News & Features » Miscellany

Meet five local artists with a worldwide reach.

Illustrated in Richmond

by

comment
Meet five local artists with a worldwide reach. Native North Sider Bill Nelson's work has been in Time and Playboy. St. Catherine's graduate Sally Vitsky's unique illustrative style has made it to the cover of Newsweek. Drawings by Robert Meganck, a college professor, appear regularly in the The Washington Post. Bob Scott's constructivist illustrations appear in The New York Times. And while Kelly Alder says he's waiting for Tina Brown, the influential editor of The New Yorker, to run his work again, he's busy working for The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Sports Illustrated for Kids. While each of these artists works in a highly different style and in relative solitude (they don't necessarily know each other), they have a few things in common - relying on reserves of imagination, assured technique and energy: Deadlines can be grueling. While they market themselves by reputation, most have out-of-town agents. And on a good day, they all have flashes of brilliance. "Photography responds to the eye because it's about what the eye sees, or thinks it sees. Illustration goes directly to the brain and involves the viewer intellectually," explains Richmond art director Ed F. Paxton, senior vice president and creative director at Cadmus Com, a marketing firm here. For more than 25 years, he has used both Richmond-based and out-of-town illustrators to make a point. "Illustration can play with the brain: It has texture and quality of line," he adds, "Illustration isn't about what is, it is about what isn't." Paxton, who has used photography, illustration and even typography equally as "primary visual tools," holds extremely high expectations for illustrators: "I want them to take me some place else. If I didn't, I'd give a photographer the assignment." Why is Richmond home to so many important illustrators? Perhaps it's Virginia Commonwealth University's communication arts department - currently with 425 majors. As a headquarters town, printing and related graphics industries have traditionally been strong here. And while ad agencies are a force here, illustrators report with irony or barely concealed frustration that they often overlook local talent. "When Richmond agencies get big budgets, they hire out-of-town for talent," says one illustrator. "I've worked for local clients," says another, "But the jobs came by way of my New York agent. The agency didn't even know I lived here." But the following five illustrators need not worry. New York calls often. [Bill Nelson] [ Kelly Alder] [ Robert Meganck] [ Bob Scott] [Sally Vitsky] Bill Nelson From 2-D to dolls At 50, Bill Nelson is arguably the dean of Richmond illustrators. His style is distinctive: Crisp and refined lines are richly drawn in colored pencil over a water colored background. Nelson was self-taught; his present style was already established when at John Marshall High School and cartoonist for the school paper: "I wanted to be a political cartoonist until I realized I didn't like politics all that much - a little stumbling block. But I knew I wanted to draw." Enrolled at Richmond Professional Institute (the forerunner of VCU), he wrote a letter to the school newspaper criticizing its cartoons. "If you can do a better job, submit something," was the reply. "I did, and they fired that guy and hired me." After graduation from college, Nelson taught illustration for two years at VCU but found teaching not to his liking, "Teaching is very, very demanding." He became a graphic artist at Richmond Newspapers but left after two years in 1972 to join The Richmond Mercury, a newly minted, weekly paper where he remained for a year before free-lancing. When the Mercury's film and drama critic Frank Rich (now a New York Times columnist) left to write for New Times, he recommended Nelson as illustrator for the newsmagazine. This was Nelson's segue to the national stage. Since then, he has worked for many of the nation's leading magazines. But he's not gotten too big to work for such hometown cultural institutions as the Richmond Ballet, Theatre IV and Barksdale Theater. The ballet uses his Nutcracker image perennially. His posters for the Barksdale's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream coat," and "Sweeny Todd" are classics. Today, Nelson says there are few projects he yearns for, although illustrations for a major movie or play would be nice - especially a Broadway poster. He submitted a design for Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Starlight Express," but it wasn't used. While Broadway is yet to call, Nelson has found fame in another world, and in a way that still astonishes him: doll making. His creations, which often appear to be three-dimensional configurations of his drawings, have been featured in leading magazines and collected by such celebs as Demi Moore. "As an adult, starting out making dolls, I have surpassed myself in whatever