Nearly 20 years after its 1999 inception, the Illustration Conference (now branded ICON) wrapped up its ninth iteration—ICON9—in 2016, in the sweltering July heat of Austin, Texas. Whether in Austin, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, New York City, San Francisco, Pasadena, Providence, or Portland, each conference has engaged the areas’ educational and cultural facilities, introducing illustrators to potential clients and art buyers and educating new generations of illustrators who are no longer bound by the printed page, but only by their own imaginations.
New substrates and materials, new venues for work, printing on demand, pop-up art galleries, online stores, and lines of branded merchandise—today, the sky is the limit. Illustration is more immediate, accessible and affordable than ever. It can adorn a skateboard deck, appear as an animated cartoon or show up as a public mural. From the illustrations Rebecca Rebouche created for Anthropologie’s dishes to the socks and products Martha Rich illustrated for Blue Q to Catalina Estrada’s wallpaper lines to Matt Curtius and Gina Triplett’s shower curtain for Urban Outfitters, the possibilities are as endless as the new methods that enable today’s illustrators to make products they can then sell through Etsy and in their own online stores. ICON9’s ROADSHOW pop-up presented a panoply of work for purchase—such as Whitney Sherman’s ceramics and limited-edition prints, books, buttons, jewelry and zines—and each item demonstrated that entrepreneurial illustrators are on the rise. Emerging markets are out there, too. With more than 4,000 breweries and brewpubs now operating in the United States, craft beer has become a market for branding and illustration (see Charles Glaubitz’s edgy work for Miller Lite), as has marijuana. As ICON9 speaker Kyle T. Webster said, “What can you do with your fabulousness? Make it, show it, the Internet can grow it!”
Webster and other superstars of illustration, along with its emerging talents, galvanized the 700 attendees at ICON9 with seamless main stage presentations covering every aspect of business and creativity. Hometown hero Marc Burckhardt flew in from Germany to speak about his illustration style evolving into fine art, the inspiration he gets from straddling two cultures and how to find your authentic voice. Henrik Drescher discussed how to develop picture architecture and use the structures to create images throughout your career. Although the topics concentrated on by the earliest ICONs are still relevant—such as connecting illustrators with organizations that offer assistance and clarity on hot-button topics, from orphan works to copyright protection—ICON9’s speakers showed that ICON’s focus has shifted to dynamic panel discussions and creative presentations designed both to inspire and provide the audience with tools and information to enhance their creative approach. ICON’s format and infrastructure, including the Education Symposium—two days of workshops and presentations of papers—have also enabled the conference to grow and expand without losing its creative heart and soul.
A growing cadre of devotees eagerly awaits each new location, each new theme, and how the theme’s branding and design will be carried through the conference. ICON has turned into a four-day biannual celebration of art and culture; ICON9, whose theme was Tall Tales, began with a spirited performance by Austin’s Ballet Folklórico and ended with a mini-concert by Charlyne Yi and Jet Elfman, accompanied by images from Yi’s illustrated novel, Oh the Moon: Stories from the Tortured Mind of Charlyne Yi. “ICON has become a mirror of our industry,” says ICON9’s president, Esther Pearl Watson. “Together, we share our stories, face the changing times, and see what is new and exciting in our community.” Melinda Beck, ICON9 vice president, urged attendees to be cockroaches, not dinosaurs—in other words, diversify and adapt.
ICON9 also opened the door wider to inclusion. There were more speakers of color and openly gay and lesbian speakers, as well as an LGBTQ meetup one night. A panel moderated by Beck dealt with the issues facing women in the industry, including double standards. Dynamic, evocative, inspiring and personal presentations by a range of speakers reflected a more inclusive industry. Speaker Kayla E. said she is dedicated to advancing inclusivity in all creative fields and talked about valuing marginalized voices: “Real change is only possible if we’re all in on it.”
In light of the divisive 2016 presidential race, issues of politics and social justice also made it to the big stage. Jamaican designer Michael Thompson spoke passionately about applying art and design to social activism. (Sadly, the pioneering reggae champion died of a heart attack on August 30, 2016.)
2016 was also a banner year for political and editorial illustrations. Steve Brodner moderated “A Global Conversation on Political Satire,” and included in the panel was Dutch editorial cartoonist Lars Morten Refn, who briefly had to go into hiding after depicting Muhammad in one of his cartoons.
I have watched the conference grow over the years, and it’s rewarding to say that ICON9 succeeded on all fronts. No longer restrained by previous cultural boundaries, the illustration industry is opening the door to everyone with a compelling story to tell. ca