Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"This IS Culture" - ICON7 President Keynote



Finally back from the incredible experience of planning, running and sort-of attending, The Illustration Conference in Providence, Rhode Island... June 13-16th. As the President of the conference, I had the great honor to start the entire conference with an address. I've heard so many wonderful comments from folks who wanted to share it with others who weren't there. Anytime you have a chance to start a conversation with your entire industry, it is exciting, but I had not anticipated the overwhelming response to my thoughts on the nature of illustration and the future of our fate as image-makers.  So, below is a transcript of my opening address, with some of the visuals I used as well. But first, a thanks to all who came to ICON7 and those who were so encouraging about the work the entire board put into it to make it an amazing experience.
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President's Address: June 14th, 2012

ICON7-  Providence, Rhode Island 
John Hendrix

Illustrators, let me ask you this, when you are at a party, and someone asks you: “So, what do you do for a living?” What do you say? 




“I’m a freelance artist.”
actual translation: He’s unemployed.
or you say,

“I make drawings for newspapers and magazines.” 
actual translation: She’s an editorial cartoonist.
or you try,

“I’m a commercial artist.” 
actual translation: He’s in advertising. 
or what about,

“I make picture books for children.” 
actual translation: She went to art school, now she’s a Kindergarden teacher.
or maybe,

“I make graphic images for the web and print.” 
actual translation: He’s into porn.
or if you say

“I’m a contract creative employee that is hired to make conceptual and narrative images on an irregular basis for a flat fee based on the  circulation of the publication coupled with the general size the image will cover in the magazine that somehow add visual metaphor to the theory presented in the text that I’m assigned, subject, of course, to approval by an art director and/or editor.” 
actual translation: Look for someone else to talk to, NOW. 
and if you say:

“I’m an illustrator.”
translation



Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Norman Rockwell, or painting while smoking a pipe. But, illustration is more than that today. So, sometimes our culture seems to misunderstand our job, and we, the illustrators, can’t seem to find a way to accurately summarize its importance, and the only word we really have for it conjures cliched images from the good ol’ days.

So, what is illustration?
So, what exactly, is illustration?




Let me come back to that.

I teach illustration at Washington University in St. Louis, and in recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of students in art school choose to study illustration and design over the studio arts. I’ve talk to other educators and this is happening in art schools all across the country. Why is that?

Clearly it isn’t because the studio arts have no value, because they do. But, I 
believe students are drawn to our field because illustrators and designers are tangible contributors.  The vast visual tapestry of our culture is being defined by graphic image makers, and incoming students encounter those things in their actual lives, and they really want to participate.

My colleague D.B. Dowd, who spoke at ICON6, said it this way:
“Visuality is the currency of the 21st Century.” 




Said another way, with the number of screens and surfaces in our lives multiplying by the day, the need for images is growing exponentially.

In fact, despite our occasional queasiness with the word illustration, it doesn’t take much work to find examples of image makers shaping our cultural experience... from magazine covers, to comics, to storybooks and movies.



Do NOT let people tell you that this stuff is pop-culture, this IS our culture.


We shouldn’t define ourselves by our method of payment and where our work is seen anymore... but by what it is doing. The old distinctions of the discipline don’t describe us anymore. What I’m saying is that the category isn’t as important is it’s role.

So, what is illustration?
Illustration is NOT just images... Illustration is storytelling.
Illustration is NOT a media or a style, Illustration is communication.
We are saying something to our world.



The theme for this weekend, is Drawn Together.  Over the next three days, you’re 
going hear from some people you know, and many you don’t - and much of our conversation will be about what we are saying and who we are together.



It is time for illustrators to stop thinking of themselves as Han Solo, bragging about how fast their ship did the Kessel Runbut embrace being a contributor to the Rebel Alliance. (He was much happier after he let go of the idol of his solitude, by the way.) 




I want to challenge us to stop seeing every other person in this room and in our field, as competition- and to embrace the collaborative nature of illustration.

Even when drawn by a single artist, Illustration is inherently collaborative.



It takes disparate elements, text and image and does not make a jumbled frankenstein, but a new thing- a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. What I love about illustration is this stark humility- it is willing to subvert itself to deliver it’s content.


Look at these images: Do you see merely media or technique? No. You see a beloved character, a rich story, a concept, an idea.



Illustrators should define themselves by their 
communication and collaboration with their culture.
Be proud of that. You are a contributor.

Jillian Tamaki, who you will hear from later in this conference, put it this way on her blog:

The payoff is so exciting, you’re not just a consumer of culture anymore, you’re a contributor. Illustration at its best, injects a bit of beauty and insight into a visual landscape that is so often vapid, crass, and garish. Illustration is powerful precisely because it is commercial. ...Most people could probably describe to you their favorite comic or cartoon or album cover or picture book from childhood, regardless of whether or not they are creative. 

Let’s abandon seeing illustration as an artistic discipline- and see if for what it is: A powerful, profound, and unpretentious shaper of our visual lives. 





Personally, I don’t just work as an illustrator because I believe in it as an industry with a viable and vibrant business model (which it is by the way), I believe in illustration because I believe in the power of images.




Drawn images have the power to shape a young imagination.



Drawn images have the power to show us what we don’t want to see.