recognition I've received as an illustrator in the field as a doll maker. This is something I never dreamed of." Nelson says his major inspiration comes from attending the theater, an interest he shares with his wife, Linda. "The way the light illuminates the faces- the chiaroscuro- inspires me," he says," And faces are important. I think the human spirit is reflected in the face. Dancers might disagree, but there's something about the mouth and eyes that speaks volumes. That's what I'm trying to portray." Kelly Alder Settling on a Style The Alders of Chelsea, Mich., owned a riding stable. Horses- hunters and jumpers - not art, were their thing. Young Kelly, however, one of their brood of six, liked to draw. "It was never encouraged," the intense-looking illustrator, 39, recalled recently as he sat on the floor of his sparsely furnished, gray-carpeted studio on North Monroe Street downtown. "My parents thought that art was a ridiculous thing to pursue as a living." His own teen-age daughter, Madeleine, is on holiday from school and sits quietly nearby, absorbed in her own drawing. With no museums nearby as he grew up in southeastern Michigan near Ann Arbor, Alder turned to comic books for visual stimulation. He also appreciated pop artist Leroy Neiman, but not for his artistry. "I didn't like his work, I think he's a con man, but I knew he made a living at being an illustrator." After exploring college options, Alder chose VCU. Although nearby Grand Rapids had an art school, Alder says it churned out designers of Hallmark cards or fueled the automobile industry. "VCU had many more options and besides, I could get away from the cold." Alder says his exposure to art history at VCU was a revelation. "I'd been ignorant of all that: Suddenly I was exposed to Renaissance art, the Ash Can School and the Impressionists." Alder's style evolved from funky to something decidedly more serious. He didn't want to do comic books anymore, and his drawings evolved into a dark, brooding style. If illustrations can approach film noir quality, Alder's had it. "I remember how Kelly's style got more frightening and engaging," says Richmond art director Ed F. Paxton. Interestingly, however, in recent years, Alder says his style has come full circle with a return t his former, lighter style. But now he uses computer technology to intensify his work. "With the computer, my style became a super, pumped-up cartoon. It wasn't a revelation," he says, "But it was an eye-opener." Alder credits his wife, Jessica Kantor, a graphic designer with Pyramid Studios here, with helping him make the transition to high tech. "She's an amazing artist," he says. "She's on the cutting edge and has taught me everything I know." They occasionally collaborate on projects the label of Pop Idiocy Studio. The New Yorker has run Alder's new look. It used a full-color illustration with an article scribing the San Francisco Public Library's program of transferring the printed word to computer. The image masterfully exemplifies what illustrations can do that photos often can't. It showed a man in a conservative suit standing in a paneled library with floor-to-ceiling books helves. These traditional subjects are executed in warm colors. Nearby computer screen emits an eerie, greenish glow as if to suggest another dimension. Alder would like to do more work for The New Yorker. "I submitted a full-page illustration and the art director liked it, but then it was nixed. I was told Tina didn't like it," he says, referring to Tina Brown, the magazine's trendy and forceful editor. He says it is important to build working relationships to ensure repeat business: "We all have a few relationships that come back to us. It's like fishing, every once in a while you reel one in." In addition to The Wall Street Journal, Alder receives on going assignments from Musician and MIX magazines. For inspiration, Alder keeps his eyes open to just about everything: "I go to the movies. And any of the TV commercials are visually seductive and manipulative. Of course, some of this is pure eye-candy, but I'm a sucker for eye-candy. Face it, art is so subjective. It comes down to what you like." Alder says a recent family outing to the circus provided new visual information. "It's a much slicker production than I remembered. My memory of the circus was that it was kind of sad and pathetic. But it was very upbeat - like so many things in America that have been streamlined to their maximum entertainment components. As much as I detest it, I love it. It's what I was raised n: Warner Brothers cartoons, Popeye, Superman and monster movies." Robert Meganck Visually Wired Robert Meganck puts pen to paper no more. "As a professor, I've got to constantly keep current with the market that will exist four to five years from now. I'm training people for the future," he says. So now he puts stylus to template, dividing his workload between teaching design at VCU's school of the arts and satisfying clients of Communication Design Inc., a design