obvious / plot spoilers / already done to death / or just plain boring. Along with that, Dahl just gives so much to work with. This thesis series is creepy, but I could draw covers for the same eight titles that would just be beautiful, or tragic, or funny—because the stories are these things too. It’s like an open book test—the answers are all there.
5. It seems like one of the ways your images are so creepy or striking is by how bold and unflinching, how clear you are about what you depict. That includes subject matter, but also just the way of drawing—it seems like you can get right in the face of what you’re doing. Do you seek out things to draw that let you do this? Or are you this way about most things?
I never really thought about it, so it must just be the way I see things. When I was working with dead people, so much of the what I saw was just gruesome. Because of that, my brain’s coping mechanism was to process it as “fake.” Picking up a face on the side of the road or looking for fingers (yes, both have happened) only became bearable if saw these things as pieces from a wax museum. Do that long enough, and “creepy” things just become part of the normal landscape. Do I want to see fingers hanging from your rearview mirror? Absolutely not. Will I remove them if you ask me to? Sure.
As for my way of drawing- it’s totally based on what medium I feel like using. For example, I only learned Photoshop last year, so for my thesis, I wanted to draw it all digitally as a challenge to myself. A byproduct of that is this artificial sensibility that kind of amps up the creep factor. I didn’t plan it and I don’t think I could’ve achieved it any other way.
6. What kinds of projects would you like to explore in the future?
Carol [Fabricatore]’s location drawing class was a huge exercise in patience and practice for me. I never realized what a luxury it was to sketch at a table as opposed to sitting on a curb in chinatown with 5 people hovering over your shoulder. I really grew to love it though, and anxiously await the warm weather so I can draw outside. If i’m feeling especially ambitious, i might sit near a bike trail…
Besides that, my new found free time has created a kind of “kid in a candy store” mentality. I’m really enjoying playing around with lettering, so I have some calligraphy classes coming up. I’m definitely interested in doing some editorial work because that quick deadline really appeals to me. After finishing a digitally illustrated thesis, I’m just really looking forward to getting my hands dirty again.
7. Your observations about people are hilarious and consistently spot-on. What about people’s flaws, strangeness, and ridiculousness interests you? Does collaboration or being in an environment with colleagues feed your work in any way?
I think what interests me about the general ridiculousness of people is how their flaws and strangeness go unnoticed. Or maybe it’s noticed but unmentioned? Sometimes someone next to me will do something I think is totally absurd, and no one around even flinches. Like, how did you guys all miss that?? It makes me think I’m the crazy one for a minute, but then I realize—no. It’s definitely them.
Our little studio bubble has 100% influenced my work. I’ve never been in an environment like that, so it was pretty sweet being surrounded by creative people all the time. I can’t lie—the biggest thing I got out of it was straight up knowledge. I’m pretty sure I’ve walked into everyone’s space and said something like “how did you do that? what did you use?” etc. It’s one of the perks of being in a program with such a broad range of artists—there’s always someone who’s the “go-to” person for a particular medium. Plus, I learned a ton just by listening to other people talk about what they’re up to… what’s working…what was a disaster…
9. What has this program meant to you?
Simple: it’s never too late to get where you’re going.
But don’t quote me on that.
Illustrator Maëlle Doliveux (and recent winner of a silver Art Directors Club Cube Award) kicks it up a notch:
If it amuses you, pretend a small muppet is asking you the following questions.
Oh hello ‘Kurmyt’! Thank you so much for meeting me here at your sound stage for this interview! It certainly is flattering. And may I say you look ever so lovely and fuzzy this morning.
1. How did you get here? Where were you and what were you doing before this, and what led you to apply?
Well I got here on the R train, but I’m assuming that isn’t what you were asking. If you mean ‘here’ in the larger scheme of things, the story is a little longer.
It really starts back when I had just graduated high school and decided that I would go study architecture, mainly because I liked to draw, but was also ‘not too shabby’ at math (if I do say so myself), and I figured I would be damned for letting my math skills go to waste. So somebody told me that architecture was somewhere halfway between the two, and off I went to architecture school. Once there, I pretty much tried to do everything but architecture, and kept on designing buildings with beautiful stories, ideas and drawings around them, but that weren’t exactly all that realistic or practical. Nevertheless I pressed on, and got my Bachelor’s from the University of Nottingham in 2008. The Royal Institute of British Architects (that is their official name, Kurmyt! No giggling!) requires that graduated bachelor students undertake a minimum of six months working in a firm as an architectural assistant before they can qualify for a Master’s programme and become a full-fledged architect with a hat and everything. So I ended up in Switzerland, working in a small firm in Lausanne. Unfortunately for me, my bosses realized I was quite meticulous and therefore entrusted me with ‘compelling’ work such as doing 29 drawings of suspended ceilings. Though some people find this kind of assignment mesmerising, (and believe me, I admire their patience!!!) it was not my cup of tea. After six months I realized that I wouldn’t be happy sitting in front of a computer for 9 hours a day working for someone else on work that wasn’t inspiring to me.
