Sterling Hundley is earnest. His passion for his work—teaching and illustration—is palpable. At 31, he has achieved a level of prominence in American illustration rare for his age. He’s a big guy, but he moves with grace and ease. A man like this could intimidate, but he’s more the gentle giant. “Thank you ma’am,” he says to an older woman in the highway tollbooth. He opens the car door for his beautiful wife, Shelly, whom he refers to often as “my dream girl” and credits with his happiness and peace of mind. He insists his guests go first. He has manners. Southern manners.
Hundley’s presence is easy and unpretentious, but his confidence is clear. “I can paint my way out of anything because that’s what experience has taught me,” he says. He’s old school. Over the course of three days in conversations with Hundley and his wide network of family, friends and colleagues around Richmond, Virginia, the value of education, the importance of mentoring and the dividends of good old-fashioned hard work come up again and again.
One Hundley fan is Tyler Darden, fellow alum from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and one of Hundley’s most loyal clients. Darden is art director at Virginia Living, a sumptuous lifestyle magazine that has won national awards. For five years Hundley has created Virginia Living’s prized “Departure,” a full-page illustration feature on the last page that covers a wide variety of topics. “Illustration is the perfect counterpoint,” says Darden. “It softens photography. It energizes editorial. And Sterling is so skillful, confident and reliable that I am never concerned about what he’s going to produce. I don’t ‘give’ him freedom—he earns it.”
Former teacher, colleague and friend Robert Meganck puts it another way: “I know a lot of talented people flipping burgers because they did not know how to capitalize on the talent they had. In illustration, ‘talent’ is just a small part of it. To make it, you’ve got to work. Sterling Hundley understands this.”
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
VCU sits in the middle of Richmond and despite the lamentable ’70s-beige architecture, it feels more like a small town than a big institution. It teems with faculty, students, workers, vendors and all manner of construction and commerce. Hundley teaches three classes a week in the Department of Communication Arts. He also teaches seven weeks every summer with The Illustration Academy at Ringling College in Sarasota, Florida.
Hundley says only 35 percent of his life involves teaching. The remainder he devotes to commercial illustration and painting, at his studio, inside the spacious suburban Richmond home he shares with Shelly. The balance appears to suit them: VCU gives them financial stability and excellent benefits but leaves Hundley plenty of time to pursue his illustration career. Sure, he grouses about “lazy” and “unprepared” students, but you know he enjoys young people. “Once in a while,” he says more to himself than me, “you come upon someone who has what it takes; you want to push them in ways that you know will help them make it as a commercial artist.”
Indeed, Meganck, a delightfully fuzzy-headed raconteur, says Hundley’s talents have surpassed his own. “He’s my teacher now,” said Meganck, “I go to him with my work for critique.” Coming from someone with 30 years of illustration instruction and practice, this is praise sincere and significant.
A PRECOCIOUS DEBUT
As for The Illustration Academy, it could be described as Hundley’s second love. Straight out of college, Hundley asked his parents if they would help him pay for a summer at the program. Both were sympathetic, despite the fact that their budding artist son was still twelve credits shy of graduating from VCU. “The Academy has been the biggest influence in my career,” says Hundley. “I have benefited far beyond that initial investment of my mom and dad’s hard-earned money. I cannot express enough gratitude to them for making it possible for me to go there at that point in my life.”
Besides founder Mark English, Hundley would begin long-time friendships with English’s son John, Chris Payne and Brent Watkinson. Later he would meet Anita Kunz, Gary Kelley, George Pratt, Natalie Ascencios and others. For a few summers, Hundley brought the Academy to VCU, getting department chair James Miller and Meganck involved, too. As soon as he was introduced to this league of professionals, Hundley knew that he wanted to be a part of their world for the rest of his life. “I knew I had the talent to do it,” he says, “but I had to earn my place at that table.”
Friend and colleague Brent Watkinson recalls his first impression of Hundley. “It was 1998 and we’d asked the new students to bring an image that could be used as a self-promotion piece. Some of the artists had worked for days on theirs. And then here comes Sterling, two weeks out of college, driving from Richmond to Kansas City, arriving late the afternoon before the program was to begin. He decided that what he’d brought with him was not good enough. So he locked himself in his motel room Saturday night and, with very few supplies, created a completely new image. The next day we judged the work. Sterling won.”
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
No one doubts that it takes talent to get ahead in illustration or any other communication art form. Still, as Meganck points out, a lot of talent never gets fully realized. Some of that is due to factors beyond control, but often, it’s brought on by a lack of courage or drive. The courage to stop imitating those you admire. The drive to articulate your own voice.
John English says imitating others can be a trap. “People mimic because it is easy—and there’s a lot to be learned by emulating those you admire. But most people don’t know what else to do. Only a few can articulate their own voice. For a while Sterling got too close to Gary Kelley’s style. Then my dad’s. Breaking this habit can be very hard—but the greats eventually do it. Take Chris Payne, for example, he and I were competing for the same work in the early ’80s. Then suddenly, he became ‘Chris Payne,’ with a look of his own. He was in his late 30s. Hundley’s 31, yet he’s already established his own voice. There is no gimmickry. His drawing, composition, color and problem solving are superb. He possesses an understanding of illustration traditions, but he has the skills and voice to carry the ball forward. He’s a complete package.”
Today, Hundley imitates no one. “When you see a Hundley illustration, you know it’s his,” says Meganck. “His sense of composition is unique. He solves problems his way. He has found a comfort zone.”
Hundley says that his mother, who took courses at vcu in design history from the late Phil Meggs, is his muse. “She has had a profound impact on my life as an artist.” She builds dollhouses and the furniture to go with them, and she runs a Civil War memorabilia store with Hundley’s father Ran, who was not in town during this visit. Fascinated by the link between his art and her influence, we drove up to meet her.
Over coffee, I learn Rosalie Hundley is of German stock, raised on a farm in Montana. Tall, strong with a softly lined face, she’s one of those people who can “do anything,” like fix the steps or make petite furniture for doll houses. She and Ran live in a log-cabin-style home on a tributary of the James River. The cabin was not her idea. “I agreed to it on one condition, that I could do to it whatever I wished. Ran agreed.” She removed, then reframed some walls, put in Sheetrock and essentially conformed it to her needs. “Yourself?” I ask. “Myself,” she replies. “The way I look at it, if someone can do it, I can, too.”
Suddenly, I “got” Sterling Hundley. He’s shaped by an ethic that dictates that if you can’t do it yourself, then learn how. An ethic taught to him by Ran and Rosalie. He’s rock solid but kind and gentle. He’s got talent and confidence, but he is his own toughest critic. He will never, ever, be satisfied with “adequate.”
“Mine was a texture-rich environment,” he says of his childhood, “which I express in my work today.” He is referring to the materials and elements needed to build doll furniture, correct walls and decorate his parents’ home, as well as the Civil War memorabilia that surround his parents today. Looking at his illustrations and paintings, the layers of texture are as clear as his eyes are blue.
“Illustration, by nature, is pervasive; it pines for your attention,” Hundley once wrote. “Illustration lives amongst us. It is the blue-collar worker of the art world...[it] begs to be seen. Due to the constraints of the world in which it exists, [it] must communicate in an instant. Immeasurable time and energy are put into the creation of an image that is often considered for little more than the turn of a page [emphasis added].”
An illustration may be ephemeral, but Sterling Hundley is not. He is an early arrival on the grand stage of American illustration, but that simply means he’s going to be on it for a long time. For those who love illustration and image making, that is good news. ca