firm that is located on the edge of downtown Richmond's legal and financial district. When he first used computers for illustration almost 20 years ago, he found the technology primitive. Later, in 1995, when VCU needed a professor who was willing to test computer illustration, Meganck taught the course. "The first semester was a real struggle, but when you really want to learn something, you teach it." "At first it was really, really awful. The software and equipment were limited. We were working on very limited files. But I started doing more and more of it, and now I do all of my illustration on it." Meganck, 50, a native of Detroit, sits at his computer near the big window of his fifth-floor studio that he shares with other members of his firm. A large computer screen faces him. To his right on the desk is a pad, roughly 12 by 16 inches in size. Using a stylus, he makes invisible marks on the tablet. A drawing simultaneously emerges on the screen. By punching different commands, he can select from a menu that includes pencil, brush and pastel strokes. He chooses hues and tones from a color wheel offering a full color range. After the initial sketch, with a click of his mouse, the dark lines turn light gray. Next, he traces over them, adding more detail or making corrections as he goes. "At first, it is disconcerting to be drawing in one place and having the image appear somewhere else," he says, "But after about four hours you get used to it." Meganck traces his evolution as an illustrator to kindergarten when his mother admired adrawing he'd done and taped it to the refrigerator door. If it was good enough for her, he figured it was an OK thing to be doing. Meganck's earliest drawings were monsters and gangsters inspired by "The Untouchables." In addition to parental encouragement, he was inspired by Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. He attended college at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies and received his masters from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He and his wife, Candace (whom he'd met while at Cranbrook), were living in California and teaching at University of California at Fullerton when they heard of a VCU post. "We decided we'd come for two years. "There was no traffic and there was the beach and the mountains." They've been here for a decade. "You don't have to live in Los Angeles or New York to be an illustrator," he says, "Federal Express changed all that. The client doesn't need to know where I am." The computer also has come in handy for the tight deadlines that most illustrators suffer. Meganck works regularly for The Washington Post and the Washington Times. "They call on a Thursday around 4 o'clock and send me the story that evening by 7 o'clock. They call me at 11 the next morning with approval for one of maybe three ideas I've submitted. By Friday, the piece is finished, and I e-mail it to them. That saves a whole day. On Sunday, I go to the newsstand and it's there." Meganck says illustration is his life. "I'm either teaching or working. And when I go home to relax, I put a Lead Belly CD on and start painting."-with real paints. "I can listen to music and draw and get paid for it. It doesn't get any better than this." Has technology gone as far as it can go for illustrators? "I can't imagine that it has," he says, "But I don't know what the next step is. Perhaps something more interactive. It will be more kinetic. I remember only eight years ago I was laughing at computer-generated black-and-white images and thinking they were crude. Who'd want to do this? But look what's happening? The changes are taking place." Bob Scott Still on the Boards Across town, Bob Scott makes his pictures the old-fashioned way. "I still like working on an illustration board and having a finished piece. That's something you can't do on the computer," he says. Scott thinks for a minute and admits, "On the other hand, you really can't beat the `undo' button when you make a mistake." Scott, 37, works in a bold, heroic style. His human figures are angular, recalling the Russian constructivist, early 20th-century style of design. There is also a sense of heightened perspective and dimension in his work. His illustrations, which often are self-contained works of graphic design in themselves, appear regularly in The New York Times. Scott, a soft-spoken father of three whose wife, Macaria, is a writer, works at a well-used drawing board in a second-floor studio in their large, rambling, bungalow near Forest Hill Park. At the other side of the room is a computer: He is more than happy to show a visitor his Web site. It includes selections of his work and a partial client list: Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, American Express, Ski magazine, Business Week and Air France. He is currently working on a project for Disney cruises. After finishing VCU in the early 1980s, the native of Owego, N.Y., moved to Manhattan where he waited tables as he walked his portfolio around town to art