So I decided to take a break. And I applied to way too many art schools, as I had no idea what I was doing in preparing my portfolio. Luckily one of the schools I was accepted at was SVA, and so I went for what was originally going to be my ‘one year in New York drawing things’. I had no idea what illustration was, but it sounded fun and not too serious, and like something I would enjoy for only a year. A year later, I realized that illustration was pretty much what I had been trying to do in architecture school, and that I enjoyed every second of it, and being around teachers that were working in the field showed me it was possible to make a living doing this. After I did the sophomore and junior year in undergrad, one of my teachers recommended that I apply to the Master’s programme. As I’m someone who pretty much does as I am told, I applied. I thought it was good practice in putting a portfolio together- I definitely did not think I would be sitting here being interviewed by an adorable muppet after two years.
2. What kinds of images do you find compelling? What kinds of stories or projects? Why?
That’s a difficult question for me, because I think I have quite a broad taste in images that I like, but now I’m starting to fear this interview is a trap to get me to brag. So I will apologize ahead of time for my future self that may fall into that trap.
If I must be more specific, images I find compelling are: emotional, communicative, created with intent, and “fairly elegant”. I have a hard time with very abstract work, as I believe art is intended for communication, and communicating vagueness doesn’t get me very far. That’s not to say that art should be straightforward, and unsubtle, or unambiguous. I like work that gets a reaction out of people, but I think I like work even better when it gets multiple different reactions out of people. I think the most we can hope for as artists is for people to discuss our work, and to discuss it in the context of their own experiences. I would hate for something of mine to be so mild or vague that it can happily sit in a dentist’s bathroom. (No offense to dentists, or bathrooms, which are both lovely in their own way. All I am saying is that ideally a dentist’s bathroom is unprovocative, as one would not want a dentist’s patient upset prior or post dental appointment.)
I like stories, projects, art, images that make me think. I want to think about it for a few days, I want to mull it over and change my mind about it, or change my mind about something. I like changing, growing, developing, feeling like I’m not stagnant. Maybe it’s because I moved around a lot as a kid, or maybe I’m just gosh-darned curious.
But if you want me to drop some names in no particular order: Kobayashi Kiyochika, Brodsky & Utkin, Joann Sfar (his unfortunately-untranslated French diaries especially), Bastien Vives, Picasso’s Vollard suite, the Quay Brothers, Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gottfried Helnwein, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the list could go on for a very long time Kurmyt, so I’ll stop here before I get carried away. What?? KEEP GOING? KURMYT YOU’RE CRAZY! Fine three more! Kathe Kollwitz, William Kentridge, Peter Callesen. NOW ENOUGH.
3. Please talk about your different processes —— including but not limited to the “fetchings” and cut paper.
Right now on my website I’ve categorized my work into three processes, mainly from my last three large projects: ‘etchings/fetchings’, cut paper, and silkscreens. The wonderful Bruce Waldman showed me how to etch, and I immediately fell in love with this printmaking process because of three reasons: 1) it focuses on drawing/draftsmanship 2) it is imperfect and 3) it is magic. I never completely know what my print will look like when I print it, because you draw in reverse, and it’s difficult to see the ink on your plate, and for all sorts of wonderful reasons- every time I pull the paper off the press it’s a small moment of magic and surprise. I am more of a drawer than a painter, and I knew I wanted to focus on that strength for my first project in the MFA, but I had never done a large series of etchings, so this still felt new and exciting to me. And I like the fact that I don’t have complete control over the whole process, because I worry that my work is too clean, and can look cold and over-refined. But etching, by it’s nature, makes things feel more human and flawed. So my first series in the MFA was ‘A Cage Full of Beasts’, which were etchings that I silkscreened onto, as I wanted duality conceptually in each image, and I liked contrasting a strong clean graphic shape with a thin elegant but precise line.
My second project emerged after I’d done three cut paper pieces for a competition I entered on my own. I had enjoyed the process as it was a way for me to deal with color separately- I would go into my paper store, choose three to five pieces of paper that I thought worked well together, and then cut solely from those three pieces. I’ve always struggled with color, and felt like I needed to focus on that more in this programme, and the cut paper process really helped me with that. I also wanted to return to my experience as an architect working with light and three dimensions, so I was able to experiment with that as well. I took a studio photography class over the summer, as I quickly realized that correct lighting would completely make or break an image, and that the final ‘original’ wasn’t really the cut paper- it was the photographed image. For example I have some works where the shadow of something is the central subject of the image, and without that shadow the actual physical cut paper pieces are fairly uninteresting. So I learned a lot from my Louise Boyd book, and felt like I was learning to play to my strengths.
My thesis project was quite a struggle for me, but I knew I wanted to do silk-screening at some point throughout my year, just because the amazing SVA print lab facilities were available to me, and I wanted to take full advantage of my last year to do projects that I wouldn’t normally be able to do after school. And then I thought about what would be the point of doing a silkscreened image over another medium, and tried to think of its strengths: bright colors and strange sizes/formats. So I decided I wanted to create posters, as I’ve never worked very large before, and wanted to try that. And working with bright colors was also a way for me to use a more adventurous and contemporary color palette, which my advisor (the incredible Brian Cronin) had pointed out to me.
I guess I’m someone who keeps on wanting to try new mediums and techniques- I love learning, and felt like school was a place where we were expected or encouraged to take risks. I still like to go back and work in all of my ‘styles’ (or rather mediums), but I like to use materials or mediums that reflect the content of the image. Maybe its because the architecture mantra ‘form follows function’ made most sense to me, and I want to be able to be given any function and create using what I feel is the best form. Hopefully that makes sense? No? Kurmyt were you paying attention?
4. Why is the theme of improvisation or play - in the sense of taking a subject and finding a new way of looking at it - important to you?
