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What do you try to accomplish in your work?  

I like to tell a story that illuminates an underlying concept or idea with humor, as simply as possible. I pay attention to the process too.  How I do it is as important as the final product.  I see myself as a craftsman more than an artist.  I'm hired for my skill in technique whereas an artist is more into self expression, though I look for those opportunities too.  Art is created and appreciated at all levels.  Maybe illustration is a bit more accessible.  Maybe it's shallower than fine art but it's connected to the deep end of the pool.  

Why is humor so prevalent in your work?  

I love surprise, adding the extra twist.  I love entertainment.  There's not enough of it in the world.  Humor lets me say something important without raising defenses.  If I can make you smile, then you will be more open to my message.  You might even feel better.  I know I do.  If I can't go in the front door, I like to sneak in the back.  

What do you see as the primary influence in your work?  

The medieval period fascinates me.  People had specific jobs and some worked on the same projects for 30 years.  Now that's craftsmanship -- being good at one thing.  Many were known by their work:  Mr. Tanner, Mr. Smith.  Call me Ms. Print.  I wouldn't want the physical hardships of that time.  Still, our careers are so fragmented today.  My illustration, the printmaking that is, gives me a sense of continuity and development.  I've been doing it since middle school.  Printmaking is not over focused on one single product but on a series of finished pieces.  Each print teaches me more about the craft and gives me a focus for the future.  Printmaking takes years of practice to master.  The jury is still out though on whether my work has evolved much since 3rd grade.  

I've always been drawn to representational art which is very narrative, tied to the past.  I love stories and conceptual illustration.    

You seem to be saying illustrators represent other's ideas and not their own.  Still, you must bring yourself to each piece or process, as you might say.  

Yes, you're right.  Illustrators are also hired for what they can bring of themselves to each piece.  People hire me because I good at picturing the big ideas behind each project.  I love to translate the real world into something fantastic and imaginative.  That's fun.  For example, "Recycle" is about how objects are being transformed.  The idea came in a dream while I was sick with a fever.  The concept -- people bring in their used goods  -- that recycling them makes them into something useful is fairly plain.  Pictures that are beyond yet somehow connected to reality excite me and others.    They give us a departure from everyday life.  Cartoons, for example, are a springboard for the imagination.  For me, the idea of a recycling plant -- a factory -- takes on excitement when I picture objects coming out of the smoke stack with people flying on those objects.  A smoke stack's output is transformed from pollutant to useful product.  That's cool.  It may not be great art but I think it communicated with success.  My best ideas come to me when I'm half awake.  Maybe parenting three sons is helping.  

Tell me about how you got started in the field.  

That's a funny story.  I loved to draw as a child and my parents gave me how-to-draw books.  We had a dog and I decided to draw him one day.  I showed the picture to my family and was proud of the likeness I'd rendered I might add.  My older siblings mocked me because I included the dog's genitals.  This was my first experience with artistic persecution -- my interpretation of art was different from theirs.  It hadn't occurred to me to leave the genitals out.  Maybe that left a deep impression.  Maybe that's the difference between fine art and illustration.  You can't show the genitals in commercial art.  I guess I'm a conformist.  

All kidding aside, how do you keep from compromising your values?  

I do twice as much work as required.  I give the client first what I think they need.  Then they tell me to give them what they wanted in the first place.  That's the curse of the commercial artist I suppose.  

My skill is to interpret ideas, not just represent them.  Maybe that's why I often do two executions -- of each piece that is.  I can deal with the rejection better that way.  Some jobs give me latitude and I can express my own style.  Editorial work tends to be that way.  Advertising on the other hand is about giving the client what they want and need.  It's more restrictive but a nice challenge.  

What direction is your work taking?  

As a full time art director, I'm less concerned about my work being salable.  My personal journey has taken on more prominence in my art.  It's more self-expressive now.  I want to go back and look at the style of past periods in art -- Egyptian and Medieval to be specific.  I want my work to reflect those times in a fresh way.  

How do you define style and it's importance in illustration?  

Illustrators are known for the consistency of their work.  It's their personal signature.  

As an art director, what do you look for in other illustrators?  

It's important that their style is suitable to the needs of the project.  What I see in advertising is illustration not married to the product.  For example, a major car company is using a cartoon character to sell a new car.  This can trivialize a sophisticated product.  They've spent millions on a character to give the car appeal to baby boomers.  I think that's a mistake.  

How would you describe your style?  

I'd say mine is light, not somber or super realistic.  I hope it speaks for itself.  