directors. Among his early projects were illustrations for the "Let's Go ..." travel guides and an invitation to Leonard Bernstein's birthday party. He and his wife, the former Macaria Cossitt of Richmond, met at a wedding. Not choosing to raise a family in New York City, they moved to Richmond. Scott says that the flow of assignments can be erratic. "It can be slow one day and then I'll get three or four calls on another. "Some jobs are more interesting than others," he admits, "Sometimes an art director comes up with an idea that's not great. That's not much fun. But you can make something interesting out of it." But Scott likes the freedom that illustration allows: "Illustration offers more variety [than photography]," he says, "While you can do a lot with photo manipulation, with illustration you can alter styles. You can't really do that with photography. And illustration has more of a warmth to it." Sally Vitsky Artist as Cutup Stripper Gypsy Rose Lee would have approved: Sally Vitsky found a gimmick. Neither ink, pencil nor computer-generated images emerge from the Richmond native's basement home studio. Her illustrations, which have appeared on the cover of Newsweek and in numerous corporate annual reports, are elaborate three-dimensional paper cutouts. Think of them as illustrative sculpture. "In college, I was looking for a distinct style that people would immediately recognize as something different," she explains while sitting in her sun-flooded, stylishly furnished West End living room. "It came to me when I was given a project and had very little time. I asked, what's the quickest and easiest way of solving this problem?" Her solution was paper cut outs. "My fellow students were doing different things such as soft sculpture and photos on canvas. Everyone had something that was extreme." Vitsky's approach to illustration has served her well, especially in getting assignments from national business periodicals and publications whose articles, she says, don't vary all that much in content: "Clearly," she laughs, "having a different way to present a dollar bill is a plus." Paper has always held a special fascination for her. "As a kid, whenever we went into a five-and-ten-cent store, I'd gravitate to the stationery department." It's not surprising that Vitsky, 43, became an artist. As a girl, she'd sit on the floor sketching with crayons in the Thalhimers department store art department where her mother was a fashion illustrator. As an eighth-grader, about the time Vitsky was entertaining the idea of a career in fashion, she interviewed Oleg Cassini (the designer largely responsible for shaping Jackie Kennedy's fashion image) for the St. Catherine's School newspaper. But ever the dutiful daughter, she also thought it might please her physician father if she became a medical illustrator. Her parents always encouraged her interest in art. There were visits to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and art classes on Saturdays. Once a year, the Vitskys visited New York where they attended Broadway shows, toured museums and explored the city on foot. After graduating from St. Catherine's in 1973, Vitsky moved to New York to study communication art at Pratt Institute. She stayed after graduation, first to work as a graphic artist for the Associated Press nd later for PBS' "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour." But down deep, she wanted to be an independent, free-lance illustrator: If she could get enough paying clients to endorse her unusual medium, she could venture out on her own. One day Vitsky waltzed into Fortune Magazine and got an assignment that paid $1,000.Validated, she quit her full-time job. Her work has not been limited to the printed page. She has designed jewelry display windows for Tiffany's and Cartier's midtown Manhattan stores, and an environmental exhibition for the Smithsonian Institution, "Ocean Planet." While at Pratt she met Philip Ucci, a fellow student and now her husband. He is a Richmond real estate developer. They moved to Richmond in 1986 and have two sons, ages 9 and 14. Vitsky also has worked for Japanese clients ("paper illustration is big over there") and has illustrated a children's book, "365 Ways to say Good Night" that will be published by Dutton Children's Books later this spring. And what has she yet to achieve? She says that despite ongoing bugging, she's never done ac over for The New York Times Book Review. She stops and thinks for a second and recalls the sage advice of a relative who once said he wanted to read "War and Peace" before he died. Reconsidering his words, he said he could put it off for awhile. And does she miss New York? Well, yes and no. She says she and her family visited there last year and went to the Museum of Modern Art, to the top of the World Trade Center and spent an unhurried, "incredible" hour in a Chinatown food market. But she says Richmond does have its charms: "I was glad to come home and find a parking space in front of the

Add a comment