I think I have quite a ‘mathy’ approach to art. By that I mean that I feel like for some people, what draws them to illustration/image making is being able to draw fantastic things, and they’ll just put their pen to paper and genius will pour out willy-nilly and they scoop it up and put it in a magazine and its beautiful and amazing and everyone is wowed. I was never really like that. I still, embarrassingly, don’t really keep a ‘sketch’ book. My ‘sketch’book is filled with thumbnails, crappy sketches (no- really.), and lots of writing. I feel like I can’t compete with the people who have a pencil embedded in the tip of their fingers in their sleep, so the only way I can compete is by using my brain, and trying to do the smartest image that I can. What I am drawn to in illustration is problem-solving. I like being given a set problem, and then figuring out what is the ‘best’ solution to this problem, in my opinion. I feel like my work is complete when I’ve found the answer that ‘clicks’, and ticks all of the boxes of what the image needs to show/get across to the viewer. This is very analytical in a way, but really it’s still very personal, because I know that there is obviously no right or wrong ‘art-answer’, but there are better or worse ‘art-answers’ I can provide. So I have the most fun, I ‘play’ the most, when I’m in the sketching stage- that part of my process is most exciting to me. On a related note, I also actually perform improv-comedy, which feeds into my illustrations in numerous ways. One of which is the fact that when improvisers play with one another, there is a strange unspoken ‘rule’ that you shouldn’t do the same scene or character or attitude over again. And if you had an amazing scene in practice, you should never try to recreate it in a show in front of an audience- because after all, this is IMPROVISED comedy, and it would show, and not feel right- it would feel forced. In the same way, I feel guilty if my solutions to problems are too similar to solutions I’ve already used in the past, or seen others use in the past, and so the funnest challenge for me is coming up with new ways of approaching a similar idea.
5. [clever segue here] Talk a bit about your thesis. What is OULIPO and what about it compels you?
I think in my dreams I would be smart enough to be a member of OULIPO. OULIPO stands for Ouvroir de Literature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature). It was a group formed in 1960 of mainly writers and mathematicians that got together to set themselves very specific writing constraints, in hopes of creating new and adventurous literature. For example George Perec wrote a novel entirely without the letter E (‘A Void’), or Raymond Queneau wrote a book of one very simple story repeated over and over again but told in as many different ways as he could come up with (in different tenses, points of view, as questions, as slang…. etc.). This is ‘mathy’ art at its finest and most absurd in my opinion. There was absolutely no need or reason for George Perec to torture himself to not use the sixth most used letter in the French alphabet to write a book that is basically a ‘good and quirky mystery novel’. But (Kurmyt- no offense to you not being ‘one of us’) to me THIS is humanity. This empirical, absurd logic that only applies to itself is a kind of purified symbol of what makes us human. It is funny and surreal and both completely illogical and completely logical at the same time. And I admire the people that dedicate their time to creating these works- to prove to themselves and us that it can be done, and it can be done beautifully. That beauty can come out of pure logic-out of pure humanity. And the oulipian games that the authors choose are personal to them. Perec chose the letter ‘E’ because it is the most repeated letter in his own name. He was effectively removing himself from his own book- perhaps as a way to let the work speak for itself.
I broke my thesis into two parts. The first ‘My Regards to OULIPO’ (Regards being a pun on the French word ‘regards’, which mean- looks/observations)- a series of four large silk-screened posters. The posters represented four OULIPO works, as if the books were plays being advertised on the street. This was my way of rejuvenating the works, and hopefully getting these wonderful books a little well-deserved attention.
The second part of my thesis became my own attempt at setting myself an OULIPIAN constraint, but more aimed at illustration. I chose six books that included the name of the main character in the title of the book, and created six book covers for them trying to show the least amount of the main character as possible.
6. This is not a question, just an apology for any leading questions up in here. Tell me I’m full of nonsense if you like. Tell me!
Kurmyt calm down! You are doing fine! I should be apologizing for all my sprouting nonsense and all of my overly lengthy ramblings. I’M SORRY GODDAMNIT.
7. Who and why is CAPS MAELLE? This is a real question (unless you don’t want it to be, in which case it’s just for kicks….unless I’m lying…..which I’m not……unless I am…)
AAH NOW WE COME TO THE GOOD STUFF. CAPS MAELLE. HOW DOES ONE EXPLAIN THIS? CAPS MAELLE IS LIKE THE BATMAN OF FACEBOOK, BUT NOT AT ALL THAT WAY.
(Caps Maelle is what I feel best relates my sense of humor via the internet. I find it extremely entertaining to imagine people hearing my voice screaming at them from their computers. I feel like computers render communication devoid of emotion a lot of the time, and CAPS MAELLE is my way of fighting that, and of communicating WHO I AM.)
ALSO I LIKE YELLING SO MUCH. MORE YELLING!
8. Is performance part of your process? or something important to you? I’m also thinking of your puppets, animations, e-books, and other directed projects. Even the idea of lighting your cut paper is like scene-setting…
Fine, I’ll be “serious”, even though you brought up the CAPS MAELLE QUESTION FAR TOO EARLY IN THIS INTERVIEW KURMYT! I AM CHASTISING YOU FOR YOUR UN-WISDOM!
