Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Memory Lane: Ely's

Illustration Thesis Exhibition
Each spring, the illustration program presents one of the most exciting events on campus, the William H. Ely Illustration Exhibition. This competitive exhibition features the work of the entire senior year class and gives illustration majors the opportunity to show their work to thousands of people.

Shown above are the illustrations that I did in 1987 for the Ely Thesis Exhibition at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). It was a long project and involved choosing the subject, a proposal, notes, sketches and various thumbnails, and "semi-final" illustrations. We had to do four pieces, they each had to be the same size and I can't recall for sure but I think we could choose the topics and format; record album covers (old days, remember?), book covers, posters, etc. Mine were posters for performances of four plays by Tennessee Williams.

On the day of the deadline, near the end of the school year, all of the illustration majors left their final pieces in the gallery at the school and a group of teachers placed the where they felt they should be displayed. Mine got a primo spot, visible as soon as one walked into the front door from Broad Street. Way exciting! Then all of the students had to come back in and hang their pieces, which was pretty interesting as most of us had not really done that before and well, hammers AND glass were involved. But all went well, and there was a pretty kick ass opening party which of course, continued on at Dirty Frank's (my favorite dive bar) after.

Anyway, I was very proud of my work for this event, and actually looking at it now I still feel that way. I admit to faking my way through the preliminaries just a bit as planning a final painting was never my strong point (still isn't, actually) but I wasn't sure how to express my intent in sketches. I knew I wanted to combine my realistic painting abilities with the more abstract and textural qualities that I had been playing around with and somehow, um, and luckily it all just fell into place at the end.

The type was definitely an issue and the way I handled my mine caused a bit of hubbub with the graphics department. Adding type was a requirement and back in those days (you know, before electricity) options were pretty limited not to mention very expensive for financially challenged art students. Most of the other students had type printed on a clear sheet of plastic which was then placed over the painting and a few incorporated more formal type into their images by painting it directly on the work, in the space designated for it. And back then getting something printed was complicated and involved going to a printer, not like now when we can so easily print everything from our own computers and printers. Anyway, after getting input from all of my instructors as well as other students, I debated about the type until the last minute. Finally, late one night I just decided to do what I felt was the proper solution-I scratched in the hand lettered information. I had been warned not to do it that way, but when it was done I recall that almost everyone thought it worked. Except for about half the graphics students, and maybe a few instructors who felt it should have been done more formally. I have a vague memory of hearing something about a graphics instructor holding a meeting in front of my paintings and discussing the type, but that could have been a rumor. Or a product of my faulty memory. However, I still think I did the right thing. It actually related to the style of the painting unlike professional printing would have done.

But despite all that and having the work placed in such a great spot (a wonderful vote of confidence from the instructors who laid out the show), my work did not win any of the awards given, not even an honorable mention. At the time I was pretty sure there were some politics involved (a common refrain in something so subjective as art college, I am afraid), but to be honest, I couldn't fault those did win. It was all good work and everyone had worked just as hard, if not harder than I did.

And one more story about these paintings: While I was still in college, I became friends with Tom Leonard, who had taught a few classes in illustration a few years earlier. We have kept in touch over the years and awhile back he sent me a book that he had illustrated. He wrote a few things about our friendship and included a reference to the iguana I had painted for the Ely's. He still recalled that image after almost fifteen years. That might be better than any of the awards that I didn't get.

Also, while I did my Ely's in my senior year, I ended up having to come back the following year to finish up enough credits to graduate (and after that I still was short about 8 credits and so never did actually graduate, shhh). I didn't have to do the Ely's again, but I had to watch the next group of students go through the same crazy process which was pretty interesting.

Close ups below, and in case you are wondering, the white specks are where the paint has been rubbed off, due to the fact that I just stacked these paintings together with nothing in between each one. What a moron. Anyway, the paint in general has held up really well and I believe my process was similar to how I paint now- a monochromatic underpainting, followed by a layer or two of glazes. I think I also did a bit more alla prima painting especially in the representational areas. I don't recall exactly what I used to do all the scratching, but it was probably either an x-acto blade or some sort of scratch board tool. All four pieces are 18x24 and are oil on illustration board.


Melody said...

Too cool.....love them. Dirty Frank's huh? Sounds interesting!

Shanster said...

Love the stories behind the work - wonderful! And yeah - what a testament that Tom remembered your work after all those years. That had to feel pretty good!

Patrice said...

Then, as now, your work pulls the viewer in; a beckoning to come closer and see another world.

They're very good - and your story reminded me of my own experience with senior awards shows. I had returned to college as a young adult (30-ish) and as I had all my studio credits, I spent no time in studio classes where I had transferred. This meant that even though I was eligible for the show - and a possible award ($12,000 and a scholarship to the MFA program) - I really had no chance.

I was a stranger to the other students and to the faculty who made the decision. I remember though, the little feather of hope that lived with me until the prize was awarded. Sigh...

Casey Klahn said...

Fantastic! Better than illustration, these are fine art.

I remember doing theater programs in HS, and I think some sets, too. I remember doing "Dracula"!

Love, love. love these covers.

Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

oh T, fantastic work, absolutely! Wonder why they changed the college's name????

Natalya said...


Tracy said...

Yes, Melody, Dirty Frank's was, and probably still is QUITE interesting and I have more than a few stories to tell about that:)

Shanster, yeah, it was great to read what he wrote. I wish I could remember more about college, but I guess I got the high spots covered, I think I have told most of my stories by now:)

Patrice, Thanks so much and I had that bit of hope all the way through too, I know just what you mean.

Thanks Casey, after I did these, I recall thinking that I really should have been a painting major. And over the next few years, while I was trying to be an illustrator, I was also secretly thinking I just wanted to show my work in galleries. Took me more than a few years to get to it, but am very happy that I did.

Gary, around that same year, the college was merging all kinds of art programs, dance, theatre, music etc, into one college so they felt University was a better name for all of it. I don't disagree, however, I am stuck always saying PCA (now UArts) whenever I mention where I went to college.....

Thanks Natalya! nice new pic, by the way.

Chris Rywalt said...

Handlettering is always nicer than typeset.

tlwest said...

Really cool! I love the Night of the iguana