Columns / Voices

Riding the Wave

Lisa   L. Cyr
Over the last decade, the illustration business has seen tremendous change not only in the way art is created but also in the way it is purchased, used and distributed. The market for illustration has become fragmented with increased competition from outside forces. The proliferation of royalty-free imagery and corporate-controlled stock has discounted work and slowed commissions for original art. With the economic downturn, many clients are freezing their spending or cutting budgets to the bare bones. Health insurance has also skyrocketed, making it difficult for freelancers who don't have the group benefits that full-time employment brings. In these uncertain times, illustrators are looking for stability-something they can grasp onto for the long term.

For the first time, many freelance illustrators are beginning to open up their minds to other options. A growing number of artists are migrating to full-time employment in the highly competitive, yet very lucrative animation and video gaming industry. Others are seeking college-level teaching as a wonderful way to not only give back to an industry that they love, but also obtain a consistent income with great health and retirement benefits. Illustrators can work while still maintaining their freelance careers. To land a tenure-track teaching position, an MFA is often required. With a family and a career, going back to school full-time can seem incredibly daunting, but today there are options.

To meet the needs of an evolving marketplace, Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford has designed an elite, limited-residency MFA program for seasoned illustrators who seek to move their careers to the next level, while earning a masters degree for college-level teaching. Although other institutions offer limited-residency MFA programs, there is only one program in the United States that is exclusively dedicated to illustration. Murray Tinkelman, renowned illustrator, historian and the 1999 Society of Illustrators’ Distinguished Educator in the Arts award recipient, is the director of this cutting-edge program. Tinkelman’s years of experience in the field are an asset, attracting internationally-recognized artists eager to teach under his directorship. “It is taught by professional illustrators who are also dedicated and talented educators,” comments Tinkelman. “The students who enter this program are equally committed to the field of illustration. They come from all over the country, courageously checking their egos at the door and ready to plunge right into the learning process.”

Hartford Art School’s innovative MFA curriculum combines traditional, time-proven philosophies of art-making and visual-storytelling with solid marketing and innovative promotional strategies. The broad range of talent that comes to Hartford to teach and share their knowledge includes: Alice Carter, Jim Carson, Vincent Di Fate, Gary Kelley, Betsy Lewin, Ted Lewin, Dennis Nolan, C.F. Payne, Daniel Pelavin, Jeff Seaver, Chris Spollen, Nancy Stahl, Jean Tuttle and, since the program's inception, I have been teaching the Promotional Strategies class. Throughout the program, students are free to work in their medium of choice and assignments are customized to meet individual career goals; self-initiation and entrepreneurship are highly encouraged. One of the first assignments incoming students encounter is to plan, execute and launch a dream project. Signature illustration for print, animation and interactive is being produced, with a high percentage of the work finding its way in the marketplace.

“I was challenged to produce some of the best work of my illustration career, while maintaining my teaching position at Savannah College of Art & Design,” says illustrator and educator Durwin S. Talon (2008 MFA graduate). “Because Murray [Tinkelman] encouraged me to pursue my dream job, I am completing my first graphic novel.” For his MFA thesis, Talon created Bonds, a story about revenge and redemption, as a three-issue, limited comic book series. The project was picked up by Image Comics and the final issue was published in June of 2009. Other work created during the program by Talon included Beautiful Scars, a collaboration with illustrator and writer Guin Thompson (2011 MFA graduate), that will be published in October 2009 by Archaia Studios Press. Currently, Talon is pitching yet another series called the Black Elephant Saloon slated to be worked on from 2010 to 2011. For each of the projects, the faculty guidance that he received-from concept to launch-proved to be instrumental in making his dream to be a comic book creator a reality.

Illustrator Yong Chen (2009 MFA graduate) shares a similar experience, using his dream project to launch an interactive, online learning center in the arts. The fee-based, membership-driven site not only provides workshops with step-by-step instruction on artistic technique, but also acts as a forum for online discussion where participants can post and share artwork and ideas with fellow members. The site serves as a platform for Chen and other artists to promote their workshops, DVDs and other educational products. In addition, the Web-based learning center partners with art institutions through licensing agreements to create and provide credited online classes to an international audience. “Attending Hartford Art School gave me the opportunity to think really hard about what I wanted to do for the rest of my years,” says Chen. “The encouragement from teachers, classmates and the artists I met during the program was tremendous. It helped raise my work to a much higher ground, allowing me to be able to see much farther and clearer.” While at Hartford Art School, Chen also wrote and illustrated a children’s book titled A Gift, to be published this summer by Boyds Mills Press. “This program,” adds Chen, “has started me on a great journey.”