Comedy, illustration, lighting, puppets, animations, e-books etc all are performing to me. Performing is communicating in front of an audience. The only difference between getting up on stage and doing ‘visual’ art (though performance is usually visual…) is the time delay. Ever since I can remember I was performing in some way or other- doing Sherlock-Holmes style mystery plays with my cousins, being a part of my school’s ‘Odyssey of the Mind’ team, or being the overly-wigged maid in a classic British Farce done at my UK university. I’m probably just a completely self-centered ***hole longing for approval and admiration, but hey- isn’t that why we went to art school? Am I right Kurmyt? Oh right you didn’t go to art school.
But yes- performance is definitely a part of my process. I’m completely aware that the work I am making will be viewed by someone, and I have the control-freak misconception that I can try to control the viewers experience of my performance, and to make them understand/ see the world through my eyes just for a little while.
9. Your images are striking for how the strength of their voice combines with the refinement or clarity of their execution. Is “taking away” or use of restraint/editing something you’re conscious of in your process?
Wow thank you- that’s super flattering. Editing and ‘taking away’ is something I’m hyper-conscious of in my process, and I tailor my processes to make sure that I restrain myself. I found that I produce my best work when it is simplest, clearest, and usually most graphic. I’m not good with detail and high levels of rendering (though I can do it) because I get bored with a lengthy process. The fun for me is coming up with the ideas, but I will commit to something I’ve begun, so if I start a stippling process I will finish it, but I’ll have started to hate it 15% of the way through (because I want to move on to the next idea) and it’ll show by the end of the image. So I deliberately try to stop myself before that happens, so I don’t get frustrated, and so my work stays simple. Printmaking does this well for me because ‘there’s no going back’. I can always add more lines to an etching if I feel like there isn’t enough detail, or I can always add another separation or color to my silkscreen if it’s too simplified, but I can’t ‘undo’ something. This means that when I work I’m very careful not to over do the image, and bog it down in unnecessary detail. And same goes with cut paper- it’s a pain in the ______ to cut tiny detailed pieces of paper, so I try to avoid making them, and end up only making the pieces that need the detail to draw the eye to that part of the image. I feel like a big part of my experience in the programme has been to find ways to trick myself into being okay with a simpler image.
10. What has this program meant to you?
This programme has brought me a tremendous amount. First and foremost, being with 19 incredibly talented, but completely different people, and getting to see them progress is incredibly moving and inspiring and motivating. I feel like because the class size is so small, we really get to understand and know one another. This means that when individuals get some success, or praise, this inspires everyone else to push themselves even harder, and they in turn inspire others- its a kind of ‘inspiration circle’ if you will, Kurmyt.
Before going into the MFA, I was very worried about having ‘a style’ or ‘a voice’, and I thought that I needed to pin down a way of working that would encompass all of my strengths and that I would enjoy working exclusively in. I had this fear that if I had more than one medium, then it meant that my voice was not clear, and that it would confuse art directors and that I would never be hired for an illustration job. And that I would be stuck in this one singular way of working for the rest of my life. I’ve now realized that that kind of thinking is pretty much nonsense, and is something that undergraduate students hear a lot, perhaps because some undergraduate students don’t produce enough work to show cohesion between different pieces. I now feel confidently that the trick to getting any kind of (illustration) job is just doing it, and doing enough of it that people believe you can repeat similar results for them. Having had Brian Cronin as my advisor for my thesis really helped me get over this- as his career spans multiple styles, and mediums, yet his sensibility and the ideas he has in his work remain consistent and personal to who he is. He made me comfortable with just trusting my own thinking as a way of ‘branding’ myself.
Also, it’s helped me become more comfortable with the idea of self-promotion and getting my work out into the world, and sticking up for myself. I now feel prepared to confront the real world, and to be persistent and to have faith in my own work.
I’ve also realized that everybody, including art directors, all have personal taste. We are extremely lucky in the MFAI programme that multiple art directors come to review our work, and seeing that my classmates would sometimes receive vastly differing opinions from different art directors, showed me that you can’t please everyone. And that working to please others won’t work, as it will only diminish your own voice. So the best thing to do sometimes is to stick to your guns and keep making more of what you’re making, and keep showing it to people, and eventually someone somewhere will think you’re a genius. But someone will also think you’re a 21st century dunce- so you have to accept that as part of the package.
Alright Kurmyt??? So don’t you worry about the haters! Let ‘em hate!! You’ll be just fine.
Top: Photo of Maëlle Doliveux by Ian Stroud
We talked with illustrator and designer (and recent winner of an Art Directors Club Bronze Cube Award) Natalya Balnova:
1. How did you get here? What did you do before coming here? How did you come to want to do illustration?
My original background was in fine art, then I switched to a design major. I graduated from the Academy of Industrial Art and Design, St-Petersburg, Russia, after studying design and printmaking. Later, I received my second BFA in design at Parsons School of Design in New York. After graduating, I luckily got into the publishing industry and have been designing book covers ever since. While I was working, I started to take continuing education classes at the SVA printshop, which literally became my second home.
I spent hours and days there, drawing and printing, and was surrounded by amazing, talented and inspiring people. I met many graduate students from the MFA Illustration department so I had a very good feeling about this program. I have been drawing all my life and illustration feels very natural to me.
