At 34, Milwaukee native Rory Kurtz sketches on a battered drafting table from childhood, overlooking Lake Michigan, his aqueous muse. “I knew when he was a boy that he loved drawing and had a real knack for it,” says his father, Craig Kurtz. “We wanted to encourage him, so we bought him that table when he was nine years old.” The encouragement paid off, but it took a while. Kurtz experimented with professional acting, taught himself design, worked in event management and learned photography before, finally, coming back to what he loved most: drawing.
THE MAGIC CARPET
His rapid rise in American illustration surprises him, but not his agent or his fiancée Vanessa Eggers. While he drew all his life, he did not begin life as a professional illustrator until three years ago, after reaching an abrupt and harrowing dead end in his photography career. It was Vanessa who pushed him to focus on his drawing. But when Kurtz sent out 1,000 postcards to reps and art directors across the country, he had no idea that one recipient would respond and change his life. Her name is Sari Schorr, a 20-year veteran of the business.
“I get many postcards and e-mails from artists, but it’s rare that I get something that makes me curious or want to see more,” says Schorr. “So I called him. When we first spoke, he told me the only thing he could paint were portraits. He made clear that he never held a job in a master studio, an agency or magazine—and he had no classroom experience in composition, drawing or color. At first I didn’t believe him, but when I realized he was telling the truth, I told him I did not care. I only cared about my connection with him and his work. I was intrigued by his personality and that made his work resonate with me even more. I was ready to get on that magic carpet, hold his hand and take that ride.”
DISCOVERING A KINDRED SPIRIT
Few know Kurtz better than Tom Miller, 50, the charismatic, high-energy and high-profile owner of Beauty, a fashionable “cut shop.” For nearly a decade, Miller commanded the city’s attention with his Beauty Benefit for the Arts, an art exhibition-fundraiser-rave-performance. One morning after the 2003 Beauty Benefit, Kurtz introduced himself, offering to help with the next year’s production. “It was clear to me then that Rory had a lot of creative energy to offer,” says Miller.
Miller saw a kindred spirit in his younger collaborator, but also recognized his immense talent. The fact that Kurtz had not received a traditional education or worked thankless jobs for soul-crushing companies was, for Miller, a benefit.
Miller provided opportunities for creative growth and expression, and Kurtz made the best of every opportunity Miller gave him. He retouched Miller’s photographs of fashion and hair models and created layouts for Beauty ads and in-store promotions. He taught himself Photoshop and got a feel for photography. He began shooting images and retouching his own work. He helped Miller produce the Beauty Benefit for the Arts by assisting with promotion, staging and production design, and even painted an enormous mural that was a backdrop for the 2004 event. Miller appreciated his talent for improvisation, similar to his own.
“Neither of us gets stuck on our own ideas and we are willing to let go and see where the experience goes, even if it leads to failure. I’m a broad stroke, out of the box. Rory’s detail-oriented and deliberate. He saw any assignment through to completion, adding his own sense of style to everything I gave him. He made my work better. He turned my onion patches into olive groves.”
A FRIGHTFUL TURN
In 2007, Kurtz established himself as an independent photographer, and he and Eggers headed to Chicago. She took a job in an art print gallery, and he entered college and the city’s depressed creative market. She thrived; he did not. By 2010, Kurtz’s photography career was dead and he was behind on rent. Eggers urged him to return to illustration. The “photography thing” was not right for him, she argued, drawing on her own experience as “an art junkie and collector of images” and prints.
“He was good, but I knew that what he could do with a pen and paper was unique. Rory’s lines are incredibly expressive. I knew that he had to do this on a larger scale,” she said.
A RETURN TO LOVE
As a recent series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel argued, the once-booming manufacturing center needed to attract young, educated human capital willing to put down roots, take risks and capitalize on the city’s assets, including a lakefront protected from development.
Kurtz and Eggers have staked their future in this city, and Miller is right there with them. The couple rented a modest one-bedroom apartment on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The bedroom is his studio. The living room serves as their master suite and media room. They can sit on the small balcony and watch the weather roll in off the vast inland sea. Kurtz could not be happier—and his work shows it.
It is a wet and dreary April day with temperatures barely above freezing. Crocus huddle for warmth in cold grey beds. But the lake view is impressive, visible through the leafless trees at the edge of the bluff. From his studio Kurtz can see to the far horizon of Lake Michigan. The water, he says, is his constant muse and tor-mentor. In childhood, he recalls, he’d wake from nightmares of a solid wall of rising water, churning, surging and consuming him. Still, he is drawn to it: “I cannot imagine not living near the lake again. I love water. I love to swim, canoe and fish. I love to watch it while drinking coffee. I like that I know it could kill me, but inspire me just the same.”
Lake Michigan is a threat but also an inspiration. “It gives me a sense of freedom and infinite space,” he says. Like drawing, his drawing table and his parents, the inland sea has always been there for him.
His process is deliberate and labor-intensive. He starts with pencil sketches on copy paper, accumulating hundreds of studies of form and expression. The piles accumulate on that desk. He picks his favorites and scans them, then assembles and paints the images in Photoshop. The finished files are nearly always 400 DPI or larger. And in the background of nearly every drawing, one sees a lake-inspired sky.
GROWTH, MATURITY & CONFIDENCE
Steve Charny, art director at Rolling Stone, marvels at Kurtz’s skill, in particular his ability to capture likenesses: “His technique is so detailed and he shows such mastery of his materials. Every assignment he ever did for me was stunning and gorgeous, but also involved spot-on likenesses of famous people like Fiona Apple or Kurt Cobain.”
Schorr, as Kurtz’s agent, has witnessed his personal and professional growth. She says he has learned how to manage worldwide assignments with different demands and difficult time zone deadlines while juggling his own life. And he can now paint far more than portraits. “He can paint anything,” she says, “anyone and any background—and if his assignments initially came to him based upon my faith in his work as an artist, he’s now proven to everyone that he can paint anything he sets his mind to—and he knows it.”
While many weigh the cost of formal education, Kurtz has demonstrated an alternative path is possible with wit, determination, talent and a bit of luck (like stumbling upon Sari Schorr). Still, she would argue that what Kurtz doesn’t know is one of his greatest advantages because, she suggests, it liberates him. “Many are caught up with who’s doing what, who’s winning what and where they came from, etc. Not him, and I love it. He may not have a ‘traditional’ education but he’s smart, and he holds a wealth of knowledge and tremendous depth of character. This keeps him genuine and interesting—and, I believe, somewhat mysterious.”
Back at his studio overlooking Lake Michigan, I suggest to Kurtz that he has the Midas touch: whatever he tries, it turns out well. He quickly rejects this notion, citing what he considers his photography detour. “Yes, it was adventurous and exciting, but it was also terrifying and felt, at times, hopeless. I now look over my shoulder and still see the smoking wrecks of those failed ambitions. I left for Chicago with confidence. I came home to Milwaukee shattered. I was living hand to mouth. I felt like I was drowning.”
Great artists find inspiration in quiet graces. The love of another. The devotion of parents. A worn drawing desk. A lake’s infinite horizon. But, as Rory Kurtz pointed out in an e-mail after my return from our visit: “Like Goethe’s line in Faust, ‘What use is it to speak of inspiration? To the hesitant it never appears.’” ca