Art matters

By Timothy Gillis

Emily Flake.jpg

A new non-profit in Portland wants to make learning the illustrative arts more affordable and available to a wider audience, so it’s setting up shop at the Portland Public Library.

Scott Nash, director of the Illustration Institute, says “anyone can join in. That’s one of the reasons we want this in a public place, like a library as opposed to a typical art school or university.” He hopes the locale and sliding scale fees will attract nascent artists to the workshops, lectures, films, and exhibits that will be held at the PPL over the next 12 months. Then, half of the exhibit will travel to public libraries in Boston, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore. adding in local works to connect it to the community.

A new $65,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation will go a long way to aiding their efforts.

“Illustration is a pretty white field,” he said. “We really want to tap into a more diverse student base. In every city we go to, we’ll actively look for the type of artist who might not traditionally go to art school.”

The institute will charge varying rates. There’s no set curriculum, with visiting artists and speakers suggesting ideas for workshops. It all kicks off with an exhibit at the PPL called “Picture This…” that presents completed works by several local and national artists, along with “process or inspiration boards” that show what the finished pieces looked like in all their earlier stages.

“It’s more than a exhibit,” he said. “It’s part of a program. We want to travel and talk about how illustration connects to storytelling, and bring artists to these cites and make another connection to these illustrators.”

The works in “Picture This…” span a broad range of illustration from children’s picture books to applied illustration, editorial, animation, cartoon and tattoo art. As the title of the exhibition implies, “Picture This…” intends to provide a view into how specific media the public encounters every day are enhanced by illustration and further, how an aspiring illustrator might picture themselves in this fulfilling and diverse profession.

A series of free-range teaching workshops last year prompted Nash to create the non-profit. Nash had invited several accomplished artists, including Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, and Emily Flake, an up-and-coming illustrator based in New York, to share their insights with MECA students and alumni.

“Afterwards, Bob sidled up to me and told me two alums told him it was their best experience. My nose got out of joint for a second,” said Nash, who has taught at Boston University, Northeastern University and The Art Institute of Boston. “Then I realized this is really good. I remembered that I’d had similar experiences in several ways.”

Flake lecture and four-hour workshop “schooled me,” he said. He invited her to come back this year and talk about her work, which is for a decidedly adult audience.

“I wanted to balance it out with darker material as well,” Nash said of the exhibit, which includes some of Flake’s work, as well as the processes involved with tattooing.

Flake grew up near Hartford, Ct. and now lives in Brooklyn. She’s look forward to returning to Maine this summer to discuss her craft.

“I can take on some darker things without getting too overweening,” she said. “I can explore darker chambers of the human heart and still make it funny. It’s always been my temperament to approach the heavier things with a lighter approach – in both my work and my life.”

Flake has no particular interest in being edgy, but thinks it’s important for any artist to tell the truth. “Not to expose a great human truth in cartoons, but I’m aiming for humor and honesty,” she said.

The idea of opening the arts up to non-college participants sits well with her.

“Art school can be very useful. My only hesitation with art schools now is that the cost is getting so out of control. If you want to go the education route, continuing ed classes are a more economical way to do that. You can develop relationships with the peers you admire and from whom you’d like to learn things. One of most important things about art school is being around other artists, but it doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. You can go online, get out into your neighborhood, or go to a comic convention. I was very lucky to be able to go to school, but being exposed to an artist’s work ethic is just as important as instruction.”

Nash, who established the Illustration Department at the Maine College of Art and teaches there now, realized that learning about art often happens outside the classroom walls.

“As an artist, I thought back on monumental moments in my art career, with many that were in classes,” he said. “But these experiences where I would met someone in a studio, where they worked – that has informed me as much as art school.”

The exhibit will show the broad range of illustration, from children’s books to tattoo art, and Nash predicts one of the more popular workshops will be the one on tattooing, presented by Danielle Madore of the Black Hen studio in South Portland.

“She’s doing traditional as well as expressive tattoos,” Nash said. “I think she’s planning to do a roundtable discussion with a number of tattoo artists in the area.”

The new non-profit with not compete with other art schools, including MECA. “They are a sponsor,” he said. “There’s no competition. This idea is an addition, another way to step into this world.”

A component of the Illustration Institute will be six weeks of intensive workshops called “Maine’s Children’s Book Art,” covering the art of making children’s books. “Not so much on the business side,” Nash said. “We’re more interested in the art and how far we can take children’s books.”

Having worked previously with Nickelodeon, PBS, ABC, Comedy Central, Disney, Mattel, Microsoft, Milton Bradley, and the Boston Children’s Museum, Nash still sees the Illustration Institute as a capstone to his career.

“I’m having the time of my life with this.”


Exhibit Details:

Picture This… The Art and Workings of Illustration Institute will be on display at Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery from Oct. 7 through Dec. 17. The Illustration Institute will be providing workshops, lectures and film at the library through October of 2017.

As part of the exhibit, rarely seen “behind-the-scenes” process pieces are included for each final work. “The artists have generously provided early ideas, abandoned sketches, revised and reworked versions based on collaborations with their clients or editors, inviting an intimate look into the artist’s studio in order to show the real effort and joy of illustrating for a living,” Nash said.


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