2. Talk about the kinds of images you like.
The range of images I like is rather broad. It can vary from very complicated ones to very simple, from abstract to detailed. Something that grabs my attention mentally, visually or emotionally. I have a special feeling for old photos that have a sense of time and mystery. I like children’s drawings for their spontaneous and unconventional language, unpredictable sense of composition, characters and point of observation. I like primitive art with it’s naive quality that at the same time has a very bold and honest reflection on life. I like images with elements of typography, which play with the content of the messages.
3. What is your process like?
I don’t have any specific strategy. I have to listen to myself and be in a certain mind frame. Drawing for me is very different from design. It is less logical and more empirical, very personal and fragile in a way. In design, I can distance myself and be more analytical about the image and composition. It is difficult for me to use this approach in drawing, unless it is a digital drawing. I draw mostly with ink and then transfer image to a digital format if it needs it. Partially, this habit comes from my long lasting love for the silkscreening, where I use this technique for the color separation.
4. Talk about your book project.
My “Day Job” book project is based on biographical facts from the lives of famous artists, writers, poets and musicians and the day jobs that allowed them to maintain their creative careers. I felt very passionate about this subject matter since the dilemma of making a living doing art and not succumbing to the daily routine is quite familiar to any creative person. I did want to do it as an inspiring and at the same time a very personal book with a sense of drama and hope. The book has a lot of funny, sarcastic, bitter and sad quotes that reflect the emotional tension and sensibility of the characters.
5. Talk about your thesis project.
My thesis project, which I worked on with my advisor Paul Sahre, is based on themes of consumerism and advertisement. It is a collection of four catalogues, approximately 130 pages, divided by different subject matter: “Cuddly Proportions and Lovable Faces”- covered children’s paraphernalia, “Customized for the Maximum Relaxation”- general advertisement, ”Let Me Leave You Breathless”- personal ads from Craigslist and “Express Your Sympathy“-funeral industry advertisements.
Consumerism is a big part of our life that accompanies us from the day of our birth to the grave, and in many ways it builds our consciousness. The role of advertisement is shown in contrast to stories of every day life and idealistic pictures of the consumerist world. The project is based on real ads. I played with images to give an alternative readings to the content, in order to show it as humorous and absurd reality. It was quite a journey. My house is packed with catalogues, I almost got addicted to them, I feel that if I throw them away now I will be committing a crime :)
I have been collecting and researching huge amounts of information, reading between the lines, carefully inspecting every word :)
It involved a lot of hand lettering. Sometimes I had a feeling that I was writing more then I was drawing. It was insane, but educational in a certain way.
6. I would like to talk to you about how spontaneous your work is, how you work-out of your mind, how you get the images you make.
It depends what kind of project I am working on. For the big projects I did at SVA, I had to plan in advance and research. It doesn’t mean that I followed my plan from the beginning to the end. Projects were transformed while I was working on them. I planned my ‘Day Job” book to be silkscreened and have an absolutely different visual language, to be very decorative, colorful and funky. While I was working on it, I realized that this approach was missing something: it had a luck of meaning besides just being a graphical object on its own. I wanted it to have a deeper content, so I developed a different approach to the subject matter and made it as a combination of information facts and inner point of view. That made the book more personal and I would say more engaging.
After I came up with an idea, I draw mostly without sketches. I produce a lot of drawings, then select ones which work best for me, and have more character and impact. I judge my drawing by the amount of honesty in them. It’s essential for me to feel connected to the drawing. I can draw well rendered images, but if it has no light in it, I wouldn’t be satisfied. Rendering is not an issue, it can be one simple line that would have a character and sound that might say more then very complicated image.
7. Talk about the place design has in your life and creative process.
As I said earlier drawing for me is very different process from design. My approach to drawing is more irrational compared to design. I assume design takes a big place in my creative process on subconscious level anyway :)
8. Your work has such a playful quality. It has playful subject matter, the way it is drawn and colored is playful—this might be something unconscious about your process that comes through in your process, but please talk about how you feel about being playful with your images. Is humor something important to you?
Humor is a big part, but I would say it is mostly a dark humor, since I tend to emphasize dramatic aspects in life. I like images that have twist and dual reality. If while I am drawing I come up with something funny and odd, that would be absolutely spontaneous. The oddness comes intuitively without planning. It sits on the back of my mind and shows up occasionally, it is very independent creature, that can’t tolerate any pressure :)
9. Can you talk a bit about your taste for poetry.
Poetry feeds my imagination. It is a comfortable zone for me, something that feels very natural to my heart. I hope it doesn’t sound corny. I do appreciate poetry more then prose, probably for this obscure nature and multi-layered source of impact.
My favorite poets are: Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Francis Picabia, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Marina Tsvetaeva, Charles Bukowski and many others.
10. How has this program affected you?
It was a challenging and productive time. We all came from different backgrounds, and the fact that all of us could bring our own visions and creative experience to this program is very exciting and enriching.
Second-year Andrea Tsurumi talks about her work (with the help of guest interviewers):
1. How did you get here?
I always loved drawing and books and wanted to tell stories. I grew up in a NYC suburb, went to Harvard for English, then moved back to New York to work in publishing and throughout it all kept trying to do those things in one way or another. I drew comics for myself and my friends, took art classes, did scenic painting, and read lots of books and watched lots of movies. Those things (and friends and teachers and family) taught me a lot, but as Marshall said and I will paraphrase here, “if you can do it on your own, you don’t need the program; if you need help from other people, then the program could be useful.” Five years after graduating college, I was incredibly frustrated with my work and knew I needed help to get better. Also, I took a few comics continuing education classes at SVA (namely one with Tom Hart and Matt Madden) and it was such a joy and a relief to be making work and talking about work with other artists that I realized how much I needed it. The first year, I wasn’t sure I was allowed to be this happy - I mean, I still have frustrations and fears, but to be able to do what I wanted to do — I could do this for the rest of my life (and I hope I’ll be able to).
