I’m just back from the biannual international (though mostly American) illustration conference ICON 8, which was held this year in Portland Oregon and themed Work and Play. It brought together four days wall-to-wall high-quality presentations, amazing projects, insightful papers, books and hundreds of illustrators. A feast of current American cutting edge illustration, but does it has to be so cute?
I’m still in the warm afterglow of one of the best conference experiences I’ve had for a long time, where we were treated like the little princes and princesses from the quirky picture books we so like to make. Situated in Portland the city known for laidback seriously-alternative lifestyle and its street food and beer. For being one from the company of illustrators that is generally overlooked when it comes to art and design canons, writing and aligned grants and attention, this made for a very inspiring and above all therapeutic week- somebody loves us.
Two days wall-to-wall high-quality work, amazing projects and inspirational stories a few stark warnings on copyright infringements and work-made-for-hire, gave insight into the state of the art of illustration, all on the main stage preceded with two days educational papers in a more intimate pre-event.
To name but a few from the more than 50 strong line-up that presented the state of the art in form: like Windy Day, an interactive mobile-specific omni-visual animated film from Google’s Advanced Technologies Projects group director Jan Pinkava and illustrator Jon Klassen; or Jennifer Daniel and Alicia DeSantis of the New York Times introducing a far more interesting notion of digital info graphics; or McSweeneys Books that publishes a quarterly journal that comes in many shapes and sizes, but always loves the illustration.
Style: from Lilla Rogerspresentation on surface design; the possibilities of covering just about everything with pictures as long as they were cute, Andrea Dezsö on covering buildings with flowers and bugs, and Souther Salazar colourful magical worlds, creating endless images and object, covered in colourful carefully found bits and pieces.
And content: with Victor Juhasz with his live war sketching in Afghanistan in dialogue with courtroom illustrator come Guantanamo witness Janet Hamlinand a short history of queer comics as methods of getting things seen that would otherwise remain hidden.
There was work: on the rise of Laika animation studio’s attention to minute detail and Priest + Grace on bringing the professional standard to an illustrated football magazine and the great British export Nobrow, and self proclaimedplay of Paula Sher’s graphic design, or Damian Kulash the lead singer and visual director of the band OK GO showing clumsy-but-not accidental fame with their anti-choreographies and DIY videos, but also the grim personal journey out of depression of Georgane Deen where the personal needed to take over the professional.
All on stage were at the top of their game, had well-oiled stories and visuals to match. There was the market with young and upcoming illustrators presenting their picture books, zines, cards, thingies and a very well stocked bookstore with a multitude of fantastically illustrated books and comics.
But call me a miser, after two days, I had seen one cute-weird-edgy-retro-vintage illustration with handwritten lettering too many, the dominance of this particular brand of fantastical, quirky, personaland above all very decorative illustration made me long for Swiss Typography. Sure the theme was work and play, but where the motto was to follow your heart, play before pay, the endless amounts of quirky mice and cutesy dogs, guaranteed to get the big ahhh from the audience, plus the occasional soulful big-eyed brooding girl, made me think that illustrators here were perhaps a bit to taken by their own other-worldliness. What I missed, amongst all this goodness was the other kinds of illustration, illustration with some bigger sense of its powers and mission, something beyond the personal, like Victor Juhasz or Janet Hamlin, but these examples felt like rather lonely representatives of some other world, other ways of looking and other understanding of illustration.
The counterbalance was in the first two days, where for the first time ICON brought together educators that presented more academic papers on educational concerns and illustration studies. It brought together a room full of academics and lecturers from across the US, the UK, plus the odd one from The Netherlands to think through new teaching strategies, new fields of illustration and academic research. These papers will hopefully find their way into a print and online publication this autumn. Where in the UK, the academic dialogue is somewhat further; in the US it is still a young, young field. Where the US papers mainly focused on educational case studies and academic structures. UK papers, brought in the further developed academic thinking from within the field of illustration and issues that pointed to illustration concerns beyond just picture making and teaching, for instance a very insightful paper on building a digital reference library for picture-book artworks and sketches by Alison Barratt, Design Centre at the University of Sunderland and Carey Fluker Hunt for the The National Centre for Children’s Books and the paper by Bart van Leeuwen, HKU Utrecht and yours truely on online illustration as a new approach and materialism within illustration. The presentation that made me hopeful was the announcement of an up and coming textbook-from the History of Illustration Project (HIP) planned for 2016, driven by Susan Doyle, Rhode Island School of Design, Jaleen Grove, independent researcher, and Whitney Sherman, Maryland Institute College of Art. Their aim is to place a first critical marker and comprehensive book on illustration histories. I’m sure it is to be heavily contested, but at least there will be something to start contesting from.
For those of us who see the cultural significance of illustration and growing importance of image within visual communication this more academic approach to illustration, its qualities and inheritance is vital, if only that this is how the money goes.
Bring on ICON 9! Totalling four days of illustration speak, illustration pictures and illustrators in person might have become a bit too cute, but just like good cordial, illustration works best when diluted within the otherwise flavourless everyday. I will look back fondly and look forward to more illustration, in small doses.