During their stay at Hartford Art School, students spend three intensive, two-week summer residencies working with top illustrators and visiting places such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New Britain Museum of American Art. The summer sessions on campus are extremely informative, insightful and, most of all, highly inspiring. Many leave with a heightened sense of community and a newfound energy and motivation. “Those oil paintings that I have been thinking about for more than a decade are happening and the children's book that I always wanted to write and illustrate is now taking shape,” says illustrator and recent MFA graduate (2009) Greg Newbold. “Doors are also opening up for me as a university-level educator. Best of all, I have a new network of creative, like-minded friends that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

To round out the program, the group travels twice each year to places such as Pasadena, Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Savannah, Georgia; Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; and New York City, meeting industry leaders in emerging markets and legends in the business. These trips include visits to such places as DreamWorks, Nickelodeon Studios, the Society of Illustrators NYC, the Illustration House gallery and Communication Arts magazine, to name a few. Students get the opportunity to meet and talk with high-profile illustrators from a plethora of markets. Joe Bowler, Steve Brodner, Joe Ciardiello, Bernie D'Andrea, Jack Davis, Leo and Diane Dillon, Peter de Sève, Bart Forbes, David Grove, Robert Hunt, Don Punchatz, Arnold Roth, Kazuhiko Sano, Burt Silverman and Jack Unruh are just a few of the artists with whom attendees meet. “The contact experience that had the most immediate and largest ongoing effect on me was visiting with Joe Bowler at Hilton Head and watching him paint,” shares illustrator and assistant professor at Radford University Ken Smith (2007 MFA graduate), “It was inspiring to see a master at work. Having the opportunity to meet one of the living legends of American illustration in his home studio and having him describe and demonstrate his work is priceless.”

For those qualified to attend, the experience is enriching, rewarding and often life-changing. This limited-residency MFA in illustration program challenges motivated artists to reach for new heights with their work. “My career was in transition when I enrolled in the program. I had reached most of my professional goals and at mid-life and mid-career I was looking for the next chapter,” says children’s book illustrator and author Anne Catharine Blake (2008 MFA graduate). “Because of the inspiring teachers and students that I met during the program, I created a body of work that was different from anything I had done in the past. My visual voice grew and the depth of my work bloomed.” For graphic designer Q. Cassetti (2009 MFA graduate), going back to school was a way to break away from stagnation, opening up the playing field and broadening her horizons. Pleasantly she got more than she bargained for: “Prior to attending Hartford Art School, I was content with solving problems and providing solutions for my customers that delivered results for them with nothing coming back to me. I never had the confidence to step into the limelight and be a content provider, someone with a point-of-view, message and personal style,” shares Cassetti. “Hartford gave me permission to be myself, guiding and challenging me to push beyond the client and the trends. For me, the pursuit of illustration has become a place to develop and grow. I feel illustration completes me and, with careful thought and planning, this encore career will now grow from a solid base.”

Some graduates from Hartford Art School’s MFA program have contributed significantly to the field of illustration and, in doing so, have made a difference in the lives of many young illustrators who study under their direction. With all the challenges that face the illustration profession, Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford is at the forefront in finding new ways for illustrators to not only remain viable but to flourish, riding the wave in the marketplace. ca

© 2009 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio LLC

Lisa L. Cyr is an accomplished author and multidisciplinary artist with a content-driven focus. Her books, Innovative Promotions That Work, The Art of Promotion, The Little Book of Big Promotions, Brochure Design That Works and Graphic Design That Works (Rockport Publishers), feature top national and international promotional work with sidebars that go beyond the basics to explore strategic and innovative thinking. A graduate from The Massachusetts College of Art (BFA) and Syracuse University (MA), Cyr’s artistic oeuvre has been exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, galleries and universities. Her work is also included in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration as well as private collections. She is an artist member of the Society of Illustrators in New York City and works in partnership with her husband Christopher Short, painter and 3-D illustrator.


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