As for my fabled and mysterious past, it was a lot of libraries, British comedy, dogs, and nice and funny people. In college, I got to spend time looking at how stories are constructed. As an English major, I followed several rough themes: comedy/satire, theater, and interactions between text and image. I did a study on how Mark Twain’s words worked with his books’ original illustrations to create added layers of meaning (and jokes). Studying books with an eye for how the authors created their effects was fascinating. It didn’t take away any of the work’s effect - in fact, it made it even better because then you saw the hand and mind working behind the words.
2. What images or stories appeal to you?
Anything with a sense of humor. Or that really pays attention. To put it another way, anything that cares enough to observe what people or characters are really up to; it doesn’t have to be funny. Sad stories can have a sense of humor, and funny stories are often fairly sad, but to tell a good one calls for a certain mix of observation, sympathy and honesty that I find compelling. Comics, children’s books, and picture books (or just visual/textual books that ignore adult/child categories) are fantastic. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Trondheim, Breughel, Joann Sfar, Jason, Tom Gauld, Edward Gorey, and Jules Feiffer. I’m less coherent about what visual elements are especially compelling, but I love line with a lot of personality. That’s why I like Mattotti’s black and white work so much better than his colored pencils. I really love books where the images are expressive - they carry the story’s meaning with visual elements. Looseness is also highly attractive, but complete visual chaos is not; it gets in the way of the story.
Most of the images I find especially exciting are in books, but some aren’t. I keep an online image archive of interesting visuals and a lot of them are from the Boston Globe’s photojournalism site: The Big Picture. Nick Park and Guillermo del Toro make films with wonderful character moments. MFK Fisher and Fred Vargas are both writers with a fantastic eye for behavior and personalities. And then there are things that are just hilarious - the excellently written Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace or that 80 year old woman’s failed attempt to retouch a Jesus fresco.
3. Can you talk about humor and your work?
I think a lot of what I find powerful or appealing about humor comes down to two things: sympathy and attention. Sympathy because humor is humanizing (why else would powerful people despise it?) and because it implies a certain amount of flexibility in looking at the world, as big and beautiful and painful as it is. Attention goes back to that observational ability I talked about before. That it’s important to pay attention is something I’ve been shown over and over again by people in my life, often by example. For instance, by awesome teachers - you know, you’ve had these - the ones who actually listened to you and were in tune to things and gave you hope for how to be an adult. By every good children’s book, too. However, sympathy doesn’t mean not being critical; it means you have to be extra alive to flaws and contradictions.
Paying attention to the people and situations around you as they are and as they try to pretend to be (and noting the difference between those two things) gives you a chance to understand what’s going on. And, because you are flawed and not a fixed entity yourself, you need to have a sense of humor about it. And your vulnerability or your openness to what’s going on, and your paying attention to it anyway, is something very special. Going and telling other people about this and inviting them to experience it too, that’s comedy.
Which is to say I don’t find butts inherently funny, but it’s hilarious when people pretend they don’t have them.
4. Can you talk about your process?
Sometimes an idea strikes me and I thumbnail it to remember it later, or I’ll go straight to pencilling it. If I’m sitting down to make a book, I’ll do a mixture of writing and thumbnailing to figure out the structure. Then comes pencilling, then usually inking and coloring (and a lot of cleanup or digital coloring in Photoshop). Other times, I’ll just start drawing in ink right away, either because the idea’s really clear in my head, or I want to play a little and see what develops. The best images tend to be the ones where I’m clearest on how I feel about them, if that makes sense. I don’t psychoanalyze it, but I just think about it or think about it by drawing it. What’s clear is when I’m not drawing, those days are not the best.
One of the things this program has really shown me is how working with other people really spurs you on. Collaboration in itself is fun, but in terms of doing your own work, there’s nothing like spit balling or just talking with other folks to get some great new idea to pop out into your head. When you’re surrounded by insanely talented illustrators, their work makes your brain start cursing because jesus christ, they made something awesome and now you have to run and try to make something good too just to make your brain shut up. And anyway, you’ll always end up making something that’s yours and good for you, you can’t make someone else’s art. So it’s a good kick in the pants for creativity.
5. Can you talk about your thesis?
I made three books: Behold the Killbot & Other Stories, Andrew Jackson Throws a Punch, and But Suddenly, An Octopus! They’re all playful, absurd stories. The first one is a collection of little stories, including one on depressed killer robots. The second is from thinking about combining Andrew Jackson’s raucous first inauguration and his notoriously violent temper (hint: inaugural brawl). The third is a twist on a bedtime story ritual, where parents read Little Red Riding Hood to their kids, but the kids insist on all these changes. The wolf becomes an octopus, Little Red Riding Hood ends up in space, etc., and these events just completely screw with Red Riding Hood’s life. It gets to a point where the story can’t end because there’s too much chaos going on, and then the kids have to figure out what to do. Also there’s a poster I made in response to those UK historians finding King Richard III buried under a parking lot - half of it is the Battle of Bosworth and the other half is the Battle of the Car Park.
At the beginning, I didn’t know which particular stories I was going to make - I just set out to make short stories with the help of David Sandlin and my advisor, Nick Bertozzi. I hoped that the thesis process would make me better at starting and developing stories, and it did do that. One of the nice things about the program is its end result is you, clarified. Or at least, I think so. I started the program like many people, asking, “what kind of art will I make?” then went through phases of experimentation (“Am I that kind of artist? Maybe I’m that! I really want to be that!”), and ended up as myself. The drawing got better, and the storytelling got better, but I feel like I returned to the stuff I’d been clumsily dancing around for ages.
6. Molly Brooks: “What’s with all the robots?” CAPS MAELLE: “WHY MONSTERS?”
Well, they’re fun. They let me explore varieties of character, personality, and behavior. Monsters are opportunities to look at characters that violate boundaries and labels. They’re outside looking in, or just outside and don’t care about looking in. It’s amazing to follow characters with dramatically different behavior than what’s usually seen. Honestly, at some point, I just stopped thinking of them as monsters and started calling them characters.
I love science fiction and robots are another kind of monster - something different from but also similar to people. I hate drawing machinery so mine tend to be so round and gesture-y. Also: many possibilities for weird limbs and bodies.
7. CAPS MAELLE: “IF YOU COULD GO TO ANGOULEME AND MEET JOANN SFAR FACE TO FACE WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO HIM, ALSO I MAY OR MAY NOT EMAIL HIM YOUR RESPONSE TRANSLATED INTO FRENCH.”
Beyond expressing my admiration and love for his work, I’d really like to ask to watch him draw. He’s someone who draws all the time and uses a beautiful intuitive line and these gorgeous watercolors, so it would be a pleasure. However, it would be an awkward request, unless the situation was like some sort of happenstance magical realism thing. Quentin Blake, Sfar, and me trapped in an elevator or something. With art supplies. And a repair crew on the way.
Emotionally, it would be more like this.
8. Regular Maëlle: “You seem to have really made a breakthrough with your work in the last year- you seem much more comfortable with the simplicity of your line, and with injecting your work with a personal sense of humor. Did something (hopefully untraumatic) happen that made you change?”
Thank you, that’s nice of you to say. Two years of drawing and critique have made me draw better and learn how to edit myself better. I would call it all just cumulative development of self-awareness. Drawing-wise. I look at my work and see what’s not working much more clearly than I used to. Equally if not more importantly, I also started seeing what works in my art and with my sensibilities and just started listening to myself. I don’t think I felt comfortable calling my stuff funny before this year. I stopped trying to be other things I thought were more legitimate. Working on an independent thesis was a big part of that - I just trusted myself and got to work.
9. Federico: “With your historical illustrations, you are renewing the way to tell historical events, why don’t you tell us more about this fun and unique way to represent history?” Regular Maëlle: “Your work deals a lot with history, and historical references, such as your Andrew Jackson book, your Battle of Bosworth poster, and even the way your killbot comics remind me of older single-panel newspaper gag cartoons. Have you always been interested in history? What do you find interesting about it? (MOST PEOPLE FIND IT BORING. JUST SAYIN’.)”
Whaaaat? History is amazing! It’s endless stories. It’s how people lived. And it’s so subjective! You know the best gossip comes after the party’s over and everyone talks about it the next day. History uses that grace-period-benefit to the hilt. Someone at MOCCA was telling me about a farmer sent Jackson a 1400lb wheel of cheese as a present and Jackson had to figure out how to dispose of it (hint: invite the public to a stinky cheese party). This was a President and a violent man shaped by the deprivations of his childhood, a man who almost beat to death a would-be assassin. A populist hero who once dismissed his entire Cabinet because of a personal grudge. The man who sent the Cherokee on a death march and is on our $20 bill. And he had to deal with a huge wheel of cheese.
Obviously there are less whimsical stories. One of the planners behind dropping the atomic bomb on Japan saved Kyoto from being a target because he’d honeymooned there. Talk about a window into human behavior.
My whole family is really into history. Both my parents are professors (of Latin American literature and economics), my grandma taught history, and my older brother is a huge history fan (sorry brother, but you built that toy model of Prohibition-era-Chicago). We were the kids at the dinner table talking about how the Egyptians used to take the brain out through the nose with hooks.
Going back to that whole sympathy thing - what’s so moving and inspiring about history is looking back at past generations and actually feeling connected to them. Finding a lost (and villainized) King of England under a parking lot is hilarious - but finding his body and learning how he died also makes him a real person, not just a line in a textbook. And thinking about why he killed the princes, what decisions he was making at the age of 33 - he was human like us.
Crucially, though, it does not mean that he saw things the same way. History gives you a fascinating way to explore different perspectives. Did you know that before the 1900s, people even slept differently? Before industrialization and electric light, everyone went to bed at sundown, slept for 4 hours, naturally woke up for a period before returning to bed and sleeping another 4 hours. Sleep was segmented - the first bit was called “first sleep” and people were used to waking up at midnight and snacking, praying, reading, or having sex. Apparently, if you deprive people of electric light, they go back to this pattern. I tried doing it once - it was very restful. We also know very little of history beyond the previous generation.There was a great book by Lucy Worsley about the history of rooms of the house, and how changing ideas about privacy necessitated building hallways for the first time. History’s fantastic and it’s not just academic - all of our experiences are history. Driving around the suburbs with friends during high school, using AOL for the first time, it all counts. Anyway … you hit a nerve …
10. What has the program meant to you?
I can’t really adequately describe it. It changed my life in a huge way. It was the teachers and the time, but most of all it was working with all the other students in the shared studio. To be part of this community of illustrators and cartoonists is challenging, inspiring, and delightful. To get to know other people and their work and to have them know you and yours —- there’s no better way to grow. I love these people and their work. I’m sincerely grateful for this time here.