Drawn images have the power to put a face on an epic story.



Drawn images can bring comfort in the midst of disbelief. 



Drawn images have the power to shape our very history.

To think of yourselves as anything less than a lethal cultural chisel is to undermine your role, not as a "commercial artist," but as an artist.  You are all artists. Embrace it.

I’m so glad you’re here this weekend. Join me, ... lets draw something together.

21 comments:

Kyle T. Webster said...

Hooray! Just reading this again gives me goosebumps. Excellent writing, but your delivery on stage made it even better.

jamie peeps said...

Amen, serious goosebumps. Must share this far and wide. You've put it down like nobody's business. Thanks!

John Hendrix said...

Thanks guys. Sam and I are trying to find a way to record an audio version of it as well for the near future.

Tim O'Brien said...

Glad you posted it. I was not yet in Providence when you said this. I heard about it all weekend. Wonderful stuff here. Congrats on a great conference. You're wisdom and integrity was evident throughout.

Erin McGuire said...

Wonderful and succinct. Thanks for putting this all in words.

g nemec said...

Wish I had been there. This is the most passionate and concise description of our discipline I have read.

Evan said...

Great words John. I really wish I could have been there. Hopefully next year.

John Hendrix said...

Gregory, Tim and all- thanks so much. That is high praise.

Nico said...

Inspiring and insightful. Thanks for sharing!

Hernan Valencia said...

I agree with Kyle, you really added gravitas. That's why I approached at the opening party and gushed. Thanks John

Jon Sperry said...

This is great! All my illustrator friends who made it to ICON have been talking about this speech. I'm glad I got the chance to read it. Thanks for posting!

Rick Lovell said...

Thanks for posting this insightful and important address. It set a positive tone for the entire weekend, and created that sense of camaraderie and collaboration that was lacking in the previous conference.

John Hendrix said...

Thanks Rick, glad you found it. Glad you could be there with us!

Greg Betza said...

Well said. Thanks for sharing.

bill said...

I am going to steal this for my students. So pithy and well said. Thanks.

Enrique Von Rohr said...

Great presentation John! An annual opener to your students perhaps, though you say this in so many other ways throughout the year!

theory_of_me said...

Illustration is watered-down fine art.

Oliver Flores said...

Thanks for sharing this!

Joss said...

Theory of me,
That is a hilarius comment. I guess I agree with you really. However I think there is the possibility that the image can come first. And then it is fine art. That is to say: as often happens with fine art, it is used as a book cover or whatever after it is created. Likewise, for me great illustration often outlives, outshines whatever it's original "purpose" is (not to mention the vast majority of fine art)and so our distinctions between fine art and illustration can be perforated and you end up admiring it because it can stand on its own. So, although I will probably die a hopeless, penniless romantic, I love this speech, I think it is true and there is no need for illustrators to stop at the aspiration of getting paid to adorn stories. Let the writers get paid to adorn your images with stories, let Hollywood get paid to adorn your images with those watered-down movey picture things(Heinrich Kley,mobius). They don't threaten the power of the static image. Only the ability of the static image creators to feed themselves and their families. Perhaps physical survival is overrated. A logo is not improved, but degraded by animation. I take up John's cry for the ascendancy of the image and the image makers, those cultural creative giants, contemporary style and aesthetics just eddy's in their wake! Why not these imaginaries be the God's of the future! This image drenched culture is ripe for some leadership. We don't have to look far for great role model's, the great artists all of them. Artists of the world unite and, you know, just keep on doin your own thing! It may be easy to copy style and so the imaginaries(Van Gogh etc.) don't get the credit but really the reward is in the act itself. If you can yield it's power for wealth, more power to ya, but the real alchemy is in the creative process itself.

Joss said...

Theory of me,
That is a hilarius comment. I guess I agree with you really. However I think there is the possibility that the image can come first. And then it is fine art. That is to say: as often happens with fine art, it is used as a book cover or whatever after it is created. Likewise, for me great illustration often outlives, outshines whatever it's original "purpose" is (not to mention the vast majority of fine art)and so our distinctions between fine art and illustration can be perforated and you end up admiring it because it can stand on its own. So, although I will probably die a hopeless, penniless romantic, I love this speech. I think it is true and there is no need for illustrators to stop at the aspiration of getting paid to adorn stories. Let the writers get paid to adorn your images with stories, let Hollywood get paid to adorn your images with those watered-down movey picture things(Heinrich Kley,mobius). They don't threaten the power of the static image. Only the ability of the static image creators to feed themselves and their families. Perhaps physical survival is overrated. A logo is not improved, but degraded by animation. I take up John's cry for the ascendancy of the image and the image makers, those cultural creative giants, contemporary style and aesthetics just eddy's in their wake! Why not these imaginaries be the God's of the future! This image drenched culture is ripe for some leadership. We don't have to look far for great role model's, the great artists all of them. Artists of the world unite and, you know, just keep on doin your own thing! It may be easy to copy style and so the imaginaries(Van Gogh etc.) don't get the credit but really the reward is in the act itself. If you can yield it's power for wealth, more power to ya, but the real alchemy is in the creative process itself.

theory_of_me said...

What a long-winded way of saying you are satisfied with second-rate, derivative artwork.