What would you love to illustrate?  

I'd love to illustrate stories for adults much like those done for children, like Maurice Sendak's work.  I'd like to illustrate adult themes appropriate for any age.  I think that allows for a greater range of expression.  I'd love to illustrate events in history, the stories not yet told.  The ones off the beaten path.  My great grandfather owned a saw mill in the Finger Lake region.  He lived a very interesting life as an inventor, property owner, builder.  He'd float timber down the lake to the mill.  I wanted to illustrate his life as a story of local and family history.  

Why do you think it is important to be interested in the subject of your work?  

If I'm interested, it will sustain me through the execution of the piece.  In "Great Grandpa Hoag" I did a lot of research.  I looked at old photos and the style of dress at that time.  I interviewed relatives and noted the style of art back then to get a sense of color and composition.  "Great Grandpa Hoag" tells about the creative roots in my family.  He was independent and enterprising.  When I look at the picture, I remember him even though we never met.  I suppose it's only a portrait of someone who lived long ago but it's very personal to me.  I did it right after the death of my mother, during a time of personal examination.  It gave me a way to grieve and opened up my relationship with my father.  

How did that piece translate to your commercial work?  

That's a hard question but a good one.  There's a difference between my full time paid work and my personal work.  The former requires a certain objectivity.  "Great Grandpa Hoag" was a subtractive print.  I'd carve away material and print a color, carve away more, print another color, and so on.  When I was done I couldn't print anymore.  To rework the block until nothing is left took a lot of careful planning but presented many surprises along the way.  It was the first piece like that for me.  I only had 10 chances to get what I wanted.  The process involved loss and made it more precious than a multi-block print.  I guess it's like life:  time, subtraction and leaving an impression.  I'm sure it's helped my commercial work but it's hard to put into words.  

What artists inspire you?  

Rembrandt.  He was into process.  All his pictures were thought out but look spontaneous.  You might say he was deliberate, something I try to be.  I see his subject as light-hearted and his themes narrative.  He chose the common man which made him quite the iconoclast of his time, when everyone else was doing the superlative -- religious, angelic stuff.  His concept of God was not in the angelic but portrayed in the pedestrian.  Joseph became the next door neighbor and the milk maid was Mary.  They were real people becoming fantastic.  

Has there been a high point in your career?  

Another tough question.  I like to be outdoors.  I'm not the artist then.  My attempts are only muddy footprints compared to the real thing -- a bird dropping on the windshield of life you might say.  It's satisfying but not that significant.  

What would you consider significant?  

Trees.  The dying beauty of Fall.  The seasons' constant palette that can't be reproduced.  Everything else seems insignificant to me.  God gave me a desire to create.  I do it on two dimensional paper.  All my representations seem shallow and small, definitely derivative.  

How might the computer change that?  

I can paint.  I can dabble with photography.  I have access to new avenues of expression.  I can create new worlds and experiment with multi-media:  sound, motion, 3-D.  Still, I can lose touch with the real world if I'm not careful.  That can be a danger.  I don't want to get away from real people and nature.  My husband is fond of quoting a famous poet who writes of real toads in imaginary gardens.  If the computer helps me do that, then all right.  

How important is it to market yourself?  

I'd say it's 50% of the job.  It's important to make and maintain contacts.  Running a business is a business itself but most of us hate to do it.  We want to make art, not commerce.  Understanding clients can generate good business though and makes me a better illustrator.    

What advise would you give to would-be illustrators?  

Most of us struggle to make a living.  We do it because we can't bear not to.  I'd say not too many illustrators are wealthy.  If you're serious about the field, live in a major city -- where they buy illustration.  Once you're established you can move if you want.  Maybe the world wide web will change that.  Anyway, we're a dime a dozen so set yourself apart -- turn around assignments on time, be aggressive in selling yourself, listen to your client.  Be open to others opinions and pay attention to criticism as well as praise.  Take advantage of the web -- it's a great way to provide access to your portfolio.  But take the time to develop a good site -- one that's simple and fast.  Don't neglect direct marketing -- post cards, personal calls, tear sheets, follow-up contacts with potential and former clients.  Send out samples to magazines who use your style -- they're more likely to try new artists.  Study other illustrator's styles and let your own evolve.  Don't get into a rut -- take some risks.  

Interview Answers © Barbara Cote, 1997

BARBARA COTE is a freelance illustrator who specializes in linoleum block, scratchboard and computer-generated illustration.  She has created work for advertising and editorial clients
All images are the property of Barbara Cote and are used here
with permission.