Not in the Cards

A good illustrator is simultaneously a storyteller, a salesperson and an artist, creating an image that captures viewers’ attention and provides insight into a narrative someone else has created. Although the final product ends up in a book or magazine or on a soda-bottle label, it packs the same emotional appeal as any work of fine art and reflects society the same as anything hanging on a gallery wall.

For years, Hallmark has attracted outstanding graphic artists to Kansas City — but there’s life after Hallmark, too, and many of the company’s hired hands have gone on to successful freelance careers. But it isn’t easy, especially in today’s economy. “Times aren’t as good as they used to be,” laments Doug Bowles, a veteran freelance illustrator. “There are a lot of things stealing our work — computers, stock houses, just tons of stuff.”

After graduating from the Columbus College of Art and Design in 1983, Bowles spent three years with Hallmark. He doesn’t look back fondly on the time he spent designing stickers and sculpting reindeer lapel pins. “Usually people were rendering bunnies. That’s what it’s known for, and it’s not just a cliche. That’s what you worked on,” he says. Bowles thought freelancing might be more fun. After sixteen years as a freelance illustrator, he now creates images for several different clients (including DuPont, IBM, Sprint and Cerner) for a variety of uses: books, postcards, posters, packages, in-store displays. “I’m having a ball,” he says. “And I wasn’t having a ball there.”

Bowles’ mixed-media paint and pastel images appear on everything from packages for Symantec’s Internet Fast Find software to the Missouri Lottery’s Lucky Dog scratch-off tickets. His book work includes the cover for Bondage, a novel by Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, and The Slightly Scary Halloween Flap Book, a children’s book. Bowles is now working on S is for Sunflower, an alphabet book about the state of Kansas due out next year. The cover image depicts a softly textured yellow-and-green field of sunflowers against a wide blue sky.

Although Bowles’ outlook is grim, he doesn’t think his industry is dead. “Before, say there was enough work for 10,000 illustrators. Now there’s only work for 2,000. The best 2,000 can stick around, and the 8,000 will have to find a job somewhere else.” To be successful as an illustrator today, he says, you have to make work that can’t be produced any other way.

Laura Huliska-Beith is one of those illustrators creating imaginative and idiosyncratic work. She joined Hallmark’s ranks shortly after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute but left five years ago to pursue her dream of illustrating children’s books. “I wanted to do characters,” she says. “That’s what made me want to take off from Hallmark.” Huliska-Beith got her lucky break when an illustration inspired by a bad idea — trying to roller-blade with her dog, an obedience school flunk-out — made its way into the hands of an editor at Little, Brown and Company in New York. “She had a broken finger at the time from doing the exact same thing with her dog,” Huliska-Beith explains. The injured editor wanted Huliska-Beith to write and illustrate an entire book of bad ideas, so the artist turned to her younger brothers and sisters. “They helped me remember some of the stupid stuff we did as kids,” she says. Those memories, together with Huliska-Beith’s own inventions, eventually resulted in The Book of Bad Ideas. She’s gone on to illustrate several other children’s books, including The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, The Looking Book by Mary Ann Hoberman and Poetry For Young People by Edward Lear. (Huliska-Beith will make a presentation during the “How Do Those Pictures Get There?” program at the Kansas City Public Libraries during National Children’s Book Week, November 17-21.)

Huliska-Beith paints her illustrations with acrylic, then tops them with collages of paper and fabric. In the illustration for “Bad Idea #96: Making fun of someone else when you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe,” one character stands in the foreground with actual toilet paper trailing his red sneaker. Huliska-Beith simplifies the cast of characters in her books — their heads are circles, their arms and legs are as skinny and loopy as pieces of spaghetti, and their mouths are thin lines or banana-shaped smiles painted black.

“I was really inspired by folk art, because it’s so much about storytelling. It’s a narrative of people’s lives,” she says. “I really appreciate art that is about the person’s life or has something to say about them.” Her books are full of tiny narrative details that may go unnoticed by adults too busy to stop and look. In “Bad Idea #450: Taking your super-duper triple-decker ice-cream cone on a roller-coaster,” one page focuses on a happy kid sitting in the front car of a roller-coaster, oblivious to the fact that his strawberry-and-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream has blown off and splattered two Ferris-wheel passengers on the other page. The cherry on top has hit an unfortunate bluebird that happens to be passing by, rocketing him backward toward the corner of the opposite page.

Illustrator David Terrill tells stories with his images, though not necessarily in the details. Often Terrill, who considers himself foremost a draftsman, creates images with intricate line work and washes of color balancing heavily on warm or cool color schemes. His editorial illustrations for clients, including The Kansas City Star, the Houston Press, the Boston Phoenix and the Pitch, tend to be raw and slightly gritty. He also illustrated a cookbook called The Plot Thickens, to be published this fall.

“With newspaper illustration, the viewer needs to recognize what it’s about immediately,” Terrill says. “Sometimes you can’t get as clever as you’d like to get, because it’s not going to be a quick enough read.” His experience with greeting cards is similar — an image with a simple message helps convince a shopper to pick up the card and buy it.

Despite his aspiration to eye-catching illustrations, Terrill likes subtlety in his work. “I use a lot of typography and written word in my stuff,” he says. “I think that’s where I like to make people hang around a little longer and read a little bit more about it.” (His cover illustration for the March 28, 2002, issue of the Pitch depicts a man hanging upside down from a blue parachute. The story, “To Dive For,” chronicles the tumultuous relationship of a man and a woman who met while skydiving — an affair that ended when she shot him. “She always made these accusations at him, so I took some of the verbiage out of the story and entangled them in the strings and the wires of the parachute,” Terrill explains.)

After earning his degree from Miami University in 1990, Terrill spent two years working for Gibson Greetings before sending his portfolio to Hallmark in search of freelance work. He ended up getting a full-time job there. “It was like getting paid to go to graduate school,” Terrill says of his experience with Hallmark. “The skill levels are so high there, and I got to learn and pick up some things from different people. It’s a real sharing community.” After six years, though, he quit to return to freelancing. He now works for Black Box Creative.

“When you work for yourself, you make your own schedule,” Terrill says. “On the other side of that, you work all the time when you work for yourself. You never know when the next job’s coming.” Bowles can get very busy: For one assignment, he created forty illustrations in forty days. When work was at its slowest, he toyed with the idea of getting a “real” job, like his illustrator friend who left the field to pursue a career in accounting. But despite the risk, the pressure and the bad economy, Bowles, Terrill and Huliska-Beith are doing what they love. And making a living at it.

Categories: A&E, Art