(Thank you Federico Infante, Molly Brooks, and regular Maëlle Doliveux for the questions. CAPS MAELLE please don’t hurt me.)
Talking to our thesis coordinator, David Sandlin:
You have been teaching at SVA for many years now but have a very diverse background. Would you briefly describe your “formative years”?
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and lived there until I was about 15. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland got worse and worse, my father, an American, decided to move us back to his home state of Alabama. Going from a cosmopolitan European city to a rural town in the deep South was quite a shock…Art-wise, I spent a lot of time drawing bulldog posters for the football team and backdrops for beauty pageants.
I graduated at 16 and moved to Birmingham, where I eventually put myself through school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. My favorite teacher there was John Dillon, who taught drawing and printmaking. The forced constraints of printmaking—the limited color and precision of separations—appealed to me more than the overwhelming freedom of painting.
As soon as I graduated, I moved to New York, mainly for the music scene and punk culture. My first job in NYC was at Styria Studio, where I learned about lithography and silkscreen working on prints by Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, Buckminster Fuller, and others. A colleague there who’d left to work in SVA’s printmaking department recruited me as a part-time printmaking assistant around the end of 1981 or early ’82. In addition to making prints, I was also do a lot of drawing and painting, and I was fortunate enough to land my first show with the legendary East Village gallery Gracie Mansion in 1983. My first book project, Land of 1000 Beers, which SVA helped me print, was exhibited at Gracie Mansion in 1988.
You have been the thesis coordinator for the MFA Illustration program since 2000. You have the daunting task of keeping second year students on track with their thesis projects. How is the class run so that the widely different interests of students are engaged ?
To me, the most interesting aspect of the program is the diversity of the students and the wide range of their interests and projects—everything from straightforward illustration and children’s books to gallery work to animation and interactive projects. Before the second year even starts, I start thinking about the group when Marshall and I look at their first-year book projects and work with each student to try to come up with the ideal thesis advisor—who acts as their mentor throughout the second year. In September, I spend the first few weeks getting to know everyone through individual meetings and class presentations on their influences, which is always a lot of fun.
After we’ve gotten to know each other, I assess their thesis projects. In weeks five and six, everyone makes a thesis presentation that they’ve been preparing for since the beginning of the semester.
I stress to the students that it’s the quality of their work and the strength of their individual voices that matter, not a kind of hierarchy of art. For me a great painting, a great kid’s book, a great comic, and a great illustration are all on the same footing. I talk about narrative in relation to story, single image, books, and comics. I talk about planning ambitious projects from sketch to finish. I discuss style, form, and content in relation to the student’s work, and in particular, the thesis project.
Then, through group crits, guest critiques, and individual meetings, we refine the show proposals. I make scale drawings of the gallery walls and the students’ proposals and plan in advance the most cohesive hanging of the work. Then we gather together to actually hang the show. After deliberations, discussions, and a lot of negotiations, the show goes up… always better than originally planned.
Second Year Students all work with an individual thesis advisor as well attending the thesis workshop class. Can you talk a little about the role of an advisor and the impact it has on a student.
I believe the role of the thesis advisor is the most important in the program. This aspect of the process gives students access to an amazing variety of illustrators, painters, animators, and comics artists, including Brian Cronin, Peter Sis, Maira Kalman, Ruth Marten, Lauren Redniss, David Mazzucchelli, Mirko Ilic, Sam Weber, and Jillian Tamaki. They work closely with the students, meeting 9 to 15 times a semester. At the exit interview, in which the student meets with his/her advisor, Marshall, and me, it’s great to see how nurturing and close their working relationship has become. Many times it leads to lasting friendships.
We are approaching the end of the spring semester. You are the curator of the upcoming thesis show. How to you make sense out of 20 vastly different thesis projects so the exhibit works as a whole unit? What can we expect to see this April on the walls of the Visual Arts Gallery?
The great part about the show is that everyone is in it, and the greatest challenge of the show is that everyone is in it. My biggest job is to curate it to everyone’s advantage while making it coherent as an exhibit. I aim to have the quality of the work hold the show together, and it works as a great tool to help the students produce their best pieces. The students should be thinking about it all year, but the process gains momentum about six weeks in advance of the show, when I ask students to draw up and present in class their thesis show proposal. At this point it becomes a collaborative project, with me as the moderator as well as curator.
In addition to teaching several different types of classes you are a printmaker, painter and illustrator. What kinds of projects are you currently working on?
What I’m working on now:
• Illustration and comics for various mass market magazines as well as periodical anthologies and publishers, including La Cucina Italiana, Strapazin, and Le Dernier Cri.
• Paintings and drawings for a group show in Memphis.
• Belfaust, a graphic novel that I began working on in 2009, when I was a Cullman Fellow at NYPL.
• 76 Manifestations of the American Spirit, a print, drawing, and painting project, currently in the planning stages.
• A book with Re:Surgo! in Berlin, also in the planning stages